To Dance with the White Dog, 25 years later

Terry Kay’s novel was a blockbuster, and took all of two months to write. The hard part came after.
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion.

For no reason other than Terry Kay is a writer of novels, I sometimes imagine there is a small corner of heaven reserved for my dearest friend of 60 years. To banish him to everlasting hell would represent a clear case of literary redundancy. How else would I describe his state of mind in 1989 when he typed the words, “He understood what they were thinking and saying: Old man that he is, what’s to become of him?”

Those lines begin To Dance with the White Dog, a story Terry was reluctant to write, a manuscript more than 20 major publishers rejected, a novel whose eventual fame frightened him so much he required counseling beyond what his friends could offer. When Terry and I reminisce about his book’s painful birth, we talk about how unlikely it is that, 25 years after its 1990 publication, the book would be translated into more than 20 languages, its title more recognizable than its author.

Sometimes we ponder what it is about this myth of an old man and a stray dog that causes some readers to cherish it almost as if it were holy writ. “Perhaps,” Terry says, “it’s because in the South myth is as powerful as religion . . . or maybe it is religion.”

So who is to say that a white dog, emerging from the woods like an apparition, does not contain the spirit of Sam Peek’s beloved and departed Cora, returned to comfort her aging husband? That is the book’s simple story line. But why would it have such impact on readers? I recently asked Terry about that. “What I think readers see in White Dog,” he told me, “is obviously more than what I did in the beginning. Perhaps it’s in response to a universal search for dignity in aging.”

Now that Terry and I have neared the age of the old man in the novel, I suspect an equal number of readers might identify with his despair at no longer being able to do what he once could: run his farm business, and tend his fruit and trees. I think Sam’s frustration represents a profound question we all wrestle with if we live long enough: When does young stop being young and old start being old?

The novel’s Sam Peek is a thinly disguised T.H. Kay, whom his son Terry had lyrically eulogized in 1981 for Atlanta Weekly, a magazine once published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and edited by me. Captivated by the fruit of our collaboration, we treated ourselves to a liquid lunch in celebration of “T.H. Kay, Proprietor.” At one point, Terry casually remarked, “You know, I can’t help but wonder if I should have mentioned the white dog.”

He laid out what he vowed was a true story about a stray dog’s comforting intrusion into his father’s final days. His father was convinced the skittish animal housed the soul of his departed wife. While his family watched from outside a window, the dog would put its paws up on T.H. Kay’s walker and they would dance.

“You idiot,” I sighed. It took my relentless nagging before Terry agreed to write the magazine sequel three years later. It appeared under the title “The Strange Dance of the White Dog.”

More as editor than friend, Terry’s reluctance frustrated me. It wasn’t until the story was expanded into book length that he was willing to explain his hesitancy. His close friend, Pat Conroy, had already become one of the country’s most successful authors—in part, for never taking his foot off his father’s ink-stained throat. Terry says now that he worried a book based on his own father would lead to an inevitable comparison with Conroy.

But desperation is a powerful antidote to paralysis. Although Terry had previously published three novels—The Year the Lights Came OnAfter Eli, and Dark Thirty—most of his income came from a series of freelance articles and public relations jobs, which led to an executive position at Oglethorpe Power Corporation. The job drained so much of his intellectual energy that he felt lost in what he described as “a creative fog.” Once I dropped by unexpectedly and found him hiding under his desk, scribbling novel outlines. Occasionally I rushed to meet him after a depressing phone call, fearing I might discover him teetering on some building’s highest ledge.

Finally, in equal measures of courage and desperation, he resigned from his job. With three years’ living expenses saved, he rented a room in a cheap Buford Highway motel. He had doubts he could free himself from suspicion that a story located in the South, but lacking epic family dysfunction, would be mocked by admirers of angst-saturated literature. He anticipated editors might nudge his story toward a genre dominated by Conroy, Paul Hemphill, and other explorers of father-son drama. Nevertheless, with no other idea and no obvious line of retreat, he began writing the book about his father and a dog. He finished it in two months, straight through, no revisions.

