Terry Kay is a lot more comfortable in the rural south than in any urban environment. He grew up in Royston, Georgia, plowing mules on a farm that didn't even have electricity.
Yet, there are the characters of his latest novel, The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, traipsing all over downtown Atlanta, with enough craziness and congestion that, Kay admits, the setting could be New York or any metropolis. So what gives? "It's different than anything I've ever written by far," says Kay, speaking from the Athens, Georgia, home he and his wife built a year and a half ago. "I just decided I wanted to do sort of a thriller, action book whatever you call it." Fans of his best-selling To Dance with the White Dog may be surprised by just how different the two books are. Kay has not only traded pecan trees and pickup trucks for city soirees and commuter trains; he has set aside the heart-wrenching sentimentality of White Dog to make room for intrigue and excitement in a detective story with several twists.
Aaron Greene is a nobody. A shy teenaged mail boy at a bank, his unremarkable family could never afford the $10 million reward demanded by his captors. But the cult-like kidnappers have profound philosophical motives for the unlikely abduction, a crime that sparks a nationwide frenzy. They believe Aaron's disappearance can teach a lesson to all of society. At the center of this madness are wiseacre gumshoe Victor Menotti, a seasoned newspaper reporter, Cody Yates, and an elderly eccentric, mega-rich Ewell Pender. The novel may be his newest, but the story is one of his oldest. Kay conceived of the basic plot more than 25 years ago, when he was an entertainment reporter at the Atlanta Journal. He had never even considered fiction before, but he was broke and thought maybe he could write a movie to bring in some cash. Since he watched about 300 films a year as a reviewer, he figured he knew the Hollywood formula well enough to turn a profit on his script.
"I had four children and was making $250 a week, and I was working probably 70, 80 hours a week and not getting paid but for 40 of them," he says. "I just needed more money". But Aaron Greene's story got shelved. It would have to wait many years, until Kay's kids were grown and he could take the leap into full-time fiction. Meanwhile, a TV and film development company offered Kay a position as creative director, writing and directing industrial films. That job paid him an extra $100 a week more than his journalist's salary, so he took the offer.
It only lasted a year.
"Then we found out the guys were not paying the government any money," he recalls. "So I got into public relations, then into the corporate world." His varied experiences, going right back to his days as a journalist, all play into the characters in The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene.
"I look back and I think, 'My God, there's so much to be gleaned from all of that.' But I suppose it would have been the same if I'd left the newspaper and become a car salesman. I think you always pluck from what your experiences are." Though he doesn't know any detectives personally, Kay spent plenty of time riding around with Menotti-type police officers in his earliest job, covering crime stories. And the newspaper scenes, he admits, are close to his heart.
"I loved journalism, he says. You can sit in the middle of the newsroom, and the entire world is within 30 feet of you. Everything going on is coming through one of those departments politics, society, sports, you name it." Kay says Cody is not his alter-ego, but a conglomeration of maverick reporters he knows very well. But it can be no coincidence that the old-timer character mourns the loss of the pre-computer days, "when journalists had been able to look over their typewriters, across the newsroom, and see and hear one another, and because they could see and hear, they better understand the world they wrote about in spurts of minutes with the dogbite of a deadline snapping at their heels." Kay left the Journal one week after computers arrived on the scene. And he still loves a deadline. But now, as an award-winning novelist, he can afford the luxury of removing himself from the keyboard from time to time. Which is not to say he stops working.
"You write all the time, whether you're at the machine or not," he explains. "It's in your head, whether you're reading or watching TV. I'm not the type of person who gets up at 5, gets a cup of coffee and by 5:15 I'm writing. I may go for weeks without touching the thing. But all that time it's in my head. Then when I sit down to write, I'll write 12, 14 hours a day." He also never ends one book without immediately starting another. The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene was born minutes after Kay put the final period on To Dance with the White Dog. It's no coincidence. White Dog, which Kay calls, "more of translation of what had happened in my family than the creation of a book," was so emotionally and personally draining for the writer, that the dramatic switch in style was a breath of fresh air.
"I like working on different things at different times," he explains, "because I'm not a genre writer by any stretch of the imagination. But my background was theater in college. One semester you'd do Ionesco, and the next Neil Simon, Shakespeare, or Arthur Miller. And you learned to appreciate different voices." Among the voices that contributed to the Aaron Greene story is that of Heather Kay, the youngest of his children. Kay still has a letter his daughter wrote to her parents years ago, when she was just nine years old. Heather had been scolded for being naughty. The letter to her parents detailed how worthless she felt and how truly sorry. It was signed," Just plain old Heather Kay."
"It was so lovely and cute and all that," he says. "But it is also an absolute emotion. People feel that way, 'I'm worthless and I'm plain.' My thought in this book was that everybody I've ever met has experienced at sometime in their life, 'I'm simply a nobody. Nobody cares.' I think that's a common theme. People say, 'Wait a minute, if it was me, they wouldn't pay the ransom.' "
Kay says he set out to write a page-turner. He has. But The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene is also a page-stopper, because, as different as it may be in plot and style from his earlier work, it is full of the kind of word-play, metaphor, and wonderful description that the writer's fans will instantly recognize. "I'm not sure I'll ever write another book even vaguely close to this," says Kay, who has set the next book he's working on safely back in the country. "But I have to tell you, I had a ball with this. It really was fun. And I hope people find it a fun read."
Emily Abedon is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.