William Gay was the son of a sharecropper and sawmill worker. He pulled upon his rural roots for his books. (Courtesy of MacAdams/Cage)

In William Gay’s books, his characters were often hardscrabble carpenters, as he once was. They lived in trailer parks, as he once did, or in log cabins in the west Tennessee wilderness, like the one outside the town of Hohenwald where he died at age 70 as the sun began to set on Feb. 23, a fire still crackling in his living room.

Before he was compared with Southern literary giants William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor; before he was considered a peer to the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Larry Brown, Mr. Gay was a dry-wall hanger who composed sentences in his head during his construction day-job, scribbling his novels long-hand on legal pads at night.

In the short-story that propelled him to writerly fame in 1998, at age 57, Mr. Gay describes an old man named Abner Meacham reconsidering his legacy after his son has sent him to wither away in a nursing home.

“It came to him that he was a repository of knowledge that was being lost, knowledge that no one even wanted anymore,” Mr. Gay wrote in “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.”

He continued, in a style that emphasized rhythm and mood: “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.”

As a teenager, he read westerns by Zane Grey before a teacher handed him a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” a book that Mr. Gay said had the biggest impact on his decision to write. Yet he spent the next several decades in various other jobs.

He served four years in the Navy and worked at a drive-in in Alabama, at a pinball machine factory in Illinois and at a cardboard box company in New York. Marriage and the need to support four children further delayed his writing career.

He chose construction work to pay the bills, explaining that it was work that allowed him time to think about stories. He kept his ambitions to himself.

“You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend,” Mr. Gay once said.

One day, he was inspired while painting a closet. Standing on a bench and holding a brush in his hand, the words to a new story came to him.

“It was a guy talking to an undertaker,” he told the Nashville Tennessean in 2001. “His wife had died and the undertaker was discussing funeral arrangements, and the undertaker says, ‘Of course, there’s an option we ­haven’t considered. We could always animate her.’ And the guy says, ‘Animate her?’ And the undertaker says, ‘The motor functions would be somewhat impaired, but it would be vastly superior to the grave.’ ”

From there, he wrote “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” which was published in the Georgia Review literary journal in 1998. It was turned into a movie in 2009, “That Evening Sun,” starring Hal Holbrook.

The next year came Mr. Gay’s first novel, “The Long Home.” In the book, a carpenter’s son digs into the past to uncover how a wily businessman killed his father and covered up the crime.

Reviewing “The Long Home” in the New York Times, novelist Tony Earley concluded that Mr. Gay “writes with the wisdom and patience of a man who has witnessed hard times and learned that panic or hedging won’t make better times come any sooner; he looks upon beauty and violence with equal measure and makes an accurate accounting of how much of each the human heart contains.”

Mr. Gay’s second book, “Provinces of Night” (2001), was also well-received. The story centers around the Bloodworth family, a collective of drunkards, murderers and hillbilly floozies. A 2010 film adaptation, called “Bloodworth,” starred Val Kilmer and Kris Kristofferson.

In the book, one Bloodworth grandmother complains that among her family, “if sense was gunpowder ever one of you men put together wouldn’t have enough to load a round of birdshot.”

William Elbert Gay was born Oct. 27, 1941, in Hohenwald. His father was a sharecropper and sawmill worker.

His marriage to DianneBowen ended in divorce. Survivors include four children; a brother; and 12 grandchildren.

His editor, Sonny Brewer, said in an interview that Mr. Gay was found dead in his home, apparently after a heart attack. Brewer said perhaps two more of Mr. Gay’s books will be published posthumously.

“I never wanted a lot of money out of it, or to be a literary lion,” Mr. Gay told the Tennessean in 2001. “I just wanted to be a writer.”