Interview with Terry Kay

Appalachian Heritage Writers Award Recipient, October 2006

By Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt and David O. Hoffman


S&D: Talk about the extent of the influence of journalism on your fiction writing.


Kay: My experience in journalism taught me the value of two of the necessities of fiction writing - discipline and patience, with patience being the most important. I also learned a great deal about the need for detachment, the value of rewriting, and the risk of failure. In short, journalism taught me that writing is a business.


S&D: There is such a richness of themes or motifs in your writing--the dark and fearful symmetry of good and evil, the innocence of childhood, the nature of prejudice, flawed justice or what you've called the "truth of distortion," the cruelty of Time which dallies shamelessly with our hopes and dreams--but those unique moments of transition, what you have called the "giving way," appear to interest you most in the lives of your characters. Why do you think this is so?


Kay: The soul of story-telling - writing or speaking - is in the element of contrast, which begins always in innocence. The nature of the story itself dictates the degree of that contrast. In "Dark Thirty," deliberate violence defines the extreme; in "The Valley of Light" it is the unintentional cruelty (and the heart-ache ) of circumstance. I write with this in mind: The characters are not a medium for me, I am a medium for the characters. If there is anything at all mystic and/or remotely romantic about writing, it is that characters will speak to you - if they trust you. Thus, the need for patience. I only write what they reveal and, very often, I do not have any idea what it means. I only know I am in awe of their revelations.


S&D: You pull a great deal of your own life into your fiction, at least for what Henry James called the donnee or seed of a story--particularly for those stories that take a nostalgic look backward in time. How does the germ of a story ferment, ruminate, and finally become transformed into fiction for you?


Kay: I don't write to tell a story; I write to discover one. And though I do draw from my own experiences, I really don't think the characters who populate my stories reflect much of my own personality (they're more interesting, I hope). My favorite period is post-WWII, because (a) I like the non-pretentious nature of the people and (b) the settings are not as cluttered with gadgetry. When I am preparing a story, I read from the newspapers/magazines of the involved period and I like to talk to people who have experiences from that period. I then let the characters have their say. Truly, when I start a story I almost never have a thought about its progress or its ending.



S&D: You have written that "dialect" distracts you, rendering characters, particularly southern characters, into caricature. Explain what you mean. How do you convey speech differences in your characters?


Kay: I think the southern (or any regional) expression is defined by phraseology, not by dialect. Years ago, I learned that anything intruding on the telling of a story is a distraction, and, to me, dialect intrudes. It also insults. My literary background in college came from theater, not literature, and I learned that speech patterns - rhythms, use of verbs, etc. - are more important in describing a person than narrative accounts. In one of my books - "After Eli" - I deliberately placed a wandering Irish actor among residents of an Appalachian community, primarily because the Irish speak with a rising inflection and the Appalachian speaks with a falling inflection. It was that difference - that contrast - that gave the book its sense of threat (at least that is what I wanted it to be).


S&D: Your work has a universal appeal that emanates from the particular setting of your stories. Talk about the importance of home and place in your work.


Kay: I have long contended that southern writers are influenced by four major factors - home, family, oral history, and religion. (Oral history, to me, is a polite way of saying gossip, which is most often uttered in a southern home about that home's southern family.) Certainly, I've been significantly influenced by my home and family, in large measure due to the fact that I am the eleventh of twelve children and was fortunate to have been reared in an environment that was not dysfunctional in the least. I have often used the bits and pieces, the specks and dashes, of personality exhibited by my siblings, or parents, in my writing, even when the characters, on the surface, are totally unlike their models. I do believe there are common traits among all people, everywhere, and that a well-told story is one that invites the reader to subconsciously add his/her experiences to the pages he/she is reading.



S&D: You've spoken about particular writers that you admire--John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Jesse Stuart, Pat Conroy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.нн We can see echoes of Wordsworth, Twain, and Henry James in your writing. What writers do you think were most influential on your journey as a novelist? Whom do you read now?


