Author

I woke in the middle of the night and instead of the parade of worries that are usually lined up waiting for me, I thought, “Marmalade! That’s what I’ll have on my toast in the morning.” And I did and it was very good.

My notebook November 15, 2002: Walking Max and Ruth into school. Max is in fifth grade and Ruth in second. Max is talking about a quiz his teacher sent home. Max says, “She’s one of those teachers that if your answer is different from the one in the book, it’s wrong.”

Sometimes I’ll get the feeling someone is watching me. It’s often when I’m working. And I’ll look up into Grover’s laser stare from across the room. He’s silently willing me to open the back door so he can go out back to our tiny house where Connie is seeing a client.

Today we went to Lunsford Festival in Mars Hill. I have such warm associations with the place, where I first met Connie in 1980. She lived in an apartment with our friend Paula Fallon. I called them from a pay phone on Main Street to get directions. I was late. Connie curtly served me a leathery porkchop. I found a job editing the Tri-County News in Spruce Pine. On the weekends I’d either drive over to Mars Hill or she’d come over to my tiny apartment in Spruce Pine. My car was falling apart so I’d sometimes drive the big old tin can of a newspaper van to see her. One night, in the middle of the week, after we’d put the paper to bed, I’d been feeling low so I decided to drive over to see her. But when I got there she and Paula had gone into Asheville to Bill Stanley’s to hear The Red Clay Ramblers. So I made myself some tea, watched a little “Love Boat”, then drove back to Spruce Pine, but on the way back there was a meteor shower like I’d never seen. Me and that old van taking curvy roads through the mountain dark while shooting stars streaked so close it seemed like we’d taken flight and were up there among them. (Photo taken with newspaper camera.)

I come to a break in the trees where you can see downtown. Nearby somebody is playing a trumpet. I notice the occasional strained note, it’s a difficult instrument. Whoever it is is good and believes in themself. I walk farther and then see him—a boy, 10 or 11— standing in his drive, playing his trumpet with all his heart, while another boy on a bike and wearing a red hoodie, circles around and around and around him, a whirling dervish.

My office has always been a little dark since we moved here 30 years ago. Today I wanted more natural light, but the lighter rooms in the house were engaged. I went back to my office thinking I sure wish there was a way to get more light in here. I wonder how much it would cost to renovate and add windows? A fortune. Then a voice in the back of my head said, “Raise the blinds.” What was that? “Raise the blinds, man!” Took 30 years.

As a little boy I spent a lot of time playing in creeks that eventually led to Cleveland Park and the Reedy River, dirty and smelly, but a river nevertheless. I found all kinds of feathers, shells and bones, including many sun-bleached dog skulls. Once I walked a little path underneath a bridge in Cleveland Park and there was a gleaming beautiful brand new Schwinn bike. Nicer than any bike I’d ever seen. I waited under the bridge. No one came. I left the bike and came back the next day. It was still there. I came back a third day and couldn’t believe it was still there. That night I told myself if it was there tomorrow I was riding it home. The next morning I ran along the creek till it came out on the Reedy, and hurried along the little path, came around the corner and my heart sank.

After a week of teaching up at Wildacres, I drive home by the Parkway. How I always go home after a week up there. It's slow and gives me time to transition. I love the section from Wildacres to Mount Mitchell. I'm driving what was our mother's 2002 Civic, which works hard to climb these mountains. I drive with the windows down, letting in the cool and the mist. I look for the dead tree I like to visit, a gnarled old Druid tree that could be right out of Harry Potter. Today I don't see it. With a little pang I realize it's finally been taken down by the park service or toppled by fierce winds. When I come round the bend, there it is. Still with us. I pull over and walk around it, documenting another year. It's so so quiet up here as if the mist soaks up sound. I hear the click of shifting gears. A lone bicyclist comes around the bend, pedaling steadily. He's breathing hard but nods and says hello. Up here it feels like we're the only two people in the world. I watch him make the incline and disappear over the rise. It's all downhill from here.

