Terry Kay followed an Atlanta newspaper career with a novelist's success story, drawing inspiration from his memories of life in rural north Georgia. A sportswriter and film/theater reviewer who left journalism to become a public relations executive and corporate officer, Kay embarked upon yet another career as a novelist in the 1970s and has since gone on to publish many bestselling novels, many set in his native state.
Born in Hart County, Georgia in 1938 to T.H. and Viola Winn Kay, Terry Kay was raised in Royston, Georgia. He was educated in the public schools and played football for his Royston High School. After high school, Kay graduated from West Georgia Junior College and LaGrange College with a degree in Social Science and extensive study in the theatre arts. In August 1959, Kay married Tommie Duncan. After college Kay held a variety of journalism/public relations jobs: columnist for the Dekalb-Decatur News , sports writer and film/theatre critic for the Atlanta Journal, creative director of Pace Corp., account executive of the public relations firm Walburn & Associates, and public information manager and external affairs representative for the Oglethorpe Power Corp.
Kay's career as a novelist began with The Year the Lights Came On, published in 1976. Kay's novel explores life in rural Georgia in the era when rural areas were receiving electrical power for the first time. The Year the Lights Came On was not originally conceived as a novel; the original story was published as a magazine piece, which Pat Conroy read and admired. Conroy urged Kay to expand the magazine story into a novel, which Kay did. The Year the Lights Came On, described by the New Georgia Encyclopedia as a "nostalgic coming of age story", was very well received. The New York Times Book Review gave the novel positive reviews, saying that "Kay sees the lightless years in a warm glow of sentiment."
Kay's next two novels, After Eli (1981) and Dark Thirty (1984) were darker in tone than The Year the Lights Came On and also set in the rural South. Though both explored themes of violence, After Eli has been described as a darkly disturbing ghost story and, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, is a "drama of unfolding terror and psychological horror." Dark Thirty, set in Appalachia, explored the themes of justice and vengeance.
Terry Kay's most celebrated work is To Dance with the White Dog, which was published in 1990. To Dance with the White Dog is described thusly in the New Georgia Encyclopedia :
In 1990 Kay published his breakthrough novel, To Dance with the White Dog . The work made him internationally famous. The Hallmark Hall of Fame dramatization of the novel in 1993 won an Emmy. The novel began as a nonfiction work to celebrate Kay's parents' long marriage and to recount how his father, who died of cancer in 1980, was visited by a white dog after his wife's death in 1973. The eighty-one-year-old protagonist, Sam Peek, has just lost his wife, Cora, after fifty-seven years of marriage. A phantom-like white dog appears soon afterward, and Sam is convinced that it is the soul of Cora. The dog accompanies Sam on a journey, literally and symbolically, to his high school reunion in Madison. This touching novel explores universal themes of love, loss, and coming to terms with mortality.
Following To Dance with the White Dog, Terry Kay, again at the urging of Pat Conroy, turned a magazine piece into a novel, Shadow Song. Drawing upon his experiences working at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, Kay wrotes a novel described by Publisher's Weekly as a "bittersweet tale of thwarted love." Kay followed Shadow Song with The Runaway in 1997.
Terry Kay's next novel, published in 1999, was The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, the tale of a young bank employee kidnapped and held for ransom. Publisher's Weekly called it "a clever, well-wrought tale from an author who knows how to do it." Taking Lottie Home (2000) tells the story of with Lottie Barton who leaves her shanty-town near Augusta, Georgia, and whose life takes a turn when she meets two minor league baseball players on a train.
The Valley of Light (2003) is set in the North Georgia mountains in 1948, where Kay unfolds the story of a young man with a mystical gift for fishing. The Valley of Light received the Townsend Prize, a biennial award honoring the best Georgia novel or short-story collection, as well as Kay's second Georgia Author of the Year Award for fiction. (He had previously won the award for After Eli in 1982.)
Kay's 2007 book The Book of Marie explores the last half of the twentieth century through the lives of Southerners who reached maturity during the civil rights era. The Georgia Center for the Book in 2008 named The Book of Marie for its list of "Top 25 Books by Living Georgia Writers," an honor he previously received in 2005 for To Dance With the White Dog.
Terry Kay has also written two children's books, To Whom Angel Spoke: A Story of Christmas (1991), and The Seventh Mirror (2013). A number of his newspaper columns and essays have been collected in a collection titled Special K: The Wisdom of Terry Kay.
In 2007 Kay was awarded the Stanley W. Lindberg Award, which is presented every other year by the Georgia Center for the Book to a person who has made important contributions to the literary culture of Georgia through a lifetime of work and accomplishment.
In 2011 Kay published the novel Bogmeadow's Wish, a light romantic story about an Georgia man embarked on a magical trip in Ireland to scatter his Irish grandfather’s ashes, and the short story collection The Greats of Cuttercane, for which he received another Georgia Author of the Year Award. A 2009 recipient of a Georgia Governor's Award in the Humanities, Kay received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers Association in 2011. Kay's most recent novels are Song of the Vagabond Bird: A Story of Obsession (2014), which is set in South Carolina therapy retreat, and The King Who Made Paper Flowers, a modern political parable set in Savannah.
Kay and his wife of more than fifty years lived in Athens, Georgia, where he died of liver cancer in 2020. Kay is survived by his wife and four children.
The following titles by Terry Kay may be found in the Hall of Fame collection of the Hargrett Library:
The Book of Marie. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2007.
Dark Thirty. New York: Pocket Books, 1985, c1984.
The Year the Lights Came On. Athens: University of Georgia Press , 1989.
To Dance with the White Dog. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1990.
Taking Lottie Home. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
The Valley of Light. New York : Atria, 2003.
After Eli. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
To Whom the Angel Spoke: a Story of Christmas. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1991.
Dark Thirty. New York: Poseidon Press, 1984.
Shadow Song. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.
The Runaway. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene. New York: William Morrow, 1999.
Special Kay: The Wisdom of Terry Kay. Athens: Hill Street Press, 2000.
Bogmeadow's Wish. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2011.
The Greats of Cuttercane. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2011.
The Seventh Mirror. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2013.
Song of the Vagabond Bird. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2014.
The King Who Made Paper Flowers. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2016.