Author Of Shadow Song

Interview conducted by Phil Brown
from In the Mountains #3 June 1997

We noted in an earlier issue the wonderful 1994 novel Shadow Song by Terry Kay, published in paperback in 1995 by Washington Square Books. Kay writes beautifully about love, friendship, memory, and returning that takes place in the northern Catskills in the Fleischmans area. Bobo Murphy, a southern Gentile works a few summers in a Jewish resort, having found the job from his brother, a local minister. Bobo enters a lifelong relationship with the quirky old Avrum Feldman, and an unrequited love with Amy Lourie. 40 years later, Bobo returns to the Catskills when Avrum dies, and this produces a startling life change. Shadow Song has been optioned to a film studio, and we dearly hope it will be soon made into a movie. Terry Kay has written To Dance with the White Dog, Dark Thirty, After Eli, The Year the Lights Came On, and To Whom the Angel Spoke: A Story of the Christmas. His most recent novel, The Runaway, will be published in October. In the Mountains interviewed Terry Kay about the process of writing Shadow Song.

How autobiographical is Shadow Song?

There are many things in Shadow Song that did happen to me during the three summers that I worked in the Catskills. The book only recounts one summer in the life of this young man. There were a number of incidents that I sort of remembered as I was writing the book. The incident of where they lead the young man into the swimming pool — That happened. The incident of my brother being there as the minister of the church and my going over and delivering a sermon –that whole thing actually did happen. They did stand up and applaud when I finished the sermon. None of them understood a word because they mostly spoke German and Yiddish and very little English [many guests from the hotel came to listen as well]. The dating of the two ugly girls happened. A lot of it did come from the experiences I had there. I wanted more than anything else the sense of the place to come through. The place where we stayed which we called the Cave was real. The hotel was real. There is now a little cafe. The drugstore was real. A lot of it was true. I think that a writer draws from insignificant moments. That is the smoke and mirror tricks of writing. Something insignificant on paper takes on a whole different persona. It has a memory about it. I guess it’s valuable or you wouldn’t have kept it in your own mind.

Did it happen to you, this long term romance?

I think it’s happened to lots of people. But unquestionably there was no Amy in my life.

How did you come to get up there in the first place?

I was struggling with an idea. I was looking for something to write. One day I was having a conversation with my friend Pat Conroy. He was in San Francisco at the time. He said, “What are you working on?” I said, “Pat I’m having a problem. I’m looking for something to write.” He said, “Why don’t you write a book set in the Catskills?” That was a real surprise to me. “Why did you say that,” I said. He said, “You bored us to death about all those stories from up there but you’ve never written a word about it.” I said, “Pat, the problem is there is no story. I would go up in the summertime and work 12-15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nothing happened except work.” He said, “Well, here’s the story: dumb redneck Southerner gets on the Greyhound and he goes to the Catskills to work in a resort. There he meets and falls in love with a beautiful Jewish girl who is a guest in the hotel.” I laughed at him. I said, “Pat, forgive me but that is the silliest story line I’ve ever heard.”

I began to think about it. I got myself on a plane, flew into Newbury, rented a car and drove back to the Catskills. I spent 2-3 days wandering around. This was 1992 when I went up there. I really wanted to do some research on Galli-Curci [The famous opera singer had a summer home there, and many residents listened to her practice from her porch. Avrum Feldman loved her music and treasured his records of her]. In Pine Hill there is an archive of the area. I went in there and looked around and got some information. I left there and went up to the cemetery where many of the hotel owners were buried. When I was walking back to the village I had this remarkable sense of an old Jewish man sitting on a bench on the sidewalk. There was no bench at all. It was a person I knew; I knew instantly and wholly. I knew the name, how he looked, how he sounded. I knew most of the history in just a flash. Later I began to believe that it was a composite of a lot of the Jewish men that I knew who were guests in the hotel. As soon as I felt that old man, I knew I had my book.

The character of Avrum is a composite of the wonderful old Jewish men I knew there. You’ve got to remember that so many of the people there at the time in the mid 50s were refugees of the first and second world war. Many of them from the first world war who had come to America and established little trades and this was their pleasure for the year. This was the place where they had a sense of belonging because so many people from the old country would gather there. It was a sort of a purifying experience. They were understanding and kind. One in particular during my first year there when I had just turned 17, away from my home for the first time. I had not been away from the farm a lot and now I found myself in the Catskills mountain in a strange environment where they spoke Yiddish; their culture and food was different, their behavior was different. There was one man in particular who recognized my loneliness. One evening early on, he lingered around the dining room after everyone had finished and motioned me over. He said “Do you have a cigar? You take the cigar, you go to the mountain, you find a tree, you sit and smoke.” I did that. That was the reason the tree on the side of the mountain was important in the story. He left a cigar every night by his plate. I did a lot of weeping during those days. I was lonely. That kind of gesture was the sort of kindness I remembered so clearly.

