Terry Kay on Southern Authors, New York Publishers, and why literary fiction matters – By Georgia Lee
Author Terry Kay’s beloved “To Dance with the White Dog” might never have existed, if not for a whopper of a tall tale, from writer Pat Conroy.
Over cocktails, Conroy and Lee Walburn, original editor of Atlanta Magazine, pleaded with Kay, then a journalist, to stretch his writing muscles with fiction. Conroy excused himself, and called Anne Barrett, his esteemed agent, whose writers included J.R.R. Tolkien, among others.
He raved about Kay, an amazing new writer who had 150 pages that she just had to read.
“I hadn’t written a word,” said Kay, of the night that set him on a path that would lead to 14 novels, with another slated for spring 2015. When Barrett wrote to Kay requesting the 150 pages ASAP, a terrified Kay confronted his friend Conroy.
“Pat said, either admit that you lied or write the 150 pages.
Kay wrote the 150 pages. He finished “To Dance with the White Dog,” in two months. The book celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
“I was taught that if someone believes in you, that you can do something, then you have an obligation to try to do it,” said Kay, to an audience of over 100 fans Wednesday night, at Oak Grove Methodist church, in Decatur, Ga.
“I didn’t write it, really. It was the story of my father. I only translated it.” The book recounts how, after the death of Kay’s mother, a mysterious white dog, rarely seen by family members, lived under the foundation of his father’s home, comforting him through death, when the dog disappeared, leaving faint paw prints near the parents’ graves. Kay’s father told his children that the dog, who “danced” with him by resting paws on his shoulders, was their mother.
The emotionally stirring tale was rejected by 30 New York publishers, and hailed as a beautifully written, lovely story that couldn’t possibly sell. Why?
“Any Southern writer must have a dysfunctional family or New York doesn’t buy it, he said. “I didn’t come from a dysfunctional family, though I did produce one.” He eventually published through Peachtree Publishers.
When Kay visited the set of the 1993 movie, with Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, filmed in Americus, Ga., he learned the surprising lesson that film people don’t want writers around.
“This isn’t your book,” they said. “It’s a version of your work.’” Kay added that the love story emphasized by the movie was not entirely his central theme.
“The book is about the dignity of old age,” he said.
Kay insisted that this tale, of famous agents writing an unknown, requesting work, even that recommended by a popular author, could never happen in today’s radically shifting New York publishing world.
“They don’t listen up there,” he said. “I don’t understand who they are. Southern writers don’t matter. They don’t exist.”
Though he writes on a computer today, he owns an estimated 40 typewriters, and keeps a few nearby while working. He likes to smash typewriters, an act not advisable for electronics.
While tales of zombies, vampires, superheroes and dystopian worlds are the rage, Kay doesn’t write “genre” fiction. Unlike flavor-of-the-month writers who follow trends, he believes in the power of literary works.
“The best story ever written is the bible tale of the prodigal son,” he said. “You can write to entertain or to engage, but strong character-driven literary fiction is most often about going back home.”