An Interview with William Gay
Five years ago when I first started sending out my writing, I began to correspond with a small group of writers from the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States who were just starting to dip their toes into publishing as well. Among these novice authors were shared quite a few common influences, such as Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell, both of whom walked a thin line between genre and contemporary fiction. There were also two novelists who I was completely unfamiliar with that were constantly mentioned as must read authors. Men who existed in the same violent territory as Woodrell and McCarthy:
Larry Brown and WILLIAM GAY.
I quickly devoured as much of Brown’s writing as I could get my hands on, and vastly admired his hard charging style. I took my time getting into Gay, but once I read his skin crawling third novel, Twilight, I just as eagerly devoured the remainder of his oeuvre. Gay’s descriptive, darkly poetic prose clung to my imagination long after I turned the last pages. His writing was a sharp contrast to the often plainly told hardboiled stories I read and wrote most frequently, and acted as a bridge to other Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Much like McCarthy’s early novels, Gay’s Tennessee is a violent, volatile world, and in late November, I was lucky enough to speak at length with this extremely private novelist about his career.
I hope you enjoy.
Keith Rawson: I wanted to begin with how you started writing. You started your career late in life. What did you do for a living before writing?
William Gay: I actually started writing when I was a kid and kept at it a lot of years. When I was really young, I read a book called Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolff- that was one of the books that got me excited and made me want to become a writer. So I pretty much thought of myself as a writer my entire life. But I married younger and kids were being born and I had to make a living and I wasn’t selling short stories and novels for a lot of years, so I worked as a carpenter and later on me and my sons had a painting business. But I still thought I would break in to publishing and then I did with a short story. Then after that it sort of got weird and seemed to happen really quickly, after a short story came out in the Georgia Review and an agent called me. I’d been trying to get an agent for some time, but most agents seemed like they weren’t interested in you unless you were already selling.
I had really been going about getting published the wrong way. I’d write a story and send it to the New Yorker or the Atlantic or Harpers or Playboy and they’d reject it. But then I started sending to the quarterlies and college magazines and the very first story I sent in was published. It wasn’t long after that, that the fella who bought my story for the Georgia Review had another job as an acquisitions editor for a small press and he called me up wanting to know if I had a novel and naturally I did. Eventually, the company he worked for, MacMurry & Beck, put out The Long Home.
But I always wanted to be a writer, it was the only thing I could picture myself being. I was never interested in being a cop or a fireman or an astronaut or anything like that. I always thought being a writer was the highest thing that you could aspire to do.
KR: Were you submitting your writing while the kids were growing up?
WG: I would do it occasionally. The truth is, a couple of things happened: First off, I just got better. I was kind of a slow study. One of the big complaints from editors when I started getting personal notes instead of form rejections was that I didn’t concentrate on the story enough and that I liked to write descriptions of thunderstorms and weather and they didn’t really care for all of that and they just wanted me to get on with the story. But the language was what really impressed me about writing. Language was what I wanted to concentrate on and I stubbornly kept on doing it. If I had taken some of their advice, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been published sooner.
The other thing that happened was that Charles Frasier’s first novel, Cold Mountain, was such a huge book and then Cormac McCarthy won the National Book Award for All The Pretty Horses and people really started to pay attention to him. And because of those two things, I think editors really started paying attention to Southern writers. For a long time there weren’t a whole lot of them around. The only guys I can think of was Barry Hannah and William Styron. But it was Frasier and McCarthy that opened some real doors.
KR: Was The Long Home a novel you had written as a young man or did you start it when you began earnestly sending out your short stories?
WG: I didn’t write The Long Home as a young man. I wrote it a couple of years before it got published. I had written a book called The Lost Highway that I got some attention for from an editor at Knopf and an agent took me on temporarily on the strength of that manuscript. But as soon as an agent took on that book, I immediately started in on another book and that was The Long Home. And not long after I finished The Long Home an agent took me on permanently, I started in on Provinces of Night in 1999, I only worked on Provinces for 4 or 5 months.
That book came to me very quickly. But my personal life had changed for me during that period, too. I was getting a divorce, I was living alone and had more time on my hands and worked constantly. I was really caught up in that book. They made it (Provinces of Night) into a movie. I’ve never actually seen it.
KR: Bloodworth, right? So you’ve never seen the film?
WG: No, I’ve never seen it. My sons and I think both of my daughters have seen it. They liked it, except my oldest son who said it wasn’t all that much like the book and that they changed a lot of thing that he liked about the book. He said they moved the timeframe from the 1950’s to contemporary times. Which I can kind of understand doing because the director (Shane Dax Taylor)... it was just too expensive to try and capture that time period. So they changed guys who were drunks and bootleggers in the book to drug dealers in the movie and the character I had the most fun writing doesn’t appear in it either. I hear Kris Kristopherson is real good in it though.