You capture the magic of the Catskills, and you end the book literally ends in a magical way. Tell me about your sense of Catskills magic.

I was captivated by the magic as a young man. Magic and mysticism are a part of my writing. I’ve never been conscious of it until a friend of mine read everything I’d written and mentioned to me that it was impossible for me to write without mysticism and religion. I think that’s part of the culture that I grew up in. Also having grown up in an isolated area, each community has a sense of mysticism. They become part of you. Storytelling was a dominating thing in my community. Something that my brother told me was that “You do know that this was considered the new Jerusalem.” I kind of thought that it was his opinion, but I read it later in some research that that was true. Particularly for the New York Jewish population. This was their place. One of the things I discovered was that it is a ghost area now compared to what it was at the time. Much of it is because the children just took advantage of the world opening up. Jet airplanes to Europe, Florida, out West. The Catskills was not their exclusive domain anymore. The world was beckoning. I think that led to the Catskills becoming a ghost area. I knew it would be changed. Obviously so many of the people I had known there died. I was shocked at the sense of desolation. At the number of hotels closed or in bad repair. I never had a sense of ghosts as strongly as I did when I was researching. I really could sense the ghost of my youth because it was such a powerful experience for me. That led to the premise in the book that there is one great change in your life. That great change was going to the Catskills. A friend of mine made the observation that there is one great change. If you don’t have the first great change, you can’t have the other changes. That is why the first one is so important. My first great change from my childhood was the summers in the Catskills. It opened me up a lot.

As a Gentile, did you find it easy or hard to enter this Jewish culture and then to write about it?

I was concerned about the sound and language of it. I didn’t grow up with TV, I grew up with radio. I grew up with sound not vision. I don’t write anything that I consider visual. If I can’t hear it, I can’t write it. I only know it’s visual when I go back and read it. Sometime it surprises me. I have a sense of sound–the wind, the birds, the voice. It was important to get the sound down in the dialog. That whole Jewish sound. I toyed with it and finally had a friend who grew up in New York and was familiar with the Catskills. He said, “How in the world did you capture the sound?” I knew that with their voice, I could have the character. I have this theory of writing. My theory is that you can describe a person better in dialogue than in narrative.

You noticed two things about the people: the pride and openness.

Having grown up in the South with the dictum that pride goeth before fall, the thing that stunned me was the enormous sense of pride. It might be for a child or an achievement. They would tell a wonderful story. Everything they did was of epic proportion. I had not been familiar with this. I’ve always believed it was the healthiest thing I ever learned — that it is all right to be proud of what you do. There is strength in that. There is a great difference between pride and vanity. Pride was endearing to me.

I was not prepared for the openness. In the South people have their say and then they are quiet about it. Everything was so dramatic up here. Maybe it was a game of checkers. Maybe a political thing. They were so vocal and demonstrative about it. I think it gave birth to my sense of the love of drama. When I got to college I got involved in theater. The lady that owned the place, Mary, I loved her to death, but God what a temper. If anything when wrong, she was bombastic. She would fling eggs and pots and pans.

It had the most remarkable food I’d eaten in my life. I went up there 130 and came back 170. Three of the Kay boys worked at the same time. My older brother was the minister [nearby]. My brother who is 18 months older came up the second year and worked as my bus boy when I was the waiter. John and I worked for two years. We looked so much alike and sounded so much alike that the guests had problems telling us apart. They would tip us the same. John was making the tips of a waiter.

There is a story in the book about bringing my mother up. That happened. My brother and I sent our mother a plane ticket to come to the Catskills. My girlfriend, who is now my wife, also came — just to have one meal at this place. When we asked if she minded if our mother came to have a meal, she said, “Oh, my God!” My mother was gracious. She nibbled at all of it and loved it. I promised you that they cooked everything in their repertoire. They had wild duck and roast chicken….crumb cake to strudel. All the guests came in and it was a celebration. My mother cried. It was a wonderful experience for us. And special that she would do this for two boys from the South.