Considering the "Faulkner of Tennessee"

The Millions posts retrospective of the career of William Gay

by Margaret Renkl

November 1, 2011 An aspiring novelist in need of cheering up has two options for inspiration, and which one works best depends on the struggling scribe's age. Young writers take heart from the stories of novelists whose first books were rejected by literary agents an outrageous number of times before finally being published and shooting instantly to the top of the bestseller lists (c.f. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, rejected sixty times). Writers well past the first bloom of youth, however, tend to have retired any crazy dreams of riding to wealth and fame on the back of a bestseller. If you've been writing in lonely obscurity for decades, the inspirational tales you collect tend to feature noble geniuses who never, ever give up, who slog on despite the the derision of family members and the indifference of agents, and who are eventually discovered by a visionary editor, finally seeing print sometime in middle age or later—older than you, at least.

If you're an aspiring writer who's beginning to acknowledge that no one will ever call you a literary prodigy, The Millions has a gift for you: "Post-40 Bloomers" by Sonya Chung, a new series of essays about writers who didn't publish a book until age forty or later. And this week's edition features William Gay, the late-blooming genius of Hohenwald, whose life has been one of unwavering dedication to his art:

Gay was 55 years old, in 1998, when his first stories were published in the Georgia and Missouri Reviews. An editor at the Missouri Review who had publishing house connections asked if he had a novel, and he did; in 1999, Gay’s first novel The Long Home was published by a small press in Denver. He’d been writing since he was 15 years old. In the intervening years, he’d been in the Navy, lived in New York and Chicago for short periods of time working in factories, then returned to his birthplace of Lewis County, Tenn., where he worked many years as a construction worker, carpenter, and house painter. He has lived in Hohenwald, Tenn., five miles from where he was raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, for some 30 years now.

Read the rest of the retrospective here. Click here to read Chapter 16's interview with William Gay, and here to read an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, The Lost Country.

Published Tuesday, 1 November 2011