Originally created 08/14/97

Novelist Terry Kay's career had rocky start



ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Terry Kay, now a successful novelist, had a little problem when he graduated from college: he couldn't find a job.

"I thought, `I'm just 21, how can I be a failure at 21,"' said Kay, who now lives in a custom-built home on a six-acre lot near this northeast Georgia city.

Kay grew up on a 40-acre farm near Royston, northeast of Athens near the South Carolina border. He was the 11th of 12 children in a household that had no electricity.

He graduated from LaGrange College in 1959 with a degree in social science, got married, and was planning to attend graduate school at Duke University when his wife, Tommie, found a teaching job in Atlanta.

"I couldn't get a job waiting tables," Kay recalled. "I couldn't get a job doing anything."

Eventually he landed a job selling life insurance, which required late hours. Kay said his wife was not pleased. One morning, after he had spent a late night with clients, she told him to have a new job by the time she came home from work.

While pondering his dilemma, Kay heard a thump at the door. It was a newspaper, and it contained the next step in his career.

A classified ad read, "Wanted: young men to earn interesting profession." It was for a job opening at the Decatur/DeKalb News.

Kay took the job, which started at $40 a week, and stayed at the paper for three years. Then he moved on to The Atlanta Journal, where he spent three years as a sports writer and eight more as a film and theater critic.

"I had dinner with Ann-Margret, a two-hour lunch with Alfred Hitchcock and stayed up half the night with Vincent Price," Kay said.

But Kay and his wife had four children by then, and he needed more money. He took a job as creative director for a film and television company, and said he thought his writing days were over.

That's when novelist Pat Conroy, who had been encouraging Kay to write fiction, decided to take matters into his own hands. He called editor Anne Barrett at Houghton Mifflin and told her he had read 150 pages of a wonderful manuscript that Kay had written.

Conroy's report was the only fiction at hand. "I didn't have a thing," Kay said. Conroy then offered a choice: Call the editor and say Conroy was drunk and had lied, or produce the 150 pages.

Over the next month, Kay wrote four short stories and submitted them. "I thought they were trash. I didn't even correct the spelling," he said. But the stories sold.

Kay later joined Oglethorpe Power Corp., where he rose to senior vice president during a career of about 10 years. He also became a noted writer, producing such books as "Shadow Song," "After Eli," and "The Year the Lights Came On." His novel, "To Dance with the White Dog," was made into a film for CBS-TV and starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Kay said he has never studied writing and simply writes about what he knows. He said he used to think anyone could be a writer, but he has changed his mind.

"There are some people who just can't turn loose enough to do it. But it's so simple. It's so basically simple," he said.