As always, these pages offer outstanding writings in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry from students in the Great Smokies Writing Program of UNC Asheville. In this particular issue you will also find a different kind of writing: tributes to the person who has led, taught in, and nourished the program for all of its twenty years. Tommy Hays is retiring from that part of his writing life.
While praise and appreciation from students (and colleagues) kept pouring in, I said to myself, “Tommy will love this, and he'll hate it.” He would love hearing from all these people, but he would hate the attention. I recalled a time when his publisher called on him for some heavy-duty PR, and Tommy complied, mumbling, “I am so sick of myself.”
If Tommy was reluctant to promote himself, he had none of that problem when it came to friends and students and fellow authors. He blurbed books (see the tribute from Chance Shriver in the gathering of tributes (“Collective Reflections”) to see how a great blurb reads). He brought down the house (gently) with his introduction of colleague Abigail Dewitt at the Malaprop’s launch of her newest novel. He praised a student’s work in progress during an interview on UNC-TV’s Bookwatch. He even encouraged the writing efforts of a stranger, self-identified as “one of the many in Asheville that are homeless,” whose “one place of refuge and solace” was his novel.
Tommy’s words mean so much because he feels them. In her review (for The State) of The Pleasure Was Mine, one of Tommy’s four novels, Claudia Smith Brinson said, “Tommy Hays writes beautifully. Better yet, he is heart-true… His subject matter, his sense of the South and Southerners, his ability to reflect on the deep in the ordinary are reminiscent of James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding. About Tommy’s first novel, Sam’s Crossing, Linda Barrett Osborne (for The New York Times) said, “…Mr. Hays’ novel tests its characters in ways that are touching and funny–and revealing of the intricate workings of the human heart.” It’s telling that the word heart shows up in both reviews.
In her student tribute to Tommy in retirement, Mary Jean Herzog recalled her own, specifically the gifts, such as “the proverbial gold watch,” that tend to mark this milestone. She got $10,000 from the Asheville City Schools, a large Seagrove pottery bowl from Warren Wilson College, and another, even larger bowl from Western Carolina. She ponders possibilities. “Will Tommy Hays get a gold watch? Thousands of dollars to buy a second home – maybe on the beach? A salad bowl from a local potter? I don’t know what kinds of tangible gifts he will get, but I do know he will get words.”
She was so right. See for yourself.