New York publishers responded as Terry expected. “I received the most glowing rejection letters ever,” he says. “More than a few talked about how they loved the story, but just didn’t think it would sell.” Terry’s agent, Harvey Klinger, decided to approach Peachtree Publishers, the up-and-coming Atlanta-based company headed by Margaret Quinlin.

“Margaret called me and said she was sending a contract by taxi and hoped I would sign it immediately,” Terry says. “I hesitated but finally decided Peachtree was the book’s best chance for publication.”

The novel had been out for only a couple of weeks when Oxford Books hosted the first signing. “I was totally surprised that in such a brief time White Dog had already touched quite a number of people,” he says. “The store manager said something like, ‘Terry, the line is so long I can’t see the end of it.’ The first person in line was a lady who bought 10 copies. She said the books were her entire budget for Christmas gifts.”

The eventual popularity of To Dance with the White Dog now seems to trace a serendipitous trail. Neither Terry nor I had seen anything beyond the magazine stories. It took a suggestion from a reader of the second story to implant the seed. “Writers can be blind or just dumb,” Terry says. “If we weren’t, I might have seen the story’s potential myself.”

Terry sent a copy of the book to Art Barschdorf, an acquaintance in Chicago, who had a business relationship with nationally syndicated radio host Paul Harvey. One day Terry called to tell me that on Harvey’s noon broadcast he’d told his listeners, “If you have high regard for your grandparents, your elders, you really need to read a new book entitled To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.”

Suddenly thousands wanted the book. Perhaps nothing was as stunning as what occurred at a small bookstore in Narashino City, Japan. After the store’s manager, Kazuo Kinoshita, read the Japanese translation, he composed a brief commendation. In one month, the book sold 187 copies; the following month, 471. Yuri Iwasaki, sales representative for the Japanese publishing company Shinchosha, recognized that something special was happening. He persuaded the company to authorize an expanded advertising campaign. In less than a year, Japanese bookstore orders topped 1.5 million. To Dance with the White Dog inspired a children’s book version as well as a movie released in 125 theaters.

“I think one of the reasons the book has sold so many copies in Japan is because of the Japanese culture’s reverence for old people,” Terry says.

Terry’s agent began pushing for a follow-up novel. Perhaps fear of not being able to again touch readers on such an extraordinary level is not uncommon among authors of unexpected bestsellers. All I know is Terry was experiencing another mental muddle and we spent many hours together lamenting his latest creative block. But even I didn’t realize how deep his depression stretched.

“I had a total mental breakdown,” Terry says. “I would wake up in the middle of the night weeping and waiting for morning. Conroy became so concerned about me he called once or twice a week. I lied each time and told him I was writing great stuff every day. And he knew I was lying.

“When at last I admitted I didn’t have anything to write, Pat proposed a theme based on my college summer job as a restaurant bus boy in the Catskills. That story line evolved into Shadow Song.”

Shadow Song earned Terry the first of at least two separate million-dollar book contracts. The house in which we retraced the path of White Dog was paid for in total by that book. “But it was White Dog that gave me a name and a marketable craft,” Terry acknowledges. Meanwhile, the husband-wife team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn starred in a 1993 Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie, which triggered another surge in book sales.

“Took a long time, but I finally convinced myself that while I might never write another book with the impact of To Dance with the White Dog, I might write a better one,” Terry says.

He thinks that novel is The Book of Marie, an evocative reflection on the impact that desegregation had on young whites during the civil rights movement. It was published in 2007 to wonderful reviews, but only modest sales. With last year’s publication of Song of the Vagabond Bird, Terry’s catalog now totals 16 novels. He has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. A new novel will be appearing next spring. But it is the book about an old man and a mystical dog that gets passed along, loved one to loved one. It is the book that has secured my friend’s literary legacy.

Lee Walburn was editor of Atlanta magazine from 1987 to 2002 and of the AJC’s now-defunct weekly magazine from 1980 to 1985. He’s the author of Just My Type: 50 Years Preserved in Ink.

This article appeared in our October 2015 issue under the headline “The reluctant novelist.”