KR: Did you get to see the adaptation of "I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down?"
WG: Yeah, I got to see that a number of times. I had gotten to meet Hal Holbrook a few times at literary events and what not. Holbrook played the old man in the movie. He was really nice when we met and he told me that he felt his part was one of his best performances. The guy who made that movie, Scott Teems is a pretty talented director.
KR: I felt That Evening Sun was a fairly faithful adaptation of the story, especially in its tone.
WG: I think so, too. I really didn’t care too much how it ended, but I can understand why they wanted to change the ending. When I first saw it, I didn’t like it at all because I rewrote that last paragraph in the story at least two hundred times trying to get it just the way I wanted it. And in the movie, instead of the old man dying or going into a coma, they changed it into kind of a happy ending with reconciliation between the father and the son.
KR: You mentioned that you rewrote the final paragraph of "I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down" two hundred times. Do you always put that kind of time and thought into your sentences and paragraphs?
WG: I generally don’t do that. Usually I have it all in my head before I sit down and write, but for one reason or another I couldn’t get that paragraph right. But most of the time it just comes out the way I want it to.
One story I had a problem with getting just right was a story called "Death In The Woods." I worked on it quite a long time and sent it out a few times before somebody actually published it.
KR: That’s my favorite story of yours
WG: Thanks, I feel pretty close to that story because they actually found a guy dead out in the woods near where I was living at the time, and he’d committed suicide. The story, of course is entirely fiction, except the part where he smoked like half a pack of Marlboros before he shot himself. I couldn’t get that scene out of my head, of the guy sitting there on a log, smoking, and trying to work his nerve up to shoot himself. Those woods I lived by seemed to change after that. I used to like walking through there, but I just didn’t want to go back there afterwards.
The thing of it was with that story, I just couldn’t seem to get the tone right. Particularly when the husband character finds out his wife was cheating on him with the guy they find out in the woods. I would either show too much of what was going on or too little, but it just didn’t work for awhile.
KR: Do a lot of your stories stem from real events or is it a scene or a character that you just can’t get out of your head that gets you to start writing?
WG: It’s like you said, most of the time It’s a character and maybe I don’t know all that much about him at first, but I know how he feels and how he’ll react to certain situations. Or sometimes I just start off with a great line of dialogue. When I first started Provinces of Night, I thought the story was about a guy whose wife had left him and run off. But at some point I started writing about the husband at his in-laws house and his mother-in-law asks about his son and up until that point it hadn’t occurred to me that the guy even had a son and then I got really interested in writing about the son rather than the father and the father just seemed to go off stage and up north looking for his gone wife.
KR: What’s your attraction to writing about the mid-twentieth century?
WG: I’ve been asked that before and I never really have a good answer to it. For one thing, the south’s really changed and I kind of miss the time when it was really rural and less like the rest of the country. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of bad things about it, like the racism and things like that are better. But I think there’s a lot of innocence that’s gone now. And I think I write about it so much because I know the period better. I paid more attention back then, cared more about it because I was storing it up to use later on. But some of the stuff I write is contemporary, like my story “The Paperhanger”. But certain stories wouldn’t have worked in present time. Like Twilight, with technology like cell phones there was no way that book could work being set in 2011.
KR: What are some of the biggest changes in the South which have effected you as an artist?
WG: When I was growing up, most of the people I knew were small farmers. My father was a sharecropper most of the time and I think that people just weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. Not as connected and it seemed like the South was its own little country set off from the world. But now with the internet and things like Facebook, everybody’s all tied together Back then with everybody living so separately, I think there were a lot more interesting stories being told…but you know, I’ve never really thought about this all that much. But it seems now everywhere in the South is trying to be just like Atlanta.
KR: Do the changes bother you? Does the sameness?
WG: No, not really. It doesn’t really affect me all that much. I don’t really get out a lot except if I have to do some literary thing and I don’t really hang out around my hometown all that much because things started to get a little weird when I started publishing stuff. I live in a small town and I would have preferred for everything to have stayed as it was as far as my relationship with the town. But everything changed and now it seems like everyone just wants to have a literary discussion.
KR: So there’s no small talk anymore, its just people asking about what you’re writing?
WG: Yeah, somebody’s always asking if I’ve read any good books lately? I had this one woman ask me if I had anyone helping me write my books and I asked her what she meant by help me? And she said, ‘I’ve known your family a long time and they’re not that smart (laughs) and I’ve known you since you were growing up and you weren’t that smart either.’ And she wanted to know if I had anybody who took out the little words and put in the big words? (laughs)
KR: So do you feel like an outsider now?
WG: I think I’ve always felt like an outsider to some degree. Back when I was working construction or whatever it was I was doing, I really didn’t talk about writing. In a lot of ways it was like being in a closet. You really didn’t go out on Monday morning and talk about the sonnet you wrote over the weekend. You just tried to blend in. So I just kept my mouth shut about writing.
