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The Teller of Gentle Stories
An Interview with Terry Kay

by Joyce Dixon

Terry Kay often laughs in front of his audiences -- "My problem as a Southern writer is that I didn't grow up in a dysfunctional family." As the eleventh child of twelve growing up in Hart County, Georgia, Kay grew up in a strong family that reflected the rural traditions of deep faith, coming to the aid of neighbors, and a type of gentle innocence when it comes to the outside world. It is from this heritage that Terry Kay draws his gentle stories.

Yet in his thoughtful telling, Kay touches on universal situations and how they can be resolved. His characters are often the people who exist in the shadows of those who shine brighter and make a louder noise. These gentle folk are put in situations where their observations of the human experience are needed to heal a troubled soul and rediscover the joy of life.

Terry Kay has been married for 44 years and has four children and six grandchildren with a seventh grandchild on the way. He currently resides in Athens, Georgia.  

"Somewhere she had read that great stories were those begun with a single, dark seed of gossip, planted in the hotbed of a moist tongue, sprouted to life in whispers that had been fertilized by imagination." 
                                               -- The Valley of Light (page 191)

Why are you drawn to the theme of isolation in your novels?

I believe isolation is a theme that all people experience, in one degree or another, during their lifetime, and therefore respond to in reading. One of the keys to writing is developing a story that engages the reader.

Why is phraseology a better tool for southern writers then trying to do dialect?

It's a personal preference. Dialect distracts me and I believe it often turns characters into caricature. That's especially true of southern characters. Also, I believe the southern expression has more to do with phraseology than accent, or dialect.


You use a clothesline in your writing
workshops, and you use it in The Valley
of Light with Noah Locke.  What do we
learn from the items on a simple
It's merely a teaching technique relating to
character. I think young students will
understand a visual demonstration more
easily than a written definition. The trick is
simple: If you see clothes hanging from a
clothesline, you pretty much know who lives
there and all you need to do is use your
imagination to create the characters. I used
it in Valley of Light to help set the scene.


Terry Kay demonstrating the clothesline technique at his intensive workshop in Athens, Georgia.  

Your writing workshops and sessions at conferences are full of fresh approaches for
creative writing.  Will you ever write a book for writers?
I doubt it. Each writer must develop his, or her, own approach. I'm somewhat of the mind
that writing must be experienced, rather than learned.
The Valley of Light is set at a time of innocence after World War II in a town that
lost many sons to the war; yet the people are in a sense incubated from the
violence of the world in their valley. Does the "Lake of Grief" and "Valley of Light"
have any underlining messages for our country since September 11, 2001?
I believe that the nation in general and the rural south in particular went through a
period of necessary recovery following WWII, and that recovery needed to be quiet
and gentle after so many years of the noise and violence of war. In my memory as
a young boy, the late 40s were such years. In my book, I really had no hidden meaning
in the name of the lake or of the valley, other than the terms offering a contrast to life
-- that even in a Valley of Light there could be a Lake of Grief.
Eleanor Cunningham loves John Steinbeck's The Grape of Wrath and finds parallels
to her world. Though Noah wasn't as slow mentally as Lenny in Of Mice and Men,
they shared a gentle nature. What are your thoughts on John Steinbeck's writing?
I believe John Steinbeck was America's finest writer. Whenever I need inspiration for my
own work, I often re-read passages from Steinbeck.
Noah Locke had an epiphany as a boy in church when an old minister whispers
to him - "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." As Marvin Linquist, his
friend on the battlefield, died in Noah's arms, he said - "I wish you was God,
Noah." What is Noah Locke's spiritual mission?
I suspect his spiritual mission is one of discovery through innocence, yet I consider Noah
the kind of character who inspires others to spiritual awareness. That's really the point
of the book for me -- that Noah impacts the people in the Valley of Light with his unique
gift. (And perhaps that is a left-over from my early church experiences regarding Christ --
that someone so unlikely, a lowly carpenter, could impact so many people.)
The Valley of Light is set in the area where you grew up.  What about this region
and the rural environment stand out to you? What would you like urban readers
to gain from the reading about these people?
There is a preachment that writers should write what they know, rather than what
they learn, and I believe there's validity in that. I grew up in the foothills of northeast
Georgia, and I have a strong sense of the rhythms and visuals of the area. I would like
urban readers to believe they, too, know the region after reading one of my stories.
At the SEBA Book Trade Show on Jekyll, Phyllis Tickle, Robert Morgan, Phyllis
Reynolds Taylor and you took part in the first show of a new series by SEBA
and The Spoken Word entitled "What Reading Means to Me."  You ended your
segment with an almost lyrical listing of the books and authors who touched
you, and the audience held their breath as you held them with each word. 
Would you consider sharing that passage with the readers of Southern Scribe?

While reading, I have been --
    -- A cowboy (and an Indian) with Zane Grey
    -- A Confederate soldier with Joseph Pennell
    -- A pirate with Robert Louis Stevenson
    --An orphan with Charles Dickens
    --An eccentric with Flannery O'Conner
    --A dust-bowl traveler with John Steinbeck

While reading, I have been --
    --A whaler with Herman Medville
    --A gold-dreamer with Erskine Caldwell
    --A small-town barber with Wendell Berry
    --A runaway with Mark Twain
    --An old-time gospel god with James Weldon Johnson


While reading, I have been --
    --A b-flat coronet player with William Price Fox
    --A battler of windmills with Miguel de Cervantes
    --An attendant in the House of Gentle Men with Kathy Hepinstall
    --A basketball player with Pat Conroy, a fire-fighter with Larry Brown,
       a defense attorney with John Grisham.
While reading, I have touched the ocean's darkest depths and walked on planets in
solar systems beyond our seeing...
I have climbed mountains lost in clouds...
I have flown with Lindbergh and John Glenn, stood at Gettysburg with Lincoln and in
Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr.  

While reading, I was at Dachau on the day of liberation.  

While reading, I have sat at the feet of Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Muhammad and
Buddha, and all the other men of God, and also those who would kill God -- the insane, the
madmen, the bigoted, the fanatics. 
While reading, I have been boy and man, girl and woman. I have been young and old.
I have died and have been re-born.  

While reading, I have become people I cannot be, doing things I cannot do.  

And I do not know of any other experience that could have given me such a life.

Terry Kay's Web Site

The Southern Voice of Terry Kay (Southern Scribe. August, 2000)


The Valley of Light
by Terry Kay
Atria Books, 2003
Hardcover, $24.00 (224 pages)
ISBN: 0-7434-7594-1

     Southern Scribe Review




2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved