Georgia Hall of Fame novelist Terry Kay, 72, doesn’t know how to text message. Yet he notes that in the first quarter of 2009, AT&T alone processed 92 billion text messages. When Kay’s first novel was published in 1976, his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, published just 15 novels from the 30,000 manuscripts that it received. Now, he said, the advent of electronic publishing and self publishing have changed things “for the better.”
Kay, an Athens resident, spoke to an outdoor audience Saturday (8/28/2010) in the Atlanta suburbs at the Suwanee Festival of Books. He passed along tips for writers, yet he also threw out the long odds of making it in that field. “There are fewer than 300 people in the U.S. who make a living writing fiction when they have no income from any other source,” Kay said. Screenplays? The writers guild, of which Kay is a member, will yearly be deluged with as many as 80,000 screenplays, but only 400 will make it to the screen.
But make it to the screen Kay has — three of his 10 novels have become Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. Yet he remembers his humble roots. A Royston, GA, native (like baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb), Kay calls himself an “accidental” writer who went into newspapers in 1959 because his wife — “in a voice I had never heard” — told the then-insurance salesman that “when I come home today, you’d better have another job.” So he answered a blind newspaper ad that turned out to be for a newsroom job. That led to a career as a sports writer and movie reviewer for The Atlanta Journal. There he was inspired by longtime sports columnist Furman Bisher, who is still writing in his 90s. And the novels, movies — and family tree — grew. Kay, a father of four, now has 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Writing, he told the audience, “gives adventure you can’t get anywhere else.”
Another speaker, Lauretta Hannon, gave festival listeners some Southern color they could not get anywhere else. This was largely in the form of Jeff Foxworthy-like “cracker queen” jokes. Referring to herself as a “born again sinner,” she said “mamas are the reason Southern literature exists.” Most of the “cracker queen” jokes are on the video above, but one memorable quote from her mother: “If it has tires or testicles, it’s gonna give you trouble.”
Authors Ad Hudler and Patti Callahan Smith teamed up for their presentation (see photo below), and had some insights. Smith noted the difference between a writer and an author: she said you spend 80 percent of your time as a writer, and “there’s no way to explain what you did all day.” As an author, you go on tour and then you go back into your cave and write again.
Hudler’s wife has a newspaper management background, and he began writing fiction as a stay at home dad. A great day for him writing? “Seven hundred words.” His most unusual experience on a book tour? Someone licking “my entire head” in a bookstore.