Left in Jeep with the top down in July heat headed for Hohenwald, Tennessee. I hoped to meet and visit with author William Gay. I read his Provinces of Night and was mesmerized. When I saw a photo of the author beside a crude painted poster of Jimmie Rodgers, I knew that had to be some type of connection between us. I had heard he was somewhat reclusive, so my chances were doubtful. To give my pragmatic left brain an excuse for chasing such a wild goose, I told it that I was going to do some family history research. My maternal great grandparents came from Maury, Tennessee.
Spent first night in a real fleabag motel. A driving overnight rainstorm (6 inches) filled the Jeep floorboards overnight. Yes, I had a cover, but it collected more water than it repelled. I pulled into a covered service station bay and managed to get the top up and Velcro the side windows in the pre-dawn dark.
Jeep windows fogged up quite a bit as the temp dropped about thirty degrees when I headed into the mountains. Discovered ballpoint pens had rolled off and blocked defroster. Smoke boiled out of tall trees as temperature dropped. Road very winding, up and down and I was constantly threatened with log trucks, but held my own. Jeep handled well. Kudzu everywhere. Must have crossed six or seven rivers including the Beech. Crossed the Tennessee River on Alvin York Bridge (hero of First World War) from Tennessee. Over Coon Creek, Rushing Creek, etc… Finally made it to Hohenwald and checked into only motel in town. Pretty crummy and worn out, but paradise compared to first night. Took the precaution of examining the room before I gave up my credit card this time. Also checked for ice machine, which was second only to cleanliness in importance. Don’t need chocolates on my pillow, but I require ice.
Next morning, I drove down to old home that had been made into coffee shop/bookstore just off the square. Looked for William Gay’s books and did not find a one. Asked owner about him and the guy turned up his nose and told me to ask his wife. When I did, she just said, “He’s a hermit.” They told me he had moved to another part of the county. Hohenwald is in Lewis County (named for Explorer Meriwether Lewis, who is buried here).
Went to Chamber of Commerce and picked up some info. and maps. Nice lady there said Gay comes to library quite often, but is reclusive and strange. Of course, I already knew that from seeing pictures of him and from reading his stuff. Made me want to meet him even more. Said she would give my cell number to lady at library when she returned. Maybe she could help.
I drove up to Columbia, Tenn., county seat of Maury County, where my maternal grandmother was born. Had to almost strip and give up my pocket knife to get into courthouse where county clerk (called by different title there) seemed unfamiliar with the concept of marriage licenses and birth certificates. Finally, someone told me that archives were kept in the old jail across the street. Great old restored building and helpful people there. Found marriage license for great grandparents. Their old farm is now a state park in Maury County and in Marshall County, (Lewisberg County Seat), Nathan Bedford Forrest (Civil War Hero) memorial is also on their old farm.
Satisfied to have accomplished at least something, I headed back to Hohenwald, taking a little side trip on Natchez Trace Parkway. Very, very nice Jeep ride. Close to Choctaw country and more ancestors. I learned it’s common practice to name roads for residents, so I located William Gay Road in late afternoon. Only one house on the road’s dead end. “Beware of dog” and “Trespassers will be shot and survivors prosecuted” signs. Dogs would not let me get out and knock. They literally tried to chew the tires off my Jeep, so I turned around and came back disappointed. Wish I could have taken a picture, but camera was back in motel room. The house was built with rough-hewn timber, not logs, and had several different types of rusted sheet metal on the roof. Gay was a carpenter by trade, so I wondered if he had built it. Interesting place. Would love to have seen the inside. I settled for a Jeep ride through Tennessee Hill Country and lucked on Grinders Creek, a place mentioned often in Gay’s novels. Looks just like he described.
The next day, I walked downtown to the chamber again and found that the librarian had called Gay on my behalf. The reclusive author told her that he might call me. Went to library and the librarian gave up his correct number (after I gave her one of my own books.) I called. He confirmed that he had tried to call me but lady had given him one digit wrong on number. Told me to drive on out to his house. Seems his wife divorced him and took the house on William Gay Road.
Followed his directions to Little Swan Creek. His house is up a slight hill just before the bridge that crosses the creek. He shares a road with other folks that live up the hill behind him. William looks just like what he was most of his life, a drywall man who may have drunk and smoked a little too much. However, this drywall man is brilliant. Hair hangs in ringlets as if it had never seen a comb, over his collar but not as long as I have seen in pictures of him. House is logs with red tin roof. Nice enough, but he has not abandoned his hillbilly heritage. An abandoned pickup sits in front of a small shop, the bed full of V-8 cans and assorted trash. Think he was sipping V-8 the whole time I talked to him, alternating with puffs of his cigarette. Said he and his son are trying to quit. Interesting that I also consume a lot of V-8. End of his left index finger has been pinched off. Mine, too.
Room filled with books. Hundreds. Fireplace and wood stove in the room, but no overhead light. Room very dark. Paintings scattered here and there. (Yes, he paints, too.) A few guitars and a few books on how to compose music. Big books on Van Gogh art and lots of DVD’s and all kinds of books. While he talked on phone to his daughter, I perused the shelves and found our tastes a lot alike, especially in movies. (I offered to leave so he could talk in private, but he motioned for me to stay).
I kept offering to end my intrusion on his privacy, but he urged me to stay and talk. We talked about his writing and some funny stories. I told him that the scene with Albright and the hog was the funniest I ever read. Asked him about characters in Provinces of Night, Fleming, E. W. and Boyd, etc… Told me he was a little bit Fleming (a seventeen year-old boy), a little bit Boyd (the boy’s father), and a little bit E. W. (the grandfather). Same answer I give when people ask me if I am Jake in my books.
He had a director’s chair with the name of his book of short stories on it. They made a movie recently based on one of the stories in Hate to see That Evening Sun Go Down. Hal Holbrook plays the old man. I have since seen the movie and really enjoyed it.
He got a call from his movie agent while I was there about another book Twilight. It has been optioned for a movie, also. Don’t like it was well as Provinces, but still a very good read. After my visit, I learned that Provinces would be made into a movie starring Kris Kristofferson called “Bloodworth”. I liked the movie, but not nearly as well as the book. I also learned that his publisher for The Lost Country is having trouble and holding up its publication.
I told him I had written him in the first part of 2007 after reading Provinces. Said that was about the time his wife kicked him out and he never got the letter. He seemed impressed that I brought along a copy. He’s won numerous prestigious awards, primarily for his magazine short stories, but also for his books. He’s a visiting writing scholar at Sewanee, University of the South. Oxford-American magazine commissioned him to write an article about his experiences going to a college campus as a scholar when he never attended college. He has read himself into brilliance. Though I expect there was something genetic going on, too.
A lady in town asked him if he got help with his writing. He asked, “What kind of help?”
She said, “Well, your people was never very smart and you wasn’t either. Figured you got some help.”
Based on his stories, his family was both poor and violent, doing everything wrong to the excess. Although he had a huge appetite for books and magazines and regularly entered writing contests, he followed the same path as the rest of the family for most of his life until he started winning competitions for his stories. I was a reader as a kid, but always felt guilty about it and never read any heavy stuff unless I had to. Wish someone had told me reading was never a waste of time. I recall reading a comic book (we called them funny books) when Daddy ran a service station in Commerce. I was about ten and was supposed to watch the front while daddy did some mechanic work in the garage behind. A customer went to get him because he could not get my attention to take his money. Daddy had to shake me I was so engrossed in reading what was probably a comic book. Don’t think that has happened before or since, but I get the impression that William Gay lived his life inside books because his outside life was so bad.
I praised him for the dialect in his writing because I consider it perfect. He said he listened to folks around there a lot. Recently, a man on a construction job complained, “My old lady ain’t put a hot meal on the table in weeks. The bitch will be laying on her ass when I get home tonight.” When asked what he would do if he she did have a hot meal, he replied. “I won’t eat a damn bite.” I found that hilarious and so typical.
I told him I had met Flannery O’Connor once when she came to ET. He asked which year and knew exactly when she died. Asked if she was frail when I saw her. He said he had always wanted to meet her. He told me of many writers who had influenced his writing and life, including a fellow who wrote stories for the Progressive Farmer magazine. He has an incredible memory for authors and book titles. Wish I did. I can remember details inside books, but have trouble with titles and authors.
I left after a couple of hours and drove up the Natchez Trace toward Nashville. Got off a little early and headed toward Grinders Switch (home of Minnie Pearl). There is a water tower and an abandoned depot, but little else there. Really great Jeep riding though the winding hills and across winding railroad track. Back down through pretty mountain scenery and to Hohenwald by bedtime. A good day.
William Gay first came to the Sewanee Writers Conference in 1999 as a Tennessee Williams Scholar. Later that year, Gay published his first novel, The Long Home, which received the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. Gay returned to Sewanee in 2000 as a Walter A. Dakin Fellow and served as the Tennessee Williams Fellow for the 2000-2001 academic year. Gay then published another novel, Provinces of Night, and a collection of stories, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, which contained stories that had been published in the Missouri Review, Georgia Review, Oxford American, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. His stories have also been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, O. Henry Awards Prize Stories, Best New American Voices, and Best American Mystery Stories. In 2006, he published his third novel, Twilight, and was named a USA Ford Foundation Fellow by United States Artists. In 2010, MacAdam/Cage will publish his new novel, The Lost Country.