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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
by Terry Kay
© 2000 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved