Remembering William Gay

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Southern storyteller and occasional Paste contributor William Gay passed away over the weekend. We asked filmmaker Scott Teems to share his memories of the author he twice collaborated with.

William Gay’s stories were the stuff filmmakers dream of. His writing was like a punch to the face—swift and physical, electrifying. It woke you up. He worked a hardscrabble, stripped-down style—his sentences were sparse, with blatant disregard for quotes or unnecessary punctuation—but then every few pages you’d get this burst. It was poetry, lush and lyrical, dreamlike.

Take this passage from the short story, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.” In it, the old man Abner Meecham has returned to his Tennessee homestead after an unwanted stint in a nursing facility, only to find his farm leased by his son to the surly redneck, Lonzo Choat. Being forced from the home he built with his own hands, Abner falls into a state of unwanted remembrance:

He was suddenly and against his will assailed by memory. It came to him that he was a repository of knowledge that was being lost, knowledge that no one even wanted anymore. The way the earth looked and smelled rolling off the gleaming point of a turning plow, the smell of the mule and the feel of the sweat-hardened harness and the way the thunderheads rolled up in the summer and lay over the hills like malignant tumors and thunder booming along the timberline and clouds unfolding in a fierce and violent coupling and seeding in the furrows a curious gift of ice that lay gleaming in the black loam like pearls.

William Gay was a poet, and his poetry was rich and visual, inherently cinematic. Balanced with his knack for story and a cast of characters so grand and iconic they were practically carved from stone, it’s no wonder filmmakers like myself have been drawn to his work.

A character like Abner Meecham, for example, who was fully formed on the page before I ever showed up, is strong and sharp and funny and fiercely independent, honorable qualities to which an audience can relate. Yet he’s also callous and cruel and refuses to see anyone’s point of view but his own. He’s fully human, warts and all, and that makes him a tremendously captivating protagonist—though not in any way your typical Hollywood “hero.” He’s a man in great pain, but he’s never been given permission to be vulnerable. He comes from a generation of men who equate vulnerability with weakness, and there’s no room for weakness in a battle of wills.

But William Gay was not afraid of vulnerability, and he was not ashamed of weakness. I recall distinctly the first time I ever met him. It was December 2005, and I had just finished the first draft of my adaptation of “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” (rechristened That Evening Sun). I was living in Los Angeles but was headed back home to Georgia for the holidays, so I called William and asked if I could come up to Hohenwald to meet him. He agreed and we set a date. But the day before I was to head to Tennessee, he called me back, suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of my visit. I asked him why. He did not beat around the bush.

“I don’t have any propane for my heater,” he said, “And I don’t have any money to buy some.” He was worried I’d be uncomfortable in a cold house. The log cabin in which he lived, settled in a hollow in the backwoods of Hohenwald, was spartan to say the least. He spent many cold nights in that house, I imagine, warming himself with just a blanket and a good book (or, more likely, a movie—he was a huge film buff). William knew brokenness, he knew pain. He knew what it was to be lonely and he knew what it was to be loved. And he put that knowledge—all of it—into the work.

He was also generous. I adapted two of his stories for film, and sent him several drafts of those screenplays over the years. He always treated my work with the utmost respect—he understood that once you accept money for the rights to your stories, you give up your creative input in their cinematic translation. But I desired his input. It was his world, after all, that I was trying to evoke. It was his voice I was trying to emulate. But even with my prodding, William was wary of stepping on my toes. He’d give me his feedback, but always with the caveat, “I think it’s great as it is. But, you know, here’s a little something you might want to try…” And more often than not, those little somethings made the script a whole lot better.

For example, in my script for That Evening Sun I had expanded a scene in the story where Abner goes to his neighbor’s house to use the phone, then ends up buying the neighbor’s car and his noisy dog. I’d written a bit where the neighbor, Thurl Chessor, explains to Abner that he can’t drive anymore because the state took away his license. Abner inquires as to why this happened. “Oh,” Thurl chuckles, “I hit some folks.” Abner, surprised, asks who he hit. “Mary Margaret Davies,” Thurl confesses. “But she’s fine. I run into her butt.” Bada-bing! And that’s where the scene ended.

William read it, liked it, but said, “I’ve got an idea for a line at the end there.” And he proceeded to give me what became my favorite line from the entire film. Abner casts a wry smile back at Thurl and says, in regards to Ms. Davies, “Well, you tried all them years. I reckon you finally banged up against it.”

Genius.

People said William took too much from McCarthy, too much from Faulkner. But who among us doesn’t have aspirations to be like the greats? Don’t fault the man for having good taste. And let’s get one thing clear—only William Gay could have given us E.F. Bloodworth, and Dallas Hardin, and Quincy Nell Qualls, and Abner Meecham, and the Paperhanger, and Fenton Breece, and Carlene Pettijohn, and any number of his dark and inscrutable (and brilliantly named) characters. Unique and powerhouse creations, all of them. Flesh-and-blood human beings. And pure William Gay.

Besides, McCarthy and Faulkner weren’t his real inspirations. That poetry? That was Thomas Wolfe, William’s earliest literary hero. And like Brother Wolfe, whose work remains undervalued more than seventy years after his death, William Gay has yet to be celebrated by the larger literary community. I think—I hope, anyway—that it’s just a matter of time before they wise up. Regardless, the stories remain. The work is real, and it’s good, and it’s true. It will outlast us all.

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