Kay: I've never had a good answer for this question. I think I've been influenced by everything I've ever read - from Zane Grey novels to cereal box advertisements. Along with the writers you've mentioned, I've also learned a lot from playwrights - Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, that fellow Shakespeare, Neil Simon, etc. However, there's one book that I remember distinctly for its power - Erskine Caldwell's "The Sacrilege of Alan Kent." My reading today is primarily from the works of friends, and an occasional book from someone like Steinbeck (the best of American writers, I think).




S&D: Shadow Song is such an interesting book about a man's obsession with the voice of a renown opera diva, Amelita Galli-Curci. What is your own interest in music, opera in particular? Do you often listen to music or attend concerts? Have you had any musical training in your background? Is Dinorah a favorite of yours or was your knowledge of this opera merely the fruit of researching Galli-Curci for the book?


Kay: The Amelita Galli-Curci story is an element of "Shadow Song," but isn't what the book is about. However, when I decided to work on a story inspired by my experiences in the Catskill Mountains (summers, during college years), I visited the area for research and there, in a small museum, came across an article about Amelita Galli-Curci and remembered hearing stories of the opera singer who once took her summers in the area. I simply incorporated the spirit of those stories in the fiction of my own tale and found, to my pleasure, a natural fit with the story of two lovers meeting again many years after their teenage encounter.


I did, however, acquire a CD of Galli-Curci's recording of Dinorah and thought it was magnificent. Sadly, I have no training in music. If you heard my shower-singing, you would understand why. No one would waste time teaching me. Of musical interests, I despise rap, enjoy jazz, find great joy in gospel, and can tolerate some country. Given a choice, however, I would listen to classical. It just seems more accomplished than other musical expressions.


S&D: Your male characters are vivid, interesting, multi-faceted, and true to the time and place of their stories. Your books have a wonderful, gentle masculine point of view, in the same way that Jayne Anne Phillips' fiction often has a rich female point of view. You have a few women characters who are strong and assertive; these are mostly "mothers." However, many of the female characters in the stories come off as gullible, or flighty and shallow, or uncomfortably non-assertive and malleable--a case in point would be Lotte, whom you have called one of your favorite characters. With the exception of a few of your protagonists, the typical male character's general attitude toward women is similar to Arthur Dodd's in The Runaway, who offers this advice to Frank Rucker: "Ain't one in ten of them worth a pinch of owl shit, but they rule the damn world. I swear they's something missing in the Bible. Adam done something we don't know nothing about, but whatever it was, it ticked God off, and that's why he jerked out a rib and made woman" (125). This attitude is repeated in the stories; the reader's response is somewhat analogous to reading Alice Walker's portrayal of her male characters. Have you given any thought as to how your readers perceive the portrayal of women in your fiction? Have critics posed to you this question, as they have to Walker?


Kay: I disagree with the generalization that many of my female characters are

"...gullible...flighty...shallow...uncomfortably non-assertive and malleable ..." as charged in the comment. It is especially surprising that you use Lottie as an example. I know her better than anyone I've ever written about and, to me, she's one of the strongest, most heroic characters I've encountered in my writing. Submissive? Not at all. I think of her as someone who was gentle and caring and remarkably patient. It took great strength for her to survive her beauty, great strength for her to endure the circumstance of her environment, great strength to abandon her son to a better life. I have described her in book clubs as someone who is certainly not innocent, but a woman who has never lost her innocence. Curiously, I've probably had more positive comments from readers about Lottie - even if they did not personally agree with her behavior - than any character I've ever created, other than Sam Peek in "To Dance with the White Dog." With all my characters - male and female - I consider the period and the circumstance of the story in my preparation, and nothing about the process intrigues me as much as the personality emerging from these characters. In "The Runaway," Evelyn does have a flighty nature, but that does not mean she is flighty. It is, in fact, a masking for insecurity. I have known many such people - men and women. I have also written about people who could be considered non-assertive and malleable - Alice in "The Runaway" is an example - yet, again, that is only part of the character's disposition. Without such behavior, Alice would have been a non-entity in the story.


