Townsend Prize recognizes Georgia’s best fiction writers

List of 10 nominees includes debut authors and veteran writers

Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Instead of at a public gathering of local literati drinking copious glasses of wine, the prestigious Townsend Prize for Fiction will be bestowed not on April 23 as originally planned but on May 28 and without fanfare due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Awarded biennially by the Chattahoochee Review in partnership with the Georgia Center for the Book, the award is named after longtime Atlanta magazine editor Jim Townsend. The inaugural winner in 1982 was AJC columnist Celestine Sibley for her book “Children, My Children.” Other winners have included Ferrol Sams, Terry Kay, Mary Hood, Ha Jin, Kathryn Stockett and Thomas Mullen.

“It was a really fierce competition. I mean really fierce,” said Anna Schachner, director of the Townsend Prize, about this year’s nominees. “We could have put four or five other books on the list.”

Here is a look at the nominated authors and a peek inside the books that landed them on the list.

Xhenet Aliu

Aliu is the author of “Domesticated Wild Things,” a 2013 short story collection that won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, and “Brass,” which was awarded the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year First Novel Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Glimmer Train, Buzzfeed and elsewhere.

"Brass." Elsie is a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner who's saving tip money to leave town when she's impregnated by the married line cook from Albania. Her story alternates with the story — 17 years later — of Elsie's teenage daughter Lulu, who also finds herself stuck in a town she's eager to escape.

One sentence. "She'd been working a daytime gig at the Almond Joy factory a little down Route 8 for a couple of years, but she still lived at nighttime as if she didn't have to rise until afternoon the next day, staying up for news she perked up for only during the weather, and then late-night talk shows with guests she'd never heard of, because the only actors she ever remembered the names of were the ones nobody else on earth did, people like Joel Grey and Ben Gazzara, guys who were celebrities when life stopped for her right around the time of my birth."

What's next? "I've got two projects in the works: a novel about a wayward Albanian-American young man who's recruited to fight for the Kosovo Liberation Army during the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, and his twin sister, who sets out to bring him back; and a weird semi-autobiographical story collection in which George W. Bush serves as a narrator for about 20 pages."

Amy Bonnaffons

Author of the story collection “The Wrong Heaven” and the novel “The Regrets,” Bonnaffons is a founding editor of, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, where she is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.

"The Wrong Heaven." "A collection of short stories exploring female characters' spiritual and sexual confusion, set in a world that's just like our own — except that people can turn into horses, dolls can come to life, and the angel of death is kind of sexy."

One sentence. "This is why my students like me, why I consistently receive the highest ratings of any second-grade teacher at Two Trees Elementary: I believe the world is malleable, that our understanding of it is provisional, improvised, subject to a change of rules at any time, that sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and the dishes all stay in place, and sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and everything is gone, including the table."

What's next? "I'm working on a creative nonfiction project inspired by my great-grandmother, who wrote a memoir about growing up on Homestead Act land in Western Oklahoma."

Roberta Haas George

Born in Bisbee, Arizona, George spent summers with her grandmother on a farm in the South. She now lives with her husband in Valdosta, where she raised nine children. She is executive director of the Turner Center for the Arts and teaches a writers’ workshop called The Snake Handlers. She was named Georgia Author of the Year for literary fiction in 2019.

"The Day's Heat." "Set in the early 1960s, in the deep South, against the backdrop of coming integration, a dark Lebanese girl, Lee Bettlemain, is married with two children and pregnant with the third. Her husband Charles is a typical redneck, unthinking, uncaring. She has a one-afternoon liaison with a Catholic priest, and through a mistake in the confessional, the priest comes to believe that the child is his. The husband is led to believe the opposite."

One sentence. "Sons love your mother; only she can tell you who your father is."

What's next? "Another novel, 'The Bank Robbers' Sister,' based on a true story."

Anissa Gray

Gray is a senior editor at CNN Worldwide. She began her career at Reuters as a reporter, based in New York, covering business news and international finance. Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Gray studied English and American literature at New York University. She lives in Atlanta with her wife.

"The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls." "Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband, Proctor, are arrested … As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their sister's teenage daughters."

One sentence. "Boys and men are earth and stone," my mama used to say, "but you girls, us women, we're water. We can wear away earth and stone, if it comes to it."

What's next? "I'm working on a novel about the mysterious disappearance of a husband and father. The working title is, 'Proof of Life.'"

