William Gay was a much-loved writer in-house, we published all three of his novels between 2001 and 2008, and so we were very sad to hear of his recent passing at the age of 70. He described ‘his kind of writing …’, in a typically modest way, as being ‘about marginal people in marginal settings’, and while it and the fictional landscape it inhabited – of Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee – was an undeniably tough one, it was also, through his use of language and imagery, one that was as often wondrous as it was dark and forbidding.
Provinces of Night, The Long Home & Twilight
Playing catch-up, we published his second novel, Provinces of Night in 2001 and followed it in 2002 with The Long Home (his US debut). Both novels met with great critical acclaim, here and in Ireland (‘his slurred, sublime lyricism is indivisible from the land’s brooding beauty or the baleful souls who roam it’ Sunday Times), but facing that frustrating and too-often-encountered problem in UK publishing, we didn’t feel able to publish his story collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down. I would recommend tracking this down however, with its wonderfully atmospheric stories – the title story, ‘Death in the Woods’, ‘The Paperhanger’ to pick out just a few – which all display his unique gift for writing about place and character (as well as his love for local, old-time music). Some of these stories were the first things he ever published and, as with all his work, they are solely written in the third person.
We then had our most successful publication with his 2007 novel, Twilight. Blurbed for us by George Pelecanos, among others, it was superbly reviewed on publication and went on to be named by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly as his novel of the year (‘think No Country for Old Men crossed with Deliverance, then double the impact’). It’s the easiest of his novels in many respects, with a glint of genre and wickedness in its eye, but it’s also perhaps his most soulful piece of writing, due to the empathy and compassion you feel for its teenage hero, Kenneth Tyler, and his sister, Corrie, as they try to face down Fenton Breece (the misbehaving local undertaker) and then, more ominously, Granville Sutter (the demonic hitman Fenton puts on their trail). For me this is a true cult classic, and includes a sublimely enigmatic ending, that you will have to read again and again.
‘Quite a Life’
His was quite a life too: the son of Tennessee sharecroppers, he reportedly began writing at the age of fifteen, but as a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy, and later worked for most of his adult life as a carpenter and drywall-hanger, it wasn’t until 1998 that he published those first short stories, at the age of fifty-five.
So it was always a frustration that, despite our best efforts, we could never manage to get anyone from the UK press to interview William. Here’s a great clip of an interview with William via Oxford American:
Hoisting the ‘Heavy Wet’
If you’ve never read William, he will be a treat to discover, truly, and definitely one for any fans of the great rural American writers, from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy to James Lee Burke. As Daniel Woodrell wrote in an email to me around the time we published Twilight, ‘He’s one of the big talents in the dark Americana vein, that is for certain sure. I run into William once in a while in Memphis or Oxford, Mississippi, and he is always interesting to hoist a bit of “the heavy wet” with, as well.’