I likewise disagree with the opinion that my male characters are . . . with the exception of a few of your protagonists . . . as described in the excerpt used from "The Runaway" in their regard to women. The reference used (from Arthur Dodd) was simply that of a character making the kind of remark that men of that period (and of this period, for that matter) make to one another in a feeble attempt at humor. To make of it a social statement about the treatment of women is, to me, the kind of weak generalization that condemns the whole because of a fragment. The question also includes the observation: This attitude is repeated in the stories. . . As the author, I am perplexed. Where? Which stories? Which characters? Again, this is generalization carrying the appearance of a wise conclusion, when, in fact, without specific reference it is a baseless comment.


And, last, this is posed: Have you given any thought as to how your readers perceive the portrayal of women in your fiction? I have given a lot of thought to how readers perceive my characters - women, men, children - but I have never made an issue of one gender over another, as this question seems to insist on doing. However, it is almost amusing to me, given my personal history. I was reared with a mother and seven older sisters. I have a wife, two daughters and two granddaughters. I am surrounded by women. And, yes, I am sure there are readers who believe I know little of the female spirit and/or mind (yet all men are subject to that, I suppose). I also know that others think I am a woman (the name, Terry) and write to tell me how true my characters are for them. One lady friend (a psychologist) gently berates me for having women as the aggressors in love-making scenes. I am further intrigued by the fact that this question has no reference to the characters found in "After Eli," which was written specifically to celebrate the strength of women, and was optioned for film by the distinguished director Taylor Hackford as a special project for his wife, Helen Mirren - because of its strong portrayal of women. (Regretfully, the film was never made, but I had wonderful sessions with Mr. Hackford and Ms. Mirren exploring the power of the three principal women characters.)


S&D: There is a strong sense of spirituality in your writing, and yet some of the more formally and orthodox religious types, such as the preacher in Dark Thirty, are sources of irritation or disdain to your protagonists; even the strongest of them, such as Noah Locke, are less creatures of religious dogma than religious spirituality. How would you characterize the religious nature of your books, books which evince profound moral concepts?


Kay: I have two older brothers who are distinguished members of the United Methodist clergy (both now retired), and I greatly admire anyone who dedicates his/her life to the church. However, some of the most dangerous people I have ever known occupied pulpits, because they became dogmatic in their belief. As I related earlier, I believe religion is one of the four major influences of southern literature - primarily because it gave those of us in my age range our first great exposure to drama, providing us with vivid images of what happens when wrong engages right in the eternal struggle of the soul. Yet, I do not intentionally write stories in search of moral concepts. I write only of the characters and of their take on the world around them, and I've learned that the thinking and the behavior of those characters have almost nothing to do with my own experiences, but everything to do with their personal environment, particularly time and place. Perhaps, for me, it's a simple matter of liking decent people, even if they have been caught in tragic circumstances. I do not believe everything needs to be mired in dysfunction to have merit.


S&D: Your stories translate so well into screen plays. How do you feel when these characters that you've lived and worked with are transformed into a different medium?


Kay: I pay no attention to the interpretations. I think "To Dance with the White Dog" was done acceptably well, but "The Runaway" totally missed the point of my book. I do not know what "The Valley of Light" will be, though I suspect they are aiming for a love story and I did not write a love story.


S&D: You've used a clothesline in both The Valley of Light and in your writing workshops. How did you devise this strategy, and what other advice do you have for young writers who are searching for their characters and developing a narrative voice?


Kay: The clothesline description was written many years ago for an earlier project. I rescued it for "The Valley of Light" because it worked for me as a scene. I also discovered several years ago that students responded well to "changing" clothes on a clothesline as an exercise of character development. (Display clothing on a clothes line, then ask, "Who lives there?" Change the clothes daily, asking, "Who lives there now?" It fires the imagination.)


Offering advice is a risky thing. What works for one person is a handicap for another. I believe in drill writing - the copying of entire books, for example. I believe in total rewriting, not computer-easy correcting. I believe in listening to the opinion of good, honest readers (not other writers). But mostly, I believe in allowing characters to tell their own story.