Terry Kay reaches for the door at Prater’s Main Street Books in Clayton, Ga., and makes a prediction under his breath. “There probably won’t be too many people here today.”
It’s the second time in two days that Kay, a courtly, bearded 66-year-old novelist in khakis and a leather jacket, has delivered this forecast about the turnout at a signing for his latest book.
Kay’s prophecy is an understandable gird against disappointment. Signings are a test of any writer’s popularity and self-esteem. And Kay was on the money the night before at a Borders in Athens, the university town where he lives; fewer than a dozen fans took chairs in the corner of the arts and music section to hear him read from The Valley of Light. Set in a tiny North Carolina lake town, it’s a mystical tale about a WWII veteran with a preternatural gift for catching fish and profoundly impacting the country people he encounters during the summer of 1948.
The Valley of Light is Kay’s 11th book, a body of work that has won him entry into an exclusive group in America: writers who make a living making up stories. Two of his books, The Runaway and To Dance with the White Dog, were made into TV movies. Hallmark has optioned his latest for the small screen.
Kay is a gifted writer whose novels take their light, heat and magic from the farms, foothills and mountain towns of northeast Georgia, where he was born on a farm in 1938. Well regarded in his home state, Kay’s latest novel won the Townsend Prize for best fiction by a Georgia author last April and the best fiction prize at the Georgia Author of the Year Awards last weekend. But it’s not climbing the New York Times best-seller list, and Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer aren’t competing to nab Kay for their morning talk shows. Indeed, depending on where you live, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Terry Kay.
For every Pat Conroy, John Grisham or Anne Rivers Siddons, all best-selling Southern authors who dwell in the stratosphere of literary success, there are dozens of Terry Kays, equally good and sometimes better writers toiling in relative obscurity. That’s especially true in the South, with its tradition of storytelling, haunted past, colorful characters and a landscape steeped in blood, sweat and tears.
“Best-selling is inversely proportionate to Southern,” says Richard Howorth, who founded Square Books in Oxford, Miss., hometown of William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning granddaddy of all Southern writers. That’s because the public sees them either as purveyors of gothic tales, cornpone humor, or as wordsmiths overly influenced by the King James Bible, none of which readily translate into best-selling fiction.
Obscured by that prejudice are writers who constitute what could be called “the great Southern midlist,” a publishing term applied to authors who produce serious fiction but aren’t brand names, and whose books attract devoted readers, but not enough of them to float a publisher’s bottom line. “You’re below the A list, the Conroys and the Grishams and people like that,” says Kay, who has occupied that territory since his first book, an autobiographical coming of age novel titled The Year the Lights Came On, appeared in 1976. “And you’re above the new novelist and the ones who are only going to sell two or three thousand copies.”
I spent the last few months searching — hunting by foot, phone and search engine, reading, interviewing, visiting with, polling and Googling — to identify the best of the South’s non-best-selling writers. The map that accompanies this story is the fruit of that search. It places about 70 writers of literary fiction — from thirtysomethings to late bloomers — in the state where they were born or raised. “These are writers you should know about,” said Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s book editor, one of more than two dozen writers and readers of contemporary Southern literature — including critics, publishers, editors and booksellers — that I consulted.
Don’t be offended if your favorite writer of mysteries, thrillers, romances or children’s literature is nowhere to be found. Fans of Carl Hiaasen’s brand of Miami madness will be disappointed, as will lovers of New Orleans’ diva of vampire tales, Anne Rice; or those lucky Southern writers, such as Robert Morgan, transformed into best sellers by Oprah’s Book Club. If your favorite writer is missing, it’s likely that his or her genre, or success, has vaulted the author beyond the boundaries of the literary fiction midlist.
Like many who live below the frost belt, I’m a transplant. Born and raised in Connecticut, I grew up with the New Yorker, and the fiction of Cheever, Updike and other suburban chroniclers. I read Southern writers, like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, for homework. Even after I moved to Florida a decade ago, I assumed that most contemporary Southern lit was a regional delicacy, like grits. I’d been cheating myself without knowing it, settling for a limited menu, one that’s dictated by marketing strategies that keep me, and many other readers, from new and exciting discoveries.
Literary success is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, high-profiles generated by publishing marketing budgets at a time when “just to get a book put on a table at the front of the store in one of the chains can cost $10,000,” according to a 2000 Authors Guild study on the plight of midlist authors. Midlisters are championed largely by word-of-mouth. Tapping into this grapevine of impassioned readers produced a flow of novels that crowded my nightstand and desktop over the last five months. My travels with today’s Southern writers became an all-absorbing journey of captivating stories, unforgettable characters and great writers whose books deliver lasting rewards. Through them I’ve had the chance to visit nearly every Southern state. Rural Tennessee with William Gay. The coal mines of West Virginia with Denise Giardina. Georgia juke joints with Tina McElroy Ansa. An entire constellation of hardscrabble worlds, whether it was Larry Brown’s Mississippi, Tom Franklin’s Alabama, Lee Smith’s Appalachia or the North Carolina of Kaye Gibbons and Tony Earley. It was a road trip that at its end defied and demolished the stereotypes that surround contemporary Southern fiction, helping me see “the South wasn’t all one big theme park full of Andy Griffiths and Waltons,” as Laurel Granger, the Piedmont heroine of Pamela Duncan’s Plant Life, puts it.
At Main Street Books in Clayton, Kay’s fans proved his crowd estimate wrong on this crisp Saturday last December. Nearly 40 customers, mostly middle-aged women — quadruple the Borders audience from the night before — kept him signing nonstop for more than two hours. “I’ve read a lot of Southern authors and I think he’s really a good one,” says Evelyn Craig Edmondson, who was buying an autographed copy of The Valley of Light as a relative’s Christmas gift. “He captures the way we talk and the things we think about and the relationships.” But Kay’s appeal reaches beyond the provincial, she says. Edmondson’s a therapist who prescribes literary medicine for patients who’ve lost a spouse. “I will tell them, ‘Treat yourself to To Dance with the White Dog,'” Kay’s 1990 novel about a hound that mysteriously appears after an old man’s wife dies and helps him through his grief. “It has universal appeal,” she explains. “Everybody mourns.”
A woman in a red sweater hands Kay a book to sign. “I’ve been reading you since you were in the Atlanta paper,” she says.
Writing was an “accidental” career for Terry Kay. In 1959, after graduating from LaGrange College and a stint “as the worst insurance salesman in the world,” he answered a blind ad for a $40 a week copyboy job in the Decatur-DeKalb News — “Wanted: young man to learn interesting profession” — and soon found his niche in the newsroom. For more than a decade, Terry Kay was a familiar byline in the Atlanta Journal, first in sports, then as film and theater critic. But by 1973, his $250 weekly Journal paycheck wasn’t enough to support a wife and four kids, even with freelance gigs; he left the newspaper for the more lucrative world of public relations and the occasional magazine assignment.
His story might have ended there except for Pat Conroy, the South Carolina-born best seller (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides) who’d become a friend and was urging him to write. After a boozy lunch with Jim Townsend, Kay’s editor at Georgia Magazine, Conroy called his editor in New York, raving about a new Southern writer’s 150-page manuscript. Since one didn’t exist, Kay pounded out the 150 pages in a month, among them a vignette about the late 1940s when electricity came to the northeast Georgia farm country where he was raised. To his amazement, Houghton Mifflin offered a contract and an advance to write what became The Year the Lights Came On. Kay was 35. The Christian Science Monitor called it “a deliciously nostalgic look at the whole experience of growing up,” but sales were modest and the $10,000 advance for his next book wasn’t enough to live on. He took a part-time public relations job with Oglethorpe Power, the Georgia utility, which quickly became full time. It was five years before his second novel, After Eli, a dark thriller about a charming Irish psychopath in an isolated Appalachian community, appeared. Three years later, he produced Dark Thirty, a violent tale that invited comparisons, but not the sales, of James Dickey’s Deliverance. “I was climbing up the corporate ladder,” he says, “but I really wanted to write.”
In 1981, after cancer claimed his father, who raised 12 children (Kay is No. 11) and thousands of pecan, peach and apple trees on a farm in Vanna, Ga., Kay wrote a moving tribute in the Journal-Constitution‘s magazine. “I probably should have put something in it about the white dog,” he recalls mentioning to his editor after the piece ran. Kay described how this stray dog appeared out of the blue one day after his mother died, how the dog kept his father company, standing on his hind legs, propping his paws on Daddy Kay’s walker “like a man-dog dance in a carnival act,” how he disappeared after the old man was diagnosed with cancer, and how in their last conversation, Kay’s father revealed the dog’s identity. “That was your mama.”
Kay says his editor, Lee Walburn, went crazy. “You idiot! That’s the story.” But it took Kay several more years to produce a short essay, “The Strange Dance of White Dog,” and a letter from a reader — “Very touching story but you have made a mistake. It’s not a magazine piece. It’s a novel” — for him to finally see the light. “Writers can sometimes be the dumbest people on earth,” he says, “and the most blind.”
Still working for the power company, Kay often tried to get in some writing before heading home, a ritual he began by shedding his shoes and necktie, “Superman changing out of Clark Kent,” he says. He wrote what became the opening of his fourth novel: “He understood what they were thinking and saying: Old man that he is, what’s to become of him?”
Kay was 50 years old and hadn’t published a book in six years, but he and his wife, Tommie, figured they had enough savings to make it for three years without a paycheck. In 1989, Kay resigned as Oglethorpe’s senior vice president of corporate affairs. “The other world was not challenging. I didn’t know what I could do in this one. The question was simple: Do you want to hit the age of 75 and look back and say you didn’t try?”
Published in 1990, To Dance with the White Dog changed Terry Kay’s life. While it never was a best seller in this country, it did achieve that status in Japan where “we sold 2 million in a year,” Kay says.
