AJC Bookshelf: Terry Kay, a Southern storyteller for the ages

Author Terry Kay publishes his 18th book, "The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet."
Courtesy of Mercer University Press

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Author Terry Kay publishes his 18th book, "The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet." Courtesy of Mercer University Press

What defines a Southern writer?

It’s something I think about when scheduling the book reviews that run on Sunday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For that purpose, I define it as authors who live in the South, regardless of where they were born, and authors who write about the South, regardless of where they live. That’s why I am as likely to assign a review of a Pakistani retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” (“Unmarriageable” by Atlanta author Soniah Kamal) as I am the latest by Rick Bragg.

But there was a time when the term “Southern writer” conjured a certain kind of author, like Harper Lee, Alice Walker or Pat Conroy. It was code for authors born and raised in the South whose stories are steeped in the rural (or coastal) parts of the region, far from major urban centers. Stories that spin a yarn full of colorful characters and are tragic on some level. Stories that revel in the natural beauty of the South, explore family ties or social norms and often contain aspects that are gothic or absurd or both.

Terry Kay, 82, falls squarely in the realm of the old-school Southern writer. That’s not to say he’s old-fashioned, though. His 18th book, “The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet,” is a contemporary tale about a widow and a widower in their 70s who consider rekindling their high school romance. They communicate via email, and there’s even a reference to COVID-19. But many of the elements we have come to expect from the venerable author are present: A loyal friendship between men. A beguiling, warm-hearted woman in need. The slow, easy pace of small-town life.

Although the stories couldn’t be more different, there are some interesting parallels between “Middy Sweet” and Kay’s most famous book, “To Dance with the White Dog,” based on Kay’s father. It’s about a widower who, after his wife dies, receives visits from a white dog that no one else can see.

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Published in 1990, “To Dance with the White Dog” was Kay’s fourth book, and its extraordinary success took the former AJC sportswriter by surprise. His pal Conroy likened it to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” millions of copies sold, and a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy was made in 1993. Japan was so taken with the book, more than 2 million copies were sold there, a Japanese film version was made in 2002, and a theatrical adaptation received a staged reading in 2016.

Both books deal with grief and mortality, both contain an apparition, and both revolve around a widower in his golden years.

When asked about the similarities between widower Sam Peek in “White Dog” and widower Luke Mercer in “Middy Sweet,” Kay responded with surprise.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. “I’ll be thinking about that the rest of the day.”

But then he added, “I have a brother who is the best human being I have ever known. He has many of the characteristics that Luke expresses. My brother took many of his characteristics from my father. So, I guess it makes sense.”

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"The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet" by Terry Kay Courtesy of Mercer University Press

"The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet" by Terry Kay
Courtesy of Mercer University Press

Combined ShapeCaption
"The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet" by Terry Kay Courtesy of Mercer University Press

When it came to inspiration for Luke and Middy’s high school puppy love days, Kay didn’t have to look far. He and his wife, Tommie, who celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary this month, were the perfect stand-ins.

“We grew up together,” he said. “I was the quarterback of the football team, and she was captain of the cheerleaders.” Just like Luke and Middy.

“To Dance with the White Dog” isn’t Kay’s only book to be made into a movie. “The Valley of Light,” which won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2004, was made into a 2007 film with Chris Klein and Gretchen Mol as an ace fisherman who falls for a woman whose husband is believed to have killed himself after returning from World War II. “The Runaway,” a 1997 novel about an interracial friendship between two boys in the ’40s, was made into a movie in 2000 starring Dean Cain and Maya Angelou.

Kay has won every literary award the state of Georgia has to offer. In addition to the Townsend Prize, he’s won the Georgia Author of the Year Award three times, the 2009 Governor’s Award in the Humanities and the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers Association. In 2006, he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Despite all his success and accomplishments, there’s nothing highfalutin about Terry Kay. He lives less than an hour from his hometown of Royston, where he grew up the 11th of 12 children on a farm with no electricity. He’s never lost sight of those humble beginnings and the serendipitous path his career has taken.

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With a degree in social science from LaGrange College, Kay stumbled into a newspaper career when his newlywed wife demanded he get a job that didn’t require him to work every night. And he was bullied into writing his first book by Conroy, who convinced a New York editor that Kay had written a brilliant manuscript she just had to see. Not only had Kay not written a word, he had no desire to write a book. But when the editor queried him about it, Kay rose to the challenge and spent two months writing what would become his debut novel, “The Year the Lights Came On.”

Eighteen books later, Kay seems as surprised as anybody to be promoting another new novel.

“For a boy who never wanted to write a book, it’s been a splendid adventure,” he said.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com