William Gay Interviewed at the Oxford American

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.

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