More importantly, the book, coupled with its Emmy-wining success as a 1993 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, increased his marketability — the advance for his next two books was $1.2 million, and Hollywood came running with lucrative deals — putting him in the rare position of a midlister who supports himself solely with fiction. Since he left Oglethorpe 15 years ago, he’s published six novels, a children’s book, a collection of his nonfiction prose, and an Emmy-winning teleplay.
Today, he and Tommie divide their time between an Atlanta condo and an airy retreat on six wooded acres in Athens where he writes in an office overlooking the lake that inspired the pivotal setting of The Valley of Light. The day after the Clayton book signing, Kay stands at the kitchen stove, deftly turning out a mean breakfast of eggs, biscuits and gravy, and grits. “There’s no question about it. This is the house that White Dog built.” In a field where the average writer is lucky to pull in $5,000 a year, To Dance with the White Dog was the literary equivalent of winning Powerball.
Most midlist writers can’t survive without a day job. Many teach or read for their supper on the college and conference circuit. “I’ve been on tour since March 2001,” says Silas House, a young Kentuckian who’s recently begun the journey that Terry Kay has been on for more than 20 years. A literary road warrior’s life is no picnic, House concedes. But it is a lot easier than mining coal, the job that cost his grandfather a leg, breathing fiberglass in a factory as his father did for 30 years, or steering a mail truck up and down treacherous Appalachian mountainsides, the job House worked for six years while writing his first novel. Clay’s Quilt is the story of a twentysomething Appalachian haunted by his mother’s murder, a legacy that keeps him wavering between partying and his Pentecostal faith. House expected to write another Appalachian Gen-X story. Instead, he found himself inspired by his own great-grandmother’s life in the early 1900s. The result: A Parchment of Leaves, a lyrical and award-winning tale about a mesmerizing Cherokee beauty whose marriage to a local boy leads to violence. His third novel, The Coal Tattoo, which features characters from the first two, comes out this fall. Even so, House still needs a job to supplement book royalties; this fall, he joins the faculty at his alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, where he will teach Appalachian literature and creative writing.
On an April morning, House, 32, lean and friendly in jeans, takes a break from proofing galleys to take me on a tour of the eastern Kentucky landscape that he’s claimed as his fictional territory. Outside the town of Lily, where House lives with his wife and two young daughters, he noses his pickup down a road where he plans to set his fifth novel.
Scrub pines offer cheap cover for the scars left by strip mining. Coppery water glistens in a sulfuric silt pond. During the Depression, his grandmother raised nine children alone on this land after her husband died in prison. “This is called Happy Hollow,” he says. “She once told me whoever named that place sure never lived there. I love that.”
Twenty minutes later, we’re in a hollow in another part of the county, this time 100 yards up a steep hill, standing in his mother’s family graveyard, a timeless spot shaded by pine and hemlock trees that looks over a whiskey-colored creek. He points out several generations of his Scotch-Irish ancestors whose lives and deaths provide the models for his characters. “Here’s my uncle that was murdered,” he says. “This is my grandmother. She died of an enlarged heart, which I think is just great symbolism for a character. Her heart was too large to live.”
The best writers, whatever their region, are literary alchemists who transform family history into literature, preserving a vanishing past by finding the universal in the particular corner of the world where they were raised, from a Kentucky hollow and a Louisiana bayou to a North Georgia orchard. “All the best novels are regional: To Kill a Mockingbird, Madame Bovary, War and Peace,” says House.
While Kay, House and many other Southern writers draw on the region’s rural heritage, others find their inspiration in a different kind of soil, the concrete landscape of city and suburban sprawl, and attract readers more interested in today’s issues than yesterday’s tales.
“To the fiction writer in the South, place is everything,” Dede Yow, an English professor at Kennesaw State University, has observed. “It is the literal ground, the red clay, and the dogwood trees; it is the metaphor for identity and love; and it is where one’s family and community are.”
For Terry Kay, that place is Vanna, the small town where he grew up. During my visit last December, he and his wife, Tommie, took me 40 miles from Athens to sample ribs and Brunswick stew at Vanna Country BBQ, a Spartan eatery where farm tools decorate the walls. The light was fading as Kay pointed out landmarks from his life and his novels — the vacant general store, the Methodist church, the railroad tracks, a road sign marked “White Dog Lane,” and the six acres of the family farm he owns, including an old cemetery where he expects to be buried someday.
Under a star-shot sky, we headed back to Athens. Before I left the next morning, Kay reminded me of the primal hold that Southern ground has on a writer’s imagination and the bounty it continues to produce all over the region. Hearing him describe long boyhood days behind a mule-driven plow — “There isn’t a better place on earth. There’s nothing else to do but dream” — I was struck by the poverty of my suburban upbringing. At that moment, I began to understand why a literary road trip through the South is such an enriching journey. Kay says, “Everything that I am, if you gather it all up and put what I think I want to be, if not what I am, is in that land.” In his softly accented words, I heard Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Earley, House, Crews, Gautreaux, Ansa, all the legions of Southern writers, past, present and future.
(Published in Creative Loafing alternative weeklies in Atlanta, Charlotte and Tampa, June, 17, 2004.)
Photograph by Tom Hermans courtesy of unsplash.com