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The 1970s were a golden era for writers in Atlanta. They knocked back martinis at Emile’s and held merry salons at The Old New York Book Shop. Everybody was talking about an up-and-comer named Terry Kay who was clearly finding his voice. 

So Pat Conroy, ever mischievous and prone to embellishment, called his literary agent and gushed that Kay had written “the most beautiful book he’d ever read.”

This claim was false. Kay had not written a word. “I cursed Pat,” he later recalled. “I had no interest in writing a novel.” Kay briefly considered setting the record straight but instead holed up in a fleabag motel for a couple of months and cranked out 150 pages. That manuscript became The Year the Lights Came On, a recollection of the magic of rural electrification in the wake of World War II, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1976. 

With that signal achievement, the South uncovered one of its most beloved storytellers.

“Pat told a benevolent lie,” says Lee Walburn, who edited Kay’s work at several magazines. “It was proof that some lies are good.”

Kay went on to publish 18 books, including two children’s novels and a collection of essays. He died December 12 at his home in Athens from liver cancer, which was diagnosed in August. Kay, 82, leaves an enduring body of work distinguished by its warmth, wisdom and humanity. 

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“To Dance With the White Dog”

Born in 1938, Kay grew up on a northeast Georgia farm and attended Royston High School, where he quarterbacked the football team. Like an event from one of his nostalgic stories, he married head cheerleader Tommie Duncan. He graduated from LaGrange College with a degree in social science but never took a course in writing. He initially thought he might teach. 

Terry Kay as a young newspaper writer in Atlanta.

He had some dues to pay, though. As a newlywed, he became a copy boy at the weekly Decatur-DeKalb News. That led to a job as a sportswriter and theater and film critic at The Atlanta Journal, where he developed a reputation for incisive, original commentary. He left that job to punch a clock in public relations, which was what he was doing when Conroy tricked him into fiction. 

Kay’s first book put him firmly in the company of a generation of notable Atlanta writers: Conroy, Robert Coram, Rosemary Daniell, Bill Diehl, Paul Hemphill, Celestine Sibley and Anne Rivers Siddons.

Kay is best known for his fourth novel, To Dance With the White Dog (1990). It began as an essay about his father in the Atlanta Weekly magazine. “We got to talking afterward,” recalls Walburn, who edited the piece, “and realized he’d left out a very important detail: the white dog.” 

So Kay returned to his desk and eventually rendered a novel that tells the story of a bereaved man who believes the spirit of his dead wife visits him in the form of a white dog that no one else can see. It was made into a popular Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 1993 starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. A few years later, much to Kay’s bemusement, a sort of “white dog fever” swept Japan, where 2 million copies were sold. A Japanese film version was made in 2002, followed by an opera, and a theatrical adaptation received a staged reading in 2016. Children munched on “white dog” candy bars and played with plush toys inspired by the book’s illustration. It’s still taught in Japanese classrooms as the gold standard of great writing. 

“Terry is a rock star in Japan,” says Walburn. 

At the time, Kay shrugged and said, “My only theory is that the Japanese revere their elders.” 

Perhaps because of his film background, his work’s strong visual elements and his ability to tug at heartstrings without descending into the maudlin, Kay’s books have lent themselves to the screen. Two other novels became movies: The Valley of Light (2003) and The Runaway (1997). The first features Chris Klein as a returning soldier and Gretchen Mol as a war widow who court in the aftermath of World War II. The latter, detailing an interracial friendship, became a movie with Dean Cain and Maya Angelou.

Kay’s other novels include After Eli (1981), a celebration of the wit and resilience of Appalachian people when confronted by a seductive con man. “I intended that as a rebuttal to James Dickey’s Deliverance, which I thought portrayed mountain people as mutants,” Kay said. 

Walburn’s favorite is Kay’s most obscure book. “No one seems to have read it, and it didn’t sell much, but The Book of Marie is, in my opinion, one of the most insightful things ever written about integration. It revolves around a 50th high school reunion with alumni — including the bold, nonconformist title character — grappling with memories of the civil rights movement.” 

Kay was writing until the end. In August, he published The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet, another reunion story full of yearning, about aging high school sweethearts. 

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A generous mentor

With his frosty beard, deeply melodic and resonant voice, and trademark fisherman’s cap, Kay cut a romantic figure, like a dreaming Celt upon the heath. He evolved into the elder statesman of Georgia letters, racking up laurels that included the Townsend Prize for Fiction, Georgia Author of the Year, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers Association and the Governor’s Award in the Humanities.

Kay was as revered as much for his indulgent kindnesses as his talent, mentoring countless aspiring writers. 

Terry Kay

Friends say Kay was a generous mentor to aspiring writers.

The author Coram once wrote a mini-essay marveling at his friend: “Terry is a kind man and he takes time — time he could be spending on his own work — to counsel with young writers, to offer guidance, advice and — most of all — encouragement. The would-be writers go away thinking that maybe one day their dream will come true; that one day they just might become a writer. They go away thinking Terry Kay is one of the nicest people they have ever met. They go away grateful that they know a famous writer and that he spent time with them and gave them hope. And in that vast and sprawling underground network of unpublished writers, the word is out: If you need help, help on anything, call Terry Kay.”

One of Kay’s protégés was memoirist Lauretta Hannon, author of The Cracker Queen. The two would meet over coffee at a Waffle House. She recalls, “He once told me that we ‘belong to a special society — perhaps of dreamers, but most certainly of word-makers,’” she says. “Thank goodness that death has no dominion over his magnificent stories. Perhaps that can be explained by another thing he told me. ‘In the long run,’ he said, ‘We’re just typists, taking dictation from the Great Whisperer.’”

Novelist and poet Philip Lee Williams also remembers Kay’s giving spirit. “He probably encouraged more writers than anyone in the South during his long career,” Williams says. “Terry spoke the truth without trying to soften it. As a man, he never quit, never accepted the world as it was. He tried always to remake the world as it should be. He could even be plain ornery when he saw something that was wrong in this world.”

Adds Walburn, “As Terry ascended the ladder, he never left another person behind. And he was careful never to destroy anyone’s dream. Terry was always just Terry.”

In the end, no one was surprised by Kay’s success, except possibly Kay himself. “I never wanted to be a writer to begin with, it simply happened,” he’d say. “For a boy who never wanted to write a book, it’s been a splendid adventure.”

Kay is survived by wife Tommie Duncan Kay, four children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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