The following is an interview I did with author Terry Kay upon the release of his latest book – The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet (Mercer Univ. Press). Set in rural Georgia, the story contrasts the present with the past and the ways in which people search for the familiar, especially in uncertain times. Kay is a master storyteller and Middy Sweet is one of his finest, a story of love lost and love renewed.
Middy Sweet Young, a wealthy widow, returns to her hometown in Northeast Georgia in search of her youth, lured by a dreamy wish shared with Luke Mercer, her high school boyfriend, and the hope of reclaiming what once was.
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Question: In your author’s note you allude to the inspiration for this story. Can you give more detail? What is the backstory to how Middy Sweet Young first presented itself?
Terry: As I wrote in the Author’s Note, the seed for the story was a simple statement — “You know it was meant for us to be together and one day, we will be. Perhaps in our 80s, but it will happen.” It was a private comment and I honor that. Still, I don’t think it is all that uncommon as a youthful flush of emotion. Millions of people say the same, or something like it, every day, meaning millions of people create a memory every day that will follow them into every stage of their life – mostly in secret, of course. And, as you know, writers are easily seduced by moments that readers have some sense of. I always believed there was a strong tease about the possibility of such youthful vows.
Question: Rarely do authors write about the love story of older people. What were some of the greatest challenges for you in choosing to write about lost love recovered?
Terry: My degree from LaGrange College was in social science and my one strong memory of that study related to the future impact of senior citizens – recognizing steadily increasing life spans. I thought then there would be more to it than income and health issues, or the call for retirement villages and counseling, and all else dealing with getting old. Surely, the emotion did not die or slowly wilt away. Surely, there would be flashes of old yearnings, recurring dreams of what might have been. And I think I’ve been right about it. Older people have powerful feelings. It’s just that younger people believe it’s a reach to think of 70-year-olds embracing or kissing passionately or making love.
From the beginning, I thought this would be a story that might have a quaint personality, that it would be one older men would likely understand as well as – if not better than – women readers.
Question: Middy Sweet regrets her choices but Luke seems more circumspect about his choices. One is never quite sure if he is happy to have Middy back in his life or not. Why does Luke hold back? Wouldn’t older people have less reservations about finding love again?
Terry: Great question. Yes, Luke is more reserved, but there are two significant reasons why. First, his behavior is a reflection of his personality throughout the story. He IS reserved. He IS cautious. He DOES wonder about the consequences of what is happening. Second, as you know, in all of story-telling, contrast is a necessity, and if Luke had been like Middy, or Middy like Luke, there would be no contrast. There’s also this plot revelation: Luke knows relatively early that Middy is ill with a probable fatal disease, and therein rests his reservation (at least in my sense of it).
Question: There are so many scenes that play out like a movie script. I could almost see it in my mind as I read. If this is picked up for film, who would you like to see play the two main roles and why?
Terry: I have dealt with the movie industry most of my writing career – as a movie reviewer/essayist at the AJC and as a novelist having a number of the books either optioned for, purchased outright, or produced (three from Hallmark Hall of Fame). This is what I have learned: The experience is akin to picking up a drop of mercury with your fingers. Yet, it’s an intriguing question. I would choose the two finest actors I know – Robert Duvall (though he’s a bit old for the role) and Helen Mirren. That’s for the couple at 70. For flashbacks, I would simply nod and agree to anyone the producers suggested. It’s all mercury.
Question: Great choices! Who doesn’t love Helen Mirren? She’d be perfect for the role. Duvall is a favorite, but I prefer Sam Elliot for the role of Luke Mercer. He lives over the mountain from me.
In Middy Sweet, you do a great job of capturing the zeitgeist of Georgia during both Luke and Middy’s younger years and their older years. Did you rely on research, your own memories of the eras, or both?
Terry: First, let me salute you for using the word zeitgeist. It’s a great word. And it’s a great compliment for you to say I had a good sense of it in writing about Luke and Middy, both as young people and as an older couple. I honestly never think about it when writing. Never. I think about the sort of language characters might use in different periods, and I do enough research to have a vague impression of the setting. I believe mood is usually more important than action, and a writer achieves that with the trickery of rhythm and balance. I’ve also learned that it’s better to only hint at the physical presence of principal characters, rather than describing them in detail. I want them to be sensed, rather than seen. The opposite applies to secondary characters. I want them seen.
Question: This feels like a love letter to Georgia and your many fans in a way. Did you think about that as you wrote?
Terry: I know it would read well to confess to a never-wavering allegiance to an audience, or a place, but, again, when I’m writing, I think only of the people I’m writing about, not because I am telling a story readers might want to read, but because I am discovering a story that leaves me in awe of people I did not know on the first word of the first sentence of the first day of the writing. I would not write just to tell a story; to discover one is exhilarating.
Question: Obviously when you began writing Middy Sweet you had no idea you’d be releasing a book during a pandemic. How has this affected you as a writer? Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine living during such a time as this?
Terry: Ah, the pandemic. Yes, it’s a bother, simply because it prevents writers from getting out and meeting with readers. There’s nothing we can do, of course, other than wait it out and try to be available in other ways – social media, I mean. But I’m fortunate. I’ve been writing a long time. I’ve had a lot of books published (18 now) and have enjoyed remarkable success with some of them on an international level. So many people I know – young writers or older writers just getting started – are faced with depressing questions of what to do.
Question: Any words of wisdom for the rest of us on how to be hopeful and/or creative during this time?
Terry: What I see that, to me, is frightening, is the con game played by so many small publishers making ridiculous promises of turning anyone’s collection of words into a masterpiece that will leave the writer wealthy and forever famous. And just as bad, are the writers who fall for the pitch. The statistics, as I’ve seen them, are numbing. A book is published in America every 26 seconds, or so, with over a million being self-published – some by qualified publishers, yes, but most by those fronted with carnival barkers. A great majority of them – 80-plus percent, I believe – sell fewer that 100 copies (thank God for family and friends).
What to do? Write. But also learn to listen. If your story is being read by friends or other writers or spouses or neighbors, listen to what they tell you. Get over the notion that your words are holy, that the way they appear on the screen of your computer represents the final and perfect way of saying something. Writing begins in the third complete draft. If you can’t accept that, stop cluttering the field. Doing it well means paying attention.
Yet, there’s one last need: You need to believe.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).