The Death of William Gay
By Ross Howell
Ross Howell followed a career in academic fund-raising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1978. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction, and teaching at Elon University. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot, and rescued pit bull Lab mix Sam.
The New York Times noted in a February 12, 2012, obituary for Tennessee writer William Gay that he was three years older when he died than had been reported. He was 70. For me this fact was profoundly encouraging.
It was encouraging for the same reason my friend Gordon Mennenga called Gay to my attention in the first place.
Three summers ago in a workshop Gordy was running, I told him my business had gone bust and at age 60 I was going to try a career in fiction.
Gordy didn’t miss a beat.
“You’ll have to read this guy William Gay, then,” he said.
“Never heard of him,” I said.
“Well,” Gordy said. “He did what you want to.”
William Elbert Gay was born in 1941, nine years before me. Like him, I’d grown up in the rural South. Like him, from my teens I’d dreamed of becoming a writer. Like him, for 30 years I’d put my dream on the back burner, making a living and writing evenings and weekends. Like him, my chances of making it, if they come at all, will come late in life.
Gay was 57 when his story, “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down,” was published in The Georgia Review. An agent saw it and picked him up as a client. The next year he published his first novel, The Long Home. Before his death, he would publish two more novels and two collections of short stories.
The news of Gay’s passing took the wind from my sails for a bit.
In a year’s time I’d enjoyed a modicum of success, placing a short story here and there in online magazines, a feature in the local paper. I’d had a story accepted at The Sewanee Review.
But as is the way with this endeavor, I collected rejection after rejection. One day, when I received a slip from a magazine I thought ideally suited for the piece I’d sent, I said to myself, “I don’t have time for this shit. I really don’t.”
There’s a part of me that simply wants his ego stroked, of course. There’s a part that looks to immortality. I’m proud a story about my mother and her sister that appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review back in 1980 is somewhere in library archives, and will be. There’s a part of me that dreams of fat royalty checks, glowing reviews, literary awards, the tinkle of ice cubes at polite parties, the respect of my peers.
Odds of those dreams becoming reality are about even with me picking up my old Converse All-Stars and earning a position as an NBA power forward. I know that.
Plus, I’m a slow writer. So I’d set a modest goal.
I’ll try to match Gay’s achievement. Three published novels. I won’t think about the two story collections and the fact that he had a fourth novel, The Lost Country, pretty much ready to send off to his publisher when he died.
I’d like my three novels to appear in the traditional way, through publishing houses. That’s part of my teenage dream. Maybe I really don’t have the time, and I’ll have to go another route.
“Why dream these things?” I ask myself. “Why?”
Because when I write well I feel the way I do when I get a close look at a cedar waxwing, say, a young bird whose tail looks like it was dipped in tangerine paint and whose rakish mask is black as jet. Because of the way I feel when Sam, our once-feral pit bull rescue, stops when he hears my voice and looks back to see if he’s doing the right thing. Because I see my wife Mary Leigh reading those novels after I’m gone, recalling our days in the shared upstairs office of our Olive Street bungalow, remembering how I made her laugh.
“To die is different from what any one supposed,” Walt Whitman wrote. “And luckier.”
You lived longer than people thought, William Gay. You’re living still. I hope I’ll be lucky as you. I’m 62 in a month or so. By your clock I’ve eight years left and counting.