KR: Was there ever anybody around that you could bounce ideas off of or were you entirely isolated?
WG: I never felt very isolated because I was busy with my kids and stuff. Plus, my oldest daughter was always interested in what I was writing and I had a brother who read my stuff and he was the kind of guy who was brutally honest and I trusted his judgment when he read my stuff. But most of the time I wrote in a vacuum. At one point I got so into Cormac McCarthy that I got in contact with him.
KR: You’ve spoken with McCarthy?
WG: Actually quite a bit…I had finished reading Child of God and on the dust jacket it said where he lived in Tennessee and on a whim I called information and got his number and just called him up. I had a few questions about Child of God, but he didn’t want to talk about his stuff and doesn’t like to discuss his own writing. When I called he was polite but a bit stand offish until I mentioned something about Flannery O’Connor and he started to open up about O’Connor’s influence on him. Since then we’ve exchanged a few letters. Of course this was all before he got famous. As far as I’m concerned he’s the greatest writer I’ve ever read. He’s very cinematic and as far as I’m concerned a lot of his writing is better than most movies. Eventually I think he’ll win the Nobel Prize.
KR: I think both you and McCarthy share a very cinematic style of writing. Do you come at your writing as if it was a film where you work on it chronologically?
WG: I wish I could write chronologically, linearly. But the way I write is I have a lot of bits and pieces and I just kind of bring all the bits and pieces and tie them all together. When I feel it’s all done, it all has to be sequenced, almost like like putting a crossword puzzle together. It’s kind of a hard way of doing it because I don’t write on a computer or a typewriter.
KR: So you do everything in a notebook?
WG: Yeah, notebooks or yellow legal pads. I seem to think better with a fountain pen in my hand than at a keyboard. I’m really not all that great of a typist, so when I finally do get around to typing everything up, it’s pretty much a second draft because of all the changes I make as I’m typing.
KR: Who are the writers who’ve helped shape your voice? Has Faulkner in anyway influenced you?
WG: I think Faulkner is one of the writers I’m most interested in. Something I was pretty proud of was I was asked to write an introduction to a U.K. edition of As I Lay Dying. The editor felt Twilight was a gothic novel and had a similar feel to As I Lay Dying. I was real proud and humbled by that comparison. But I don’t think Faulkner was as big of an influence as O’Connor or McCarthy. Especially McCarthy’s novel Suttree…
I got compared to Larry Brown a whole bunch when I first started getting published, but I didn’t see the connection between mine and Larry’s fiction at all. But I think critics did that because he was a working class guy and I was working class guy and neither one of us had a lot of formal education. I think that’s why Brown and I got along so well. But I don’t think our writing is at all alike.
KR: I’ve never understood the connection either. But it seems like the two of you have been critically inseparable, but Brown is far for more straight forward as your work has a more poetic bend…
WG: I think that’s exactly right. I think Brown wanted to do that type of Faulkner/McCarthy poetics stuff and a lot of his later work was headed in that direction, but he died pretty young and didn’t really get to accomplish it. His last novel Rabbit Factory has some of that surreal stuff in it and the one he was working on when he died was kind of like that, too. But his stories and my stories don’t really have a lot of similarities.
KR: I think you’re right about your working class backgrounds having a lot to do with the comparisons. But let me ask, do you think a more formal education would have benefited you as a storyteller or was existing in that vacuum a greater benefit?
WG: With education, I think I’m just as about as well educated in literature as somebody who went to college for it. I’ve read books obsessively from the time I could read and I don’t think taking writing classes or workshops would have helped me all that much. In fact, I’m positive it wouldn’t have.
Back when I first got my agent, she wanted me to got to Sewanee and do workshops and hang out with other writers. I wound up going and work shopping a few stories and I’d have to say that I wasn’t all that terribly impressed with it. Of course, I’m never really all that comfortable when another writer asks me to read their book and wants any comments on it. Because I really don’t know where they’re coming from because it’s their book. I mean, I don’t mind reading and teaching younger kids, I’ve done that a couple of times before, but when a manuscript is from someone whose known and whose been published, I just don’t feel comfortable with that.
The one good thing about doing workshops is that you make contacts. You meet people who are editors and agents and stuff like that. Those aspects can be really valuable to a young guy trying to break into the publishing business.
KR: The last thing I wanted to ask in wrap up is about your novel The Lost Country and its status. I know it was suppose to come out from MacAdam/Cage a few years ago but it was never released…
WG: Well, I never turned in a manuscript to MacAdam/Cage and I really can’t talk all that much about The Lost Country or MacAdam/Cage. But I will let you know that the book will be coming out in 2012 and that’s all I can really say…
KR: That’s definitely good news. Once again, William, thanks for your time.
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