Anthony Grooms

Author of “Bombingham” and “Trouble No More,” both winners of the Lillian Smith Book Award for fiction, Grooms teaches writing and American literature at Kennesaw State University and has lectured widely on stories related to the civil rights movement. He is a Fulbright Fellow, a Yaddo Fellow, and an Arts Administration Fellow from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The Vain Conversation." "Reflective of the Moore's Ford lynching in Georgia in 1946, 'The Vain Conversation' follows Lonnie Henson, a 10-year-old white boy, who stumbles upon a lynching, from the end of World War II until the present. … He struggles into adulthood trying to find meaning in what he has witnessed, imagining, by turns, the crime from the perspectives of the victims and the perpetrators."

One sentence. "… But redemption is just the journey. Salvation is what we all want, Lonnie."

What's next? "I am finishing a rewrite of a novel about a black American Vietnam War deserter in Stockholm, Sweden. It tackles issues of identity, New Left revolution and Cold War counter intelligence — and, of course, young love."

Jessica Handler

Author of the memoir “Invisible Sisters,” named one of the Books All Georgians Should Read, and “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief,” Handler is a founding member of the board of the Decatur Writers Studio. She coordinates the Minor in Writing at Oglethorpe University. Her novel “The Magnetic Girl” is winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize.

"The Magnetic Girl." "In rural North Georgia two decades after the Civil War, 13-year-old Lulu Hurst … convinces a cousin she conducts electricity with her touch. Her father sees a unique opportunity, and he grooms his tall and indelicate daughter into an electrifying new woman: The Magnetic Girl. Lulu travels the Eastern seaboard, captivating enthusiastic crowds by lifting grown men in parlor chairs and throwing them across the stage with her 'electrical charge.' While adjusting to life on the vaudeville stage, Lulu harbors a secret belief that she can use her newfound gifts, as well as her growing notoriety, to heal her disabled baby brother."

One sentence. "Objects had always jumped into my pockets, which is why I didn't think of what I did as stealing."

Soniah Kamal

The author of “An Isolated Incident,” Kamal is a Johns Creek resident who earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Georgia Review and more. Her novel “Unmarriageable” is a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read.

"Unmarriageable." "A parallel retelling of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' set in contemporary Pakistan, 'Unmarriageable' explores the unexpected bonds between sisters, mothers, friends and lovers, and offers a fresh take on status and class as well universality across cultures."

One sentence. "I'm sick of the hypocrisy and double standards. It's like they break your legs, then give you a wheelchair, then expect you to be grateful for the wheelchair for the rest of your life."

Sabrina Orah Mark

Author of the poetry collections “The Babies” and “Tsim Tsum,” Mark teaches private writing workshops in Athens and writes a monthly column on fairy tales and motherhood called Happily for The Paris Review.

"Wild Milk." A collection of surreal short stories about motherhood and anxiety.

One sentence. "If you love Poems so much," says the bully, "why don't you marry Poems?"

What's next? "'Happily,' a collection of essays on fairytales and motherhood."

Andy Plattner

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Plattner teaches at Kennesaw State University and lives with his wife in Midtown. “Dixie Luck,” a collection of short stories and the novella “Terminal,” is his fourth book of literary fiction. It won the Ferrol Sams Fiction Prize from Mercer University, among other prizes.

"Dixie Luck." "'Dixie Luck' features stories about hardy gamblers, look-on-the-bright-side salesmen and other brands of optimistic Southerners. The stories are set in locales from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the Atlantic Coast; each city or town seems to hold its own version of good fortune."

One sentence. "With Jackie sitting across from him now, he understands why he had a job."

What's next? "This summer, I'll be revising a manuscript that's set in Birmingham, Alabama, and centers around a bookmaker and his estranged wife."

Jamie Quatro

Quatro’s 2013 debut story collection, “I Want To Show You More,” was a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013 and Oprah Magazine summer reading pick. A contributing editor at Oxford American, she teaches in the Sewanee School of Letters, and lives with her husband and four children in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

"Fire Sermon." "Married 20 years to Thomas, and living in Nashville with their two children, Maggie is drawn ineluctably into a passionate affair while still fiercely committed to her husband and family."

One sentence. "Shutters shut on beachfront bars."

What's next? "A novel about an apocalyptic outsider artist living in the backwoods of rural Georgia. He rescues a young sex-trafficking victim and takes care of her, believing she is an angel sent from God to take his end-times visions to the White House."