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The Southern Voice of Terry Kay
by Joyce Dixon

Award-winning novelist and screenwriter Terry Kay blends his skills as a sociologist, journalist and dramatist to capture the essence of the southern experience.  In 1984, while hosting “The Southern Voice” series for an Atlanta PBS affiliate, Kay “suggested that southern literature is influenced by four elements -- family, place, religion and oral history (though I think oral history is too obscure a word; truth is, it's gossip). I stand by that observation, and will add that, to me, southern literature is character-driven as opposed to plot-driven.” 

The eleventh of twelve children born in Hart County, Georgia, Terry Kay grew up on a farm.  He graduated from West Georgia College and LaGrange College, where in 1999 Kay was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.  He has taught as a visiting lecturer in the Department of English at Emory University and twice directed Emory’s summer Creative Writing Institute.   

The study of southern literature often focuses on the storyteller tradition.  In Kay’s view, this tradition “is one of gossip, usually told by family members about other family members, or about the immediate community. Because the family/community unit system doesn't exist today as it did 40-50 years ago, I believe the storytelling tradition has drastically changed; today it seems to be television.” 

Beginning as a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal, Terry Kay moved to the arts section as film-theater critic and held that position for eight years.  In 1968, Kay was named one of the eight best theater critics in the nation by the Sang Jury on Fine Art Criticism.  He served on Georgia’s first film-television commission, on appointment by Governor Jimmy Carter.  Kay has also acted in and directed community theater in the Atlanta area. 

Terry Kay considers theater his greatest influence in writing.  “I think there is a far greater relationship between theater and the novel than between film and the novel, primarily because of the importance of language. However, I do think the knowledge of film making has been particularly useful to me in developing the balance in a story-line.”  And what is Terry Kay’s favorite movie about the South and probably worth studying? To Kill a Mockingbird

Terry Kay received national acclaim with his novel To Dance with the White Dog, which was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame special for CBS television in 1993, starring Hume Cronyn and the late Jessica Tandy.  Hume Cronyn won the Emmy’s Best Actor award for his portrayal of Sam Peek, the character based on Kay’s father.  The novel was nominated twice for the American Booksellers Association’s Book of the Year (ABBY) award.  Terry Kay received the Southeastern Library Association Outstanding Author of the Year in 1991 for what he now regards as his signature novel.   

Terry Kay reflects, "To Dance with the White Dog will always represent the one unique experience I have had -- or will likely have -- as a writer. Because it was such a personal story, I did not have to invent much of it. I merely served as a translator. I think every writer has one story that humbles them, one story that is grander than their talent. This was it for me.” 

In The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, Terry Kay did the unexpected.  He chose to use a shy, unimportant bank employee as the central character.  A kidnapped bank president, community leader, or heiress may have been the predictable victim.  Kay gives this reason behind his strategy, “being a Nobody is something everyone feels at one point or another in his or her life. It was that feeling that caused everyone to respond so vigorously -- because each of them intuitively understood Aaron. They WERE Aaron. Also, I just didn't want to do the predictable.” 

The Runaway, soon to be a Hallmark Hall of Fame Special, turns an innocent adventure of two boys playing Huckleberry Finn and Jim into a murder mystery.  The period following World War II was the beginning of civil rights across the country.  Terry Kay captures the tensions of the new guard replacing the old guard in the new Sheriff Frank Rucker.  Even the name of the town “Crossover” gives the image of crossing over cultural barriers.   

Kay had a large scope at the conception for the novel.  “Actually, The Runaway is only one-third of a much larger book that I had written, but the publishers only wanted the opening one-third. Originally, I had intended to do something of a sweeping view of two men -- one white, one black -- and how their lives played out against the backdrop of change that followed World War II, going from desegregation to integration to all the course-correcting events along that route.  The story of The Runaway is taken from bits and pieces of memory, but more from years of looking back with the interest of a writer whose major in college was Social Science. I don't believe any other novelist has made much of the W.W.II influence in social changes, and I think W.W.II was the most significant event of the past century.” 

Special Kay: The Wisdom of Terry Kay is a collection of essays on current culture in the South – everything from the lottery to professional wrestling.  “For Frustration, Press 1” deals with the modern phone service to save us time or rather provide employees a way to avoid customer service.  Kay’s "wisdom on companies not using real people to handle telephone services is simple: Burn them. Well, at least avoid doing business with them, if possible. (There are times when people my age -- early 60s -- tell me they're glad they'll be dying before long; they simply can't take what the computer chip has given us. Or taken from us.)” 

Terry Kay’s latest novel will be available in October and he offers this synopsis.  Taking Lottie Home is set in 1904 and 1910 in northeast Georgia.  It is the story of a woman named Lottie who leaves her home in Augusta in 1904 as something of an amateur prostitute; therefore she is not an innocent. Yet, she never loses her innocence, or her almost mystic power over everyone she meets. This is the story of her search for home, and of those who are drawn into that search because they must be part of it.  (Let me add, that, like all writers, I have special favorites as characters. Lottie is one of them for me.)” 

In southern literary circles, the fear exists that the culture of our region will disappear as wired communication makes us more of a world melting pot.  Terry Kay offered this view. 

“Unquestionably, the source of southern material has changed over the years, yet I think there will always be a Southern Literature -- in great part because the New York publishing industry realizes the importance of it. (I have a speech I make, entitled: Southern Literature is Alive and Well and Resides in New York City.) I think the migration from rural settings to urban settings has been taking place for fifty years -- which makes it a longer journey than Moses and his followers wandering the desert. It constantly stuns me to realize I am only one of a few writers left who grew up plowing a mule in pre-electric days. I've always believed the front-porch settings for storytelling is romanticized, but I know those general store stories were real, and I know how the imagination could be fired by hours of field work, with nothing to do but wander into wondering.”

The Runaway, Hallmark Hall of Fame, CBS, December 10, 2000

Visit Terry Kay’s web site at http://www.terrykay.com

 Books by Terry Kay 

Taking Lottie Home, William Morrow & Co./HarperCollins, 2000 

Special Kay, Hill Street Press, 2000 

The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, 1999

The Runaway, 1997

Shadow Song, 1995

To Whom the Angel Spoke: A Story of the Christmas, 1991 

To Dance with the White Dog, 1990

Dark Thirty, 1984 

After Eli, 1981 

The Year the Lights Came on, 1976

© 2000 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved