An Interview with Terry Kay
Today is National Tell a Story Day and so it is fitting that we talk to a man who is a master story-teller. Below is a short interview with the insightful, the artful Terry Kay.
1. Do you have a theory of the novel, that is, an idea about how a novel works differently than other forms or what explains the power novels can have over reader?
A quote from G. K. Chesterton comes to mind: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” I like that.
A novel is a grand metaphor for whatever the reader finds in it. The characters provide the options, the writer provides the words, the reader gives it meaning. Few other forms demand so much of the imagination from the person at the end of the line.
2. You have often said that The Book of Marie is particularly special to you. Tell us why.
There are few stories of the Civil Rights movement that represent, or explore, the experiences of young white Southerners of that period, either in rural or urban settings, and that is what I wanted The Book of Marie to examine. I have always believed that the grand anthem of the movement—We Shall Overcome—was meant as much for young white Southerners as for blacks. I was in my teens and early twenties during that time and I understood that whites—especially those of my generation — had to overcome a history of oppression toward other races. We had to overcome conditioning. We had to overcome the political and social and spiritual environments that promoted a segregated world with deep-rooted prejudice and stubborn convictions. I think my book tells that story—at least in part.
3. The Seventh Mirror and To Whom the Angels Spoke are departures from your more traditional work. Were there challenges writing for a younger audience?
Perhaps it’s because I have limited experience in the field, but I feel more constrained in the writing of children’s material. In a long work of fiction, a writer might hide a million sins of writing (and all writers do it), but in children’s books, you don’t have that hide-behind coverage. The children will catch your tricks, and they will call you on the failures of doing it right. In long adult fiction, the words are so many the weight of them on the story can be feather light; in children’s literature, each word means something and each word has an almost delicate weight.
4. It’s almost taken for granted that Southern writers are influenced by a sense of place. Do you feel this is true for you or is there some other aspect of your life that permeates your work?
Southern writers, in my view, are heavily influenced not only by place, but equally so by family, by oral history (gossip), and by religion. This is especially true of character-driven material. Also, there’s this peculiar nature about stories with Southern settings: the same story, with the same circumstance, can be offered as character driven or as caricature driven. Regrettably, much of the perception of Southern literature is that of caricature, a sort of Beverly Hillbillies take on things.
5. You once called John Steinbeck America’s finest writer. Do you still feel that way and what’s the real power behind his writing?
I also think Ty Cobb was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, and here is why: I am from Royston, Georgia, Ty Cobb’s hometown. I was reared with the influence of his presence in that region of my imagination titled Sport. The same is true of Steinbeck. His work was the first great influence in my affection for literature. And there’s the other thing: the man could write. My God, the man could write. In comparison, most writers I’ve read were talented dispensers of words. Steinbeck understood that he was a medium for his characters, rather than his characters being a medium for him.