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Made in the Shade

Many fine Southern authors thrive in the shadow of Grisham and Conroy


Terry Kay reaches for the door at Prater's Main Street Books in Clayton, Ga., and makes a prediction under his breath. "There probably won't be too many people here today."

It's the second time in two days that Kay, a courtly, bearded 66-year-old novelist in khakis and a leather jacket, has delivered this forecast about the turnout at a signing for his latest book.

Kay's prophecy is an understandable gird against disappointment. Signings are a test of any writer's popularity and self-esteem. And Kay was on the money the night before at a Borders in Athens, the university town where he lives; fewer than a dozen fans took chairs in the corner of the arts and music section to hear him read from The Valley of Light. Set in a tiny North Carolina lake town, it's a mystical tale about a WWII veteran with a preternatural gift for catching fish and profoundly impacting the country people he encounters during the summer of 1948.

The Valley of Light is Kay's 11th book, a body of work that has won him entry into an exclusive group in America: writers who make a living making up stories. Two of his books, The Runaway and To Dance with the White Dog, were made into TV movies. Hallmark has optioned his latest for the small screen.

Kay is a gifted writer whose novels take their light, heat and magic from the farms, foothills and mountain towns of northeast Georgia, where he was born on a farm in 1938. Well regarded in his home state, Kay's latest novel in April won the Townsend Prize for best fiction by a Georgia author. But it's not climbing the New York Times best-seller list, and Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer aren't competing to nab Kay for their morning talk shows. Indeed, depending on where you live, there's a good chance you've never heard of Terry Kay.

For every Pat Conroy, John Grisham or Anne Rivers Siddons, all best-selling Southern authors who dwell in the stratosphere of literary success, there are dozens of Terry Kays, equally good and sometimes better writers toiling in relative obscurity. That's especially true in the South, with its tradition of storytelling, haunted past, colorful characters and a landscape steeped in blood, sweat and tears.

"Best-selling is inversely proportionate to Southern," says Richard Howorth, who founded Square Books in Oxford, Miss., hometown of William Faulkner, the Nobel-Prize winning granddaddy of all Southern writers. That's because the public sees them either as purveyors of gothic tales, cornpone humor, or as wordsmiths overly influenced by the King James Bible, none of which readily translate into best-selling fiction.

Obscured by that prejudice are writers who constitute what could be called "the great Southern midlist," a publishing term applied to authors who produce serious fiction but aren't brand names, and whose books attract devoted readers, but not enough of them to float a publisher's bottom line. "You're below the A list, the Conroys and the Grishams and people like that," says Kay, who has occupied that territory since his first book, an autobiographical coming of age novel titled The Year the Lights Came On, appeared in 1976. "And you're above the new novelist and the ones who are only going to sell two or three thousand copies."

I spent the last few months searching -- hunting by foot, phone and search engine, reading, interviewing, visiting with, polling and Googling -- to identify the best of the South's non-best-selling writers. The map that accompanies this story is the fruit of that search. It places about 70 writers of literary fiction -- from thirtysomethings to late bloomers -- in the state where they were born or raised. "These are writers you should know about," said Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's book editor, one of more than two dozen writers and readers of contemporary Southern literature -- including critics, publishers, editors and booksellers -- that I consulted.

Don't be offended if your favorite writer of mysteries, thrillers, romances or children's literature is nowhere to be found. Fans of Carl Hiaasen's brand of Miami madness will be disappointed, as will lovers of New Orleans' diva of vampire tales, Anne Rice; or those lucky Southern writers, such as Robert Morgan, transformed into best sellers by Oprah's Book Club. If your favorite writer is missing, it's likely that his or her genre, or success, has vaulted the author beyond the boundaries of the literary fiction midlist.

Like many who live below the frost belt, I'm a transplant. Born and raised in Connecticut, I grew up with the New Yorker, and the fiction of Cheever, Updike and other suburban chroniclers. I read Southern writers, like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, for homework. Even after I moved to Florida a decade ago, I assumed that most contemporary Southern lit was a regional delicacy, like grits. I'd been cheating myself without knowing it, settling for a limited menu, one that's dictated by marketing strategies that keep me, and many other readers, from new and exciting discoveries.

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