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Savannah Book Festival: Georgia Writers Hall of Fame member Terry Kay talks Southern literature

  • Terry Kay

Savannah Book Festival: Georgia Writers Hall of Fame member Terry Kay talks Southern literature

15 Feb 2017

Author Terry Kay was the keynote speaker at the first Savannah Book Festival, and he’s been a fan ever since. He’ll return to the 2017 festival with his newest book, “The King Who Made Paper Flowers.”

“I’ve been back several times,” Kay says. “The book this time is set in Savannah.”

A member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame since 2006, Kay won the 2004 Townsend Prize for Fiction with “The Valley of Light,” and the 1981 Georgia Author of the Year Award for “After Eli.” In 1991, the Southeastern Library Association named him Outstanding Author of the Year for “To Dance with the White Dog.”

In 1990, Kay won a Southern Emmy Award for his teleplay, “Run Down the Rabbit,” and was awarded the 2006 Appalachian Heritage Writers Award. The Atlanta Writers Club honored him by naming its annual award for fiction the Terry Kay Prize for Fiction.

Yet Kay insists his career as a writer happened totally “by accident.”

“It’s an old, old story,” he says. “I always feel guilty when I go to these festivals or do book signings or teach writing.

“I had no ambition to ever write anything when I was growing up. I never attended a school or college that taught journalism or creative writing.

“I never thought of writing in a serious way at all,” Kay says. “I sort of remember it as more of a composition class. I had no interest in writing, did not study it and when I got out of school, I was scheduled to do graduate work at Duke University.”

But life happened.

“My wife-to-be and I decided to get married following graduation,” Kay says. “She was already out of school and teaching in Atlanta, but I couldn’t get a job there.

“I took a job selling life insurance and she continued to teach. I was out at night selling insurance and she was teaching during the day, and we didn’t see each other except on weekends.

“She became impatient with this,” Kay says. “I remember it like it just happened. One day before she left, she caught my foot and glared down at me and said, ‘When I come home today you will have another job.’”

It was an ultimatum Kay did not dare ignore.

“We had dated for six years in high school and college, and I had never seen that look or heard that voice,” he says. “She left and I got up and went into the kitchen and started pacing.

“Lo and behold, there was a thump at the front door of our tiny apartment. There at the foot of the door was a rolled-up weekly newspaper that I had never seen before — the Decatur-Dekalb News.

“I took it into the kitchen and opened it to the classified want ads,” Kay says. “I came across an ad that read, ‘Wanted: young man to learn interesting profession’ and a phone number.”

When Kay called, he found the ad was a blind ad for that newspaper.

“They were looking for someone to run errands and sweep the floor,” he says. “They didn’t want me at all.

“Remembering what my wife had said to me that morning, I asked, ‘How much are you paying?’ It was $40 per week. I took it.”

For a time, Kay ran errands and swept the floor.

“It took me a month to realize the people who were having fun were doing the writing,” he says. “I asked the editor if I could write something. The purpose was not to write the news, it was to get advertising.

“That’s where I started and discovered writing was fun. I was lucky in this regard. If I wrote something ridiculous, nobody screamed about it. Thank God we didn’t have social media.”

Any budding writer must learn how to make a fool of him or herself and live with it, Kay says.

“The best editor in the world is one who teaches you what not to do,” he says. “We had a child and I got an offer to go to work for the Atlanta Journal in the sports department. That’s where I learned to write.

“When everyone went home, I took a column written by the sports editor and retyped it word for word,” Kay says. “I learned to write doing that. If you take a good book and copy it word by word, when you finish, you will be a far better writer.”

Kay has written 17 books, including two children’s books.

“One is a book of essays, at least that’s what the publisher called them,” he says. “They are magazine pieces I’ve written over the years. Other than that, everything has been fiction.”

Kay’s favorite writing experience was his first book, “simply because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I had a grand time writing it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it to begin with but got tricked into doing it.”

Kay’s signature book is “To Dance with the White Dog,” which was made into a 1993 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. It was the No. 1 television program of the season, seen by 33 million people.

To Kay, his most important work is “The Book of Marie,” which is about the civil rights movement.

In his latest, “The King Who Made Paper Flowers,” Arthur Benjamin steps off a Greyhound bus in Savannah and is immediately robbed by a street magician named Hamby Cahill. It’s the first time Hamby has ever stolen anything, and he is so remorseful he helps Arthur find lodging in The Castle, a warehouse owned by an eccentric woman and occupied by several street people she has chosen to be her guests.

Arthur finds a family there that will change his life. He in turn will change the lives of everyone he meets.

But Arthur meets trouble, too, and in the process, ends up running for mayor, becoming a beloved and iconic Savannah figure who makes paper flowers from cocktail napkins and gives them away.

“A lot of people say it’s sentimental and unreal,” Kay says. “But I think I have the best ensemble of characters I’ve ever written, so I had a lot of fun. I like the people, the setting, the possibility of something good happening.”

Years ago, Kay wrote an episode for the television program “In the Heat of the Night.” One day, he was having lunch with the series’ star, Carroll O’Connor, who told Kay he was interested in doing a story set in a seacoast town with a Don Quixote-type character who went around doing good.

“I had known a story about a fellow in Havana, Cuba,” Kay says. “He was an addled street person who was acknowledged as being the unofficial mayor of Havana.

“I was working on a novel, so I put it aside. Carroll O’Connor died, but I never forgot the conversation and the story of the guy in Havana, so I decided to play with it.

“When I wrote the first page, I knew I would finish the book,” Kay says. “I knew the rhythm was right for me. Most everything I’ve written has been character-driven. I don’t think I’m telling a story; I think I’m discovering a story.”

In Savannah, Kay will talk about his new book and Southern literature in general.

“This covers a lot of sins,” he says. “I will talk about influences that make Southern literature and talk about the makeup of Southern literature and the elements that are historically important. I’m looking forward to it.”


Book: “The King Who Made Paper Flowers”

When: 12:30 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Lutheran Church Sanctuary, Wright Square