Dawn Major interviews J. Michael White about William Gay’s “Fugitives of the Heart”

William Gay and J. Michael White

DM: Michael, I appreciate you doing this interview about William Gay’s last novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Gay describes this book as “a boy’s coming-of-age in a dying iron ore community of Depression era Tennessee,” and says that he was inspired by Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn. What are a few similarities between Huckleberry Finn and Fugitives of the Heart?

Click here to purchase

JMW: William was a life-long fan of Mark Twain. When he was a kid, they had a small library in the school and he loved to go there and he once asked the librarian how much she had to pay for the privilege of working in the library! Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were readily accessible to him as a school boy and he devoured them. He loved Huck more than Tom and read both books over and over. They were country kids like himself and the books were set in the country and sparked his imagination like nothing had before. In his career as a writer he wrote a book in every genre that he loved to read so doing a homage to Twain had to be part of his oeuvre. The main character, Marion Yates, like Huck, is in his early teens growing up without either of his parents and no home to call his own. His only friend is a black man everyone called Black Crowe. There are scenes set by the Tennessee River and in the end of the book you end up in a cave. William was not one to copy other writers, but this book echoes Twain in many ways, all done in William’s own unique style.

DM: We met while I was researching and writing my master thesis on Gay, and I discovered the website for the William Gay Archive and team and I now work editing on his posthumous work and promoting his work alongside you and other scholars, professors, poets, philosophers, authors, and so forth. Ironically, this mixed bag sums up who Gay was, even though he lacked formal education, and was a self-taught writer. Gay passed away in 2012. How did Fugitives of the Heart come to the light of day? Are there any interesting items about the book that emerged while the team was compiling it that you would like to share?

JMW: After William’s death in 2012, the family gave me all the handwritten notebooks which he had in the house on Little Swan Creek. I archived the notebooks and was looking for any unpublished material. Once I had gone through all that material which consisted of over fifty notebooks, all filled with this scrawling handwriting, the family urged me to look in the attic of the house that William had built and where the kids were raised. Eventually I found my way to the house and got permission to look in the attic and, to my amazement, I discovered William’s library of over three thousand books plus a cardboard box filled with typescripts and a bunch more notebooks that were scattered around hidden among the piles of magazines that covered the floor of the attic. On a later visit I discovered a plastic crate filled with more notebooks. The plastic crate had been covered with loose sheetrock in a far corner of the attic and the manuscript of Fugitives was, as I recall, in the notebooks in the crate. Fugitives contains three of the funniest scenes in all of William’s, or anyone’s, work. In one scene Yates tries to scavenge through his old home and find a warm place to sleep only to be evicted by a flaming rat. The other two are when Yates is suddenly exposed as a voyeur in the home of a church lady who befriended him and then, the third, is when Yates is peed on by a hippo.

DM: You’re a poet yourself, can you speak to some of the poetic elements in this novel? Any favorite quotes?

Click here to purchase this book

JMW:  Oh yes, there are many, many examples in every book. People would ask William if he had ever written any poetry and he always said no but that he felt flattered when people said his prose was poetic. When I read his first published book The Long Home, I was knocked out by the passage that read, “Brother Hovington lay in agony, in an alternation of time jury-rigged so by pain that its passage seemed scarcely discernible. In the molten fire where he lay he could watch the slow machinations of eternity, the cosmic miracle of each second being born, egg-shaped, silverplated, phallic, time thrusting itself gleaming through the worn and worthless husk of the microsecond previous, halting, beginning to show the slow and infinitesimal accretions of decay in the clocking away of life in a mechanism encoded at the moment of conception, withering, shunted aside by time’s next orgasmic thrust, and all to the beating of some galactic heart, to voices, a madman’s muttering from a snare in the web of the world.” In the Fugitives the scene with the fireworks at the county fair is another good example: “He peered up eyes wide and wonderstruck into the blackness where green and red fire toiled away in showers of burning phosphorous until the sparks died and the skies were blacker than he’d ever seen them. Another burst illuminating a vast drifting octopus of smoke like the dark spectral shade of the one previous and the sky was lit by a vast medusa of fire, colored serpents writing in the darkness with gold and silver cascading downward as a pyramid of fire covered the horizon.”

DM: With Fugitives of the Heart, Gay returns to familiar settings here—Allen’s Creek, Ackerman’s Field, the Harrikin. Gay rarely strayed from this landscape. Why do you suppose that is?

JMW:  It certainly harkens back to Faulkner and the way he defined the geography of his books but it is more than that. William was a creature of the county where he was born, he traveled the world as a young man in the Navy, but once he settled he had no desire to leave Lewis County. It was his mission to show that great world-class works of literature could be created set in the poorest backwoods country depicting the most down and out redneck characters.

DM: In my review I comment on Gay being an episodic writer, and Fugitives of the Heart makes some great narrative leaps, but the leaps seem appropriate for the young Marion Yates, who lives from moment to moment. Did you ever talk to William about his style and technique?

JMW: Oh yes, he was happy to talk about his writing. It was all he cared about, all he lived for, and to get to talk about it with someone who had done a careful reading of his books was a delightful experience for him. But, on the other hand, there is a certain magic to it that defies definition or categorization. He was happy to play around in that arena, but he knew that what happened was the result of years of hard painstaking reading and writing by a writer who dedicated his life to his craft and there was no easy way to describe the ineffable. But one of the “tricks” he learned from a very close reading of Faulkner is the untold tale where the reader slowly comes to understand some important detail of the plot which is revealed by the fact that you simply could not get to where you are without this happening. It puts a heavy burden on the reader who comes to the realization that something has happened and that “something” is important and intuitively evident.

Click here to purchase

DM:  Gay is typically categorized as a Southern Gothic writer, but he certainly enjoyed bending genres and wrote a detective novel, Stoneburner, and horror novel, Little Sister Death. There’s always an undercurrent of magic within his works. Do you also view him as a magical realism writer, and if so, how? Any specific examples in Fugitives of the Heart?

JMW:  I call his writing lyrical realism. He read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and admired him and understood that Marquez was deeply influenced by Faulkner but rather than interjecting the supernatural he exposed the intuitive, the unconscious, the mysterious, in dreams and in the poetry of his prose. Toward the end of Fugitives is a scene in the cave where Crowe has a dream: “Up from the black maw of dark they came, a gaudy procession of copper colored folk begarbed in garments of flax dyed all manner of color by berries. Their ceremonial robes were stained with bark and blood and they were materializing before the ebony mouth and taking their places with serene solemnity. Another one magically appearing out of the vortex of nothingness and following single file a path trod out of riotous greenery with, on all sides, a rising cacophony of exotic birdcalls, the strange looking birds themselves moving above them.”

DM: I’ve mentioned to you before that I’ve always viewed Gay’s villains as an extension of Flannery O’Connor’s misfit character in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Many a Southern writer has used the misfit as a springboard. That said, Fugitives of the Heart’s villain wasn’t so succinct. The lines in the sand shifted in terms of the villain. Why do you think Gay added that twist?

JMW:  For William, no matter how villainous or how just plain stupid or ignorant or uneducated, each character has a humanity that is their bedrock and it is the same humanity in you or me. He was able to convey that common shared humanity so that we could relate to the most unsavory characters and still feel their humanity.

Click here to purchase

DM: What can William Gay fans look forward to next? 

JMW:  William was writing all his life, his earliest stories are preteen Westerns starring the “Cowboy Kid” and after publishing four posthumous novels there is still a collection of short stories titled This Ride’s Not Over Yet, that is coming out in 2022 from Dzanc. There is also a novel he wrote when he was about twenty-five and that will probably come out someday, and a book of his paintings and perhaps a book of interviews. Springer Mountain Press is also doing a collection of William’s short stories and prose pieces that will include some new material.

DM: Thanks again for the interview. I can’t wait to visit your little piece of serenity in Tennessee one day and view all the William Gay paintings.

Leave a Reply