William Gay has carved for himself an enduring position in the modern Southern literary landscape, and the echoes of his work have reverberated far beyond the red clay hills surrounding his home in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The South of his books is often dark and violent, yet thankful for such simple sights as a hayfield at dusk filled with fireflies, or a demure feminine smile. In a 2000 NEW YORK TIMES book review, fellow Southerner Tony Earley wrote, “At his best, Gay writes with the wisdom and patience of a man who has witnessed hard times and learned that panic or hedging won’t make better times come any sooner; he looks upon beauty and violence with equal measure and makes an accurate accounting of how much of each the human heart contains.”
Gay has published three novels: THE LONG HOME, PROVINCES OF NIGHT, and TWILIGHT, as well as a collection of short stories called I HATE TO SEE THAT EVENING SUN GO DOWN, with a new novel, THE LOST COUNTRY, forthcoming. Recently, we traveled to Hohenwald to interview the author in the rural area of Tennessee that forms the backdrop of his stories. We found him there, tucked away in the misty hills where many of his characters have been lost and never heard from again, in his hopelessly idyllic log home. Inside, we sipped coffee and listened as he spoke candidly of his life and his work on a drizzly, cold day that lent itself to the unwinding of old Tennessee mysteries.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: You’ve got a novel coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about it?
WILLIAM GAY: Yeah. It’s called THE LOST COUNTRY. It’s sort of a road novel, about a guy named Dewey Edgewater who’s just been discharged from the Navy and he’s hitchhiking back from California to Tennessee. The idea is like a place you can’t get back to, like youth or innocence, and Edgewater’s trying to get back to his life before he lost his innocence and became more worldly. And it’s about a one-armed con man—there used to be these con men that went around the South. They had these ways of ripping people off. When I was a kid this guy came through, and he was spraying barn roofs. And my grandfather’s barn leaked real bad, so he hired this guy. He told him that it was guaranteed to stop all leaks. So my grandfather came up with the money and paid the guy to spray the roof, but it was just like a mixture of black oil and diesel fuel or something. He just sprayed it and got the money and split, and then when it rained, it rained inside as well as outside, just like it did before. But that’s what the guy did for a living. There were people who sold Bibles. They had your name printed in a Bible and would tell you that two or three payments had been paid on it, you know, but they read the obituary notices in the paper, they knew when somebody had died. And then if it was a middle-class person, somebody with a little money, they would show up with a Bible that had their name stamped in it from the deceased person. And that person would want to own that Bible, you know, because her husband or whoever had already paid some on it for her. But it was just a cheap Bible.
The con man [in THE LOST COUNTRY], Roosterfish, is a guy like that.