He barely made it to the phone. Award-winning author Terry Kay was preparing a vegetable dish for his family to enjoy later that night. “An experiment with kale,” he called it. So there began our conversation about food. Namely, Southern food. We talked about vegetarianism, his allergy to beef (“a hell of a thing for a man to have”), gravy and biscuits before the conversation eventually turned to writing.
Terry Kay’s life is itself the stuff of Southern literature. Born the eleventh of 12 children in rural Hart County, Georgia, Kay’s life began on a farm. After graduating from LaGrange College with a degree in social science, Kay had intentions of furthering his education in graduate school at Duke University, but money was short so he took a job selling insurance. His wife did not like the late hours salesmen sometimes kept, so Kay began his job search again. The aspiration and desire to become a writer never existed until he found a newspaper ad that read: “Newspaper looking for a young man to learn an interesting profession.”
“I took the job just to show my wife I could find a job by the end of the day,” Kay said.
The $40 per week job was at a local paper and involved sweeping, cleaning restrooms, errands—even some writing. The writing led him to work at the Atlanta Journal and under the tutelage of famed journalist Furman Bisher, where sports writing became his new profession.
As a journalist, Kay has interviewed The Beatles, John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Alfred Hitchcock, just to name a few. But it was his good friend and fellow Southern writer Pat Conroy who persuaded him to try fiction.
“Conroy told his publisher in Boston that I had written a lot of fiction knowing that I hadn’t,” recalled Kay. “They expressed interest, and Conroy told me, ‘You can either turn it in or not.’ ” Kay reluctantly sent publishing giant Houghton Mifflin 150 pages that he had half-heartedly written and they actually loved it.
His career took off as a novelist. Kay now has more than a dozen books to his credit and several awards under his belt. “To Dance with the White Dog,” published in 1990, has achieved the most critical acclaim and established Kay as one of the most important writers the South has produced. The book is about an elderly man dealing with the grief over a recently deceased wife and the subsequent mysterious appearance of a white dog. The book was the basis of the 1993 made-for-TV movie starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and won a Prime Time Emmy Award. In 2006, Kay was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Southern writers like Tennessee Williams have played their part in influencing his work, Kay said. “I read everything I can,” he said, “even cereal boxes!”
Kay loves to talk about writing and his conversation is always full of advice.
“One of the best ways to learn about writing is to sit down and copy a book by a favorite author word for word,” he said. “You will be a much better writer after you are done.”
Kay will dispense more advice and encouragement when he comes to Chattanooga State this month to inaugurate Writers@Work, a new program that hopes to bring about advances in teaching English and to help students become better writers. The program focuses especially on the students taking Composition II.
Kay will host a screening of “To Dance with the White Dog,” followed by a book signing and reception, at 6 p.m. On Tuesday, April 10, at Chatt State’s C.C. Bond Humanities Auditorium. The next day, from 2 to 4 p.m., Kay will conduct a writer’s workshop entitled “The DNA of Writing” at the college’s Health Science Center. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, Kay will present the lecture, “An Overview of the Writing Life,” again in the Bond Auditorium.
“If you want to know what happened to the white dog come see my presentation,” Kay quipped. “Better yet, if you would like to hear a man talk of this topic, come on out. And the topic is this—Southern literature is alive and well and resides in New York City.”