 The Pleasure Was Mine is the story of three men: Prate Marshbanks, his grown son Newell, and his grandson Jackson — as they come to terms with the fading of Irene; wife and mother, heart and center of the family. Set in Greenville, South Carolina and Western North Carolina, the book is narrated by Prate, a prickly house painter who retires to care for Irene. As Prate adjusts to these life changes, Newell, a recently widowed art teacher in Asheville, needs to spend the summer at Penland, an art colony in the mountains. He leaves Jackson, his reticent, bookish son, with Prate for the summer, and Prate finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to get to know his moody grandson.

Reviews

“Hays’s elegiac, penetrating description of Prate’s marriage frames the landscape of this brilliant novel about love, loss, marriage and family.” Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“… Hays beautifully captures a husband’s grief as he watches his beloved wife slip into Alzheimer’s. … Colloquial in tone, braced by its narrator’s stoic, plainspoken candor, Hays’s latest outing feels timely and true. … An intimate, loving portrait of a dreaded disease’s devastating effects.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This beautifully written, bitter-sweet story is quintessentially Southern, but, like the best of Southern fiction, speaks to the heart of the human condition.” —Walter Edgar, South Carolina Public Radio

“A folksy, heartfelt paean to the deep love of a long marriage.” —Sara Isaac, The Orlando Sentinel

“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. —Claudia Smith Brinson, The State

“Once in a blessed while, in this era of edgy, postmodern fiction, you come across a novel that is old-fashioned in the best sense. …  The Pleasure Was Mine is just that sort of novel — charming, unpretentious, easy to read but deeply engaging. … It’s a tender, affecting story, simply but powerfully told.” —Polly Paddock, The Charlotte Observer

“(T) ranscendent magic” Steve Whitton, The Anniston Star

“So many of us have experienced the slow loss of a family member to Alzheimer’s. We’ve yearned for help in preserving the dignity of our afflicted loved one. We’ve needed a book that tells our story with respect and love. Tommy Hays has written that book for us in The Pleasure Was Mine.” D.G. Martin, Bookwatch, UNC-TV

“Prate grapples doggedly with the daily heartaches and frustrations of a caregiver desperately trying to do it all before it’s too late…. Prate’s widowed son, Newell; solemn young grandson, Jackson; and neighbor, Billie – each of them with their own emptiness to overcome – help transform Prate’s life, and the broken group recasts itself into a new whole, molded by Irene’s tragedy and their own love and resilience.” Janet Pittard, Our State

“(Q) uietly elegant and touching…. (A) moving story of the way that love shifts and grows and finds new ways to express itself, even in loss.” —Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, The Book Show, Northeast Public Radio
“(T) he story of family relationships, how they are formed and how they grow, what they mean to us all. In spite of the sadness of the situation, the reader is left with the light of hope and the warmth of love.” Reese Danley-Kilgo, The Huntsville Times

The Pleasure Was Mine serves to remind us that what we often perceive as the end of something can be the beginning of something else… Prate begins his story thinking that his own story is at its end… yet throughout the story we witness him awakening again to life, finding strength in his memories of his earlier life with Irene, discovering an unexpected source of deep affection in his regard for his sad little grandson, and arriving at a better understanding of his son.” Jeff Minick, Smoky Mountain News

“Hays is a fantastically gifted writer, one who can portray beauty in the midst of almost unbearable pain… The Pleasure Was Mine is an incredible book that is destined to become a classic.” Susan Farrington, The Sanford Herald

The Pleasure Was Mine is a completely engaging, authentic portrayal of a family’s encounter with Alzheimer’s disease. Beautifully crafted, poignantly funny, and astonishingly insightful, it navigates through a journey that will become increasingly common for our aging population. Tommy Hays probes the meaning of memory and its impact upon our most intimate relationships and leaves us hopeful, inspired, and wiser for the reading. ” —Margaret A. Noel, M.D., Retired Director, MemoryCare

“Irene’s early changes are described with poignant accuracy, but it is Prate’s resilience, steadfast confidence in what he learns through experience and delightful capacity to surprise himself that is the soul of this story. Prate’s extraordinary ordinariness allows him to tell an authentic Alzheimer’s family story almost lyrically.” —Lisa P. Gwyther, Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Duke University Medical School

The Pleasure Was Mine is an experience to be savored, to share with those you love, and to remember.” Curtis Edmonds, Bookreporter.com

“A tender and gentle story about long-term love and kinship,  The Pleasure Was Mine illuminates one of the toughest challenges a family may face. With his deft touch for humor and a generous sympathy for his characters, Tommy Hays reveals the chance for fresh starts where we thought there were only endings.” —Josephine Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else On Earth and Rich in Love

“I learned more than most novels tell me and I was profoundly moved.” —Reynolds Price, author of A Long and Happy Life and a Whole New Life.

“Tragic and funny, The Pleasure Was Mine proves that Tommy Hays knows his way around the human heart.” —George Singleton, author of Half Mammals of Dixie and The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs.

The Pleasure Was Mine is a work filled with beautiful writing, convincing characters, pathos and humor. My life is enriched for having read this book.” —Ron Rash, author Serena and The Caretaker.

Since his mother's death Grover has been having a hard time. The only thing that gives him solace is the hours he spends working on his art in the beloved bamboo grove near his Asheville home. His overworked father belittles his efforts; he feels his son is wasting his time and throwing his life away. As tensions within and without the family build to a boiling point, help tiptoes into their lives. A mountain family has moved into the cheap rental nearby, and slowly they work their way into Grover’s forest—and his heart. A prickly and independent neighbor proves to be a stalwart pillar to Grover and his little sister. Even the peculiar young man who always lurks around them plays a role in lifting Grover and his family from their paralyzing grief. Finally, it’s Grover’s own unwavering dedication to his art that brings results that neither he nor his family see coming.

Reviews

“Tommy Hays tells a story that rips open your heart. This is a novel about what it means to face loss at an early age, and how salvation comes through both the creation of art and acts of everyday kindness. I loved this book.” —Holly Goldberg Sloan, author of Counting by 7’s and I’ll Be There

“Hays makes good use of the novel’s Asheville setting… and Asheville comes across as a cosmopolitan place with a small-town feel. … Hays is especially strong at depicting the network of people, old and young, who help Grover and his family move through their grief and, along the way, save his beloved forest.” Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“Just as Grover spends every spare moment in the Bamboo Forest weaving lovely tapestries from natural materials, Hays spins a heartfelt tale in which all the key elements blend beautifully, from memorable characters to the strong sense of a specific Southern place.” —Julie Bookman,  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Hays is a gifted storyteller, offering up an effective balance of credible emotion, understated wisdom, and gentle humor.” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)

“… filled with touching honesty and youthful wisdom… ” Booklist

“Tommy Hays has quietly but steadily established himself as one of the South’s finest novelists, and now he has written his best book yet. What I Came to Tell You is a great-hearted novel filled with wisdom and truth.” —Ron Rash,  The New York Times best-selling author of Serena and The Caretaker

… a glowing addition to the pantheon of great novels for children.” —Jennifer Prince,  The Asheville Citizen Times

“… a thoughtful, tender look at a family devastated by grief.” Book Page

“[What I Came to Tell You] offers us a model of a boy who looks to art as a doorway, who processes his pain with nimble fingers and a beating heart, a boy who feels. It shows us that there are lots of different ways to meet the challenges life has in store for us, and that tenderness is not a liability but an asset. It delivers the power of art, in its theme and its execution.” —Thom Barthelmess, Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University

“Tender, touching and utterly compelling, What I Came to Tell You is a story of grief, love and hard-won redemption.” The Gaston Gazette

What I Came to Tell You is as sweet and steely as the best of Southern storytelling, filled with love, loss and heart-warming redemption.” —Robert Lipsyte, author of The Contender

“Rich in its sense of place and soul satisfying,  What I Came to Tell You is an affecting tale of loss and rebirth and forgiveness that is sure to please readers of Because of Winn-Dixie.—Lauren Baratz-Logsted, author of Little Women and Me

“Like the artistry of Grover’s weavings in the bamboo forest, Tommy Hays’ What I Came to Tell You captures the heartbeat of a young boy’s journey to find his way after a tragic loss in Thomas Wolfe country in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a story of learning to listen with your whole heart and head, one filled with grace, grief, and ultimately, hope, as a broken family weaves itself back together in a dazzling tapestry of love and joy.” —Kerry Madden, author of Gentle’s Holler