Celebrating William Gay’s work and life – a 2007 interview

william gay

With the news tonight that William Gay has died, I offer this tribute, an interview I did with the author in 2007 around the release of his last novel, Twilight. Because Gay didn’t have e-mail, I broke from my tradition — borne of laziness and a dislike of transcription — of e-mail interviews and instead chatted on the phone. It was a very pleasurable hour, and a memory of Gay that I’ll cherish. This originally appeared on my blog, Things I’d Rather Be Doing.

William Gay’s latest novel, Twilight, seemed to sneak onto bookshelves late last year. Save for the short story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down that came out in 2003, it had been five years since he’d last had a new book out. A new book from Gay ought to be trumpeted; while this one earned typically glowing reviews, it’s arrival seemed to come and go with little fanfare. No matter; it was worth the wait. Twilightis another great novel from this Tennessee treasure, again dipping his pen into the inkwell of rich stories he finds in the mountains of his home state.

This time out he tells the tale of Corrie and Kenneth Tyler, two young adults whose suspicions about their father’s burial are confirmed by some literal digging. They decide to seek revenge for the disrespect of their father’s remains, turning their gaze toward the town’s undertaker, Fenton Breece, with blackmail on their minds. But just when you think the story is headed one way, it takes a hard right turn with the introduction of the psychopathic Granville Sutter, and heads another.

Soon, Kenneth and Sutter are engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game through the “Harrikin,” the tornado-torn landscape around their north Tennessee home. It may seem a familiar set up for those who have read Gay’s other works, as he often returns to young male protagonists fighting it out against evil, older nemeses. But this one has twists and turns that elevate things; it’s no surprise to learn this started life as a short horror story.

It may have been a while since we’ve last read Gay’s work between the covers of a hardback book, but that doesn’t mean he’s been taking time off. He writes frequently about music for magazines like the Oxford American and Paste (the latter of which recently featured a heartfelt tribute to one of the writer’s favorite musicians, Bob Dylan), and continues to publish short fiction. One story, “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” will be anthologized later this year in at least two “best-of” collections.

All of the previous Monday Interviews on TIRBD were conducted via e-mail. Gay, however, isn’t a fan of computers and has no e-mail account. So, we did this the old-fashioned way, talking on the phone. I’m glad we did, as our conversation, which ranged well beyond the Q&A reproduced here, was an enjoyable way to while away an afternoon.

TIRBD: The story of Twilight is much different than one might expect from the first quarter of the book or so, where it seems like it will follow Corrie, who is the stronger of the two main characters at the outset. Was it a conscious choice to subvert expectations?

WG: It started as a short story. I had thought about writing a horror story, so I wrote this thing where Corrie goes to talk to Fenton Breece about the blackmail. It was kind of fun to write, but I knew a short story wasn’t going to work because I wouldn’t be able to resolve everything in a short story. I had to raise the stakes, so I killed Corrie off. I went back, and thought about instead of killing Corrie off, I’d kill off the boy. But there were things that I’d written where it just wasn’t going to work.

I don’t really think about that when I’m working on a novel. I sort of, if it feels right to me, I go with it. Obviously I like it when people enjoy the books and think I’m a good writer, but I don’t write to please a critic or even a reader. The story goes where it goes, you know?

This story has parallels with the book and film Night of the Hunter, one that you acknowledge with an epigram from Davis Grubb’s novel that was the basis for the film: “Don’t he never sleep?” Did you see that parallel going in, or did you not realize it until later?

I don’t think I had it in mind when I started, but that’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I love that moment in the movie when the kid is in the loft, and he hears Robert Mitchum singing and says, “Don’t he never sleep?” That really fits with Sutter, I think. I put that in at the last moment. Originally there were two epigrams. When I edited the book, I added that one, too.

I read that book as a kid. It was the first book I saw that didn’t use quotes. I like that; it seems to me that when you separate dialogue from narrative, enclosing it in quotes, it makes it less a part of the narrative. I like the feel when it’s all of a piece, and the dialogue is no more important than the description or the movement of the characters. When you put quotes around it, it seems to say, this is important, look at this.

But you used quotes in at least one of your books, right? They’re in The Long Home.

Yeah, the first one I did. It was over my bruised and bloodied body. My editor said I could put dashes in front of each line of dialogue. I didn’t want to do that because Charles Frazier had just done that with Cold Mountain. I figured if you’re going to draw attention to it, you might as well use quotes.

Do you ever feel hemmed in by having your work described as poetic or gothic or uniquely Southern or whatever other adjectives people choose to use? You’re often lumped in with everyone from the late Larry Brown to Cormac McCarthy to William Faulkner.

The first important review I got was in the New York Times by Tony Earley. His idea was that Southern literature was like a small town. There’s the uptown side, then the other side of the tracks. He divided Southern writers into groups. He put me, obviously, on the other side of the tracks.

I never saw similarities between myself and Larry Brown. Though I guess we both do write about people on the lower end of the economic scale. Larry’s stuff is more straightforward than mine is. Sometimes it gets a little surreal or bizarre. His is a little more straight. As for McCarthy, I can’t really argue when people say my writing is influenced by him, because it obviously was. There was a period when I read so much of his stuff, there was a time when I was actually thinking like the characters in Suttree. I actually think I’m influenced by Flannery O’Connor. A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I think my stuff was influenced in style, and characters, by O’Connor’s characters.

I also read a lot of Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, hard-boiled stuff. There is a general feel toward the end of The Long Home when the kid’s sort of walking away that’s like that. Otto Penzler, who runs the Mysterious Bookshop, called me after The Long Home. He stocked it. He considered it a crime novel. I have a story coming in the Best Mystery Stories of 2007 chosen by him. It was from Tin House, about the meth trade. It’s kind of a surreal, bizarre story. It’ll be in Best American Short Stories, selected by Stephen King, too. First time I’ve ever been in there.

It’s been a pretty prolific 10 years for you, with three novels and a short story collection, all following on the publication in 1998 of the story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” in The Georgia Review. How would you characterize your writing career thus far?

It’s puzzling some times. I don’t really understand what happened, because I tried for so long to get even short stories published. I had been turned down… Knopf turned down a book, saying that as a depiction of backwoods evil, this book is superlative, but they turned it down. A lot of weird things happened with the first two stories in the Georgia Review and the Missouri Review. The editor of the story in the Missouri Review really liked the story and asked me if I had a novel. He had a second job with a publisher. I sent it to him; it was The Long Home. After a long debate, it took two or three months before he accepted the novel. The main problem they thought was women wouldn’t read it. But I was writing about the 1930s rural south, and I think I did it accurately. I do think women were treated poorly at that time.

You’ve written a lot of non-fiction as well, much of it about music. Do you have a preference between non-fiction and fiction?

I prefer fiction. For me, when I finish a piece of fiction, when it went the way I wanted it to go, there’s a tremendous satisfaction to that. The non-fiction stuff is more like, if you like it, you know you’re satisfied with it. It’s more like a job, you pop in and do it. You’re not restricted by fact with fiction. Non-fiction is more confining is what I’m taking the long way around to saying. I haven’t really thought about that before.

What does the future hold for you?

I have an idea. I actually have done some work on another novel. I quit on it because I had an idea for a short story. Eventually I think I would like to write, when I can’t think of another novel, I’d like to write a memoir, because I think it’s sort of interesting to go from one world into the literary world. I could call it Clocking in at the Culture Factory… I was sort of kidding about that. But you know, I had worked construction for the past 20 years before The Long Home, and my editor told me to go to the Sewanee Conference to talk with other writers. It was bizarre, kind of going from one world to another.

I think the way I did it worked for me. Rather than go to college and go through workshops. I think I would have been published sooner, but I think my stuff would have been different. I’m not sure in what way. Aspiring writers who want opinions on things send me things. Most of them come out of workshops and those kinds of programs. It’s more professional than the way I started out. But it doesn’t seem as vital.

You have a novel slated for 2008, The Lost Country, and I have seen a few mentions of a short book called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. What’s the story with these, and why so much after not having published a novel since 2001’s Provinces of Night?

When I finished the novel Provinces of Night, I immediately began Twilight, which at the time was called Cut Flowers, and wrote that. The deal I had with the Free Press – my editor left Doubleday and went to Free Press – I talked with the editor about a novel called The Lost Country. My contract was for the short stories (eventually published as I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down) and the book The Lost Country.

On Wittgenstein’s Lolita, a friend of mine who had done a lot of computer work for me. He’d shown me a lot of stuff. He didn’t want paid for it in money. He said he’d always wanted to publish a chapbook. I had this story, a novella, really, and I told him he could publish that, and he made the arrangements. It doesn’t have a lot to do with me. I’m just doing him a favor. I knew this girl one time, she’d come out of philosophy classes. She had this thing about Wittgenstein. We’d been drinking, and she said if she was the right age, she could have been Wittgenstein’s Lolita. I thought that was pretty good.

That will probably be in a collection. I have six or seven stories that haven’t been collected. After I sell four or five more, I’ll probably put out a collection, probably after The Lost Country.

I’m just pleased to get the books published, and get reviews. I’ve been lucky with these books, because generally the reviews have been favorable. Some of them haven’t been, but by and large I’m well satisfied with them.

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