Townsend Prize shortlist showcases melting pot of Georgia writers

Athens author Terry Kay will be pulling double duty at this week’s Townsend Prize for Fiction Award Ceremony, attending as both a finalist and a featured speaker.

The biennial gathering recognizes an exceptional novel or story collection by a Georgia author. Kay is set to share remembrances of the prize’s namesake, the late Jim Townsend, founding editor of Atlanta magazine. It was Townsend, along with Pat Conroy, who goaded Kay into finishing his first book 40 years ago.

“At that time, there were fewer than 10 writers in Georgia being published by reputable publishers,” Kay recalls. “New York had sort of lost interest in Southern authors.” Townsend’s sway helped bring about “something of a renaissance” in regional talent in the late ’70s, he says, buoyed by the success of Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons, Paul Hemphill and others. “Today, I don’t know one tenth of one percent of all the people who are being published in Georgia,” Kay says.

The number of newcomers on the prize’s 2016 shortlist underscores his point. More than 30 books were eligible for consideration, says Anna Schachner, editor of the Chattahoochee Review, which sponsors the prize along with Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and the Georgia Center for the Book. “This year’s batch of finalists is more diverse in scope and also in the backgrounds of the authors,” she says.

In advance of the April 28 ceremony, we caught up with the finalists to talk camaraderie, rivalries and the challenges writers face today.

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Daniel Black, “The Coming”

Describe the novel in your own words. “The Coming” is a narrative of memory. It is the story of how and why African people were dispersed throughout the world.

What did you learn from writing this book? I learned that African narrative forms are not easily transferable to English. Traditional West Africans conceived of literary moments, not as a single genre performance, but as a conglomeration of oral and rhetorical styles. Staying true to these frames proved remarkably difficult.

What’s the last book you loved? I recently finished “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson — one of the best books I have ever read.

What’s your great hidden talent? I’m a choir director and pianist.

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Ravi Howard. He’s one of the best rising African American literary voices we have.

Lynn Cullen, “Twain’s End”

Describe the novel in your own words. I wanted to know why Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens so brutally turned against his devoted secretary, Isabel Lyon. What drove him to slander her with breathtaking viciousness in letters to their friends and in the press?

What’s the best part about being a writer today? I write novels carefully based on historical evidence, so I appreciate the access to material that the internet gives.

What’s the last book you loved? “I Am Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout really struck a chord with me, as do all her books.

What’s your other great hidden talent? My dance moves make Elaine from “Seinfeld” look elegant.

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? I think every nominee deserves to win.

Mary Hood, “A Clear View of the Southern Sky”

Describe this book in your own words. This book is in my own words, so I am not sure how to answer this — except to say, “Isn’t that what all Southern women do, plus carry concealed?”

What did you learn from writing these stories? I learned that I am still learning how to write, and how to live, how to seek salvation through courage and human connection.

What’s the most challenging part about being a writer today? Any writer has a lot of personal challenges and distractions. Mine include how interesting life is. Oh, and Netflix.

What’s the last book you loved? Three books I have re-read, and continue to feast on, are Cynthia Shearer’s “The Celestial Jukebox,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” and “The Latehomecomer” by Kao Kalia Yang.

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Are you kidding? I like to see us all celebrated! Literature is not a foot race, and I hope not a competition except for our personal best.

Ravi Howard, “Driving the King”

Describe your novel in your own words. The novel explores the Alabama childhood of Nat King Cole, told from the perspective of his friend and limo driver, Weary.

What did you learn from writing this book? I saw the importance of making historical narratives feel contemporary. The characters are in these moments as they unfold, so I learned how to make the reader that same sense of presence.

What’s the best part about being a writer today? The immediacy of community is stronger today than when I started writing.

What’s the last book you loved? Naomi Jackson’s novel “The Star Side of Bird Hill” is an amazing read.

What’s your great hidden talent? I’m in the process of reupholstering a chair that belonged to my grandmother. I’m hoping that’s a hidden talent.

Soniah Kamal, “An Isolated Incident”

Describe the novel in your own words. “An Isolated Incident” is a story about two people who fall in love and then learn what it means to like each other through good times and, more importantly, bad times.

What did you learn from writing this book? Resilience.

What’s the best part about being a writer today? The best part will never change: Typing “the end” and knowing you passed the endurance test that is sitting in a chair and writing day after day, often with no guarantee of anything except that you must create this mad dream.

Who is your ideal reader? A reader who can see that geography is arbitrary and kindness universal.

What’s the last book you loved? I just finished “An Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, which I loved. As for the last non-exam book I loved, it’s got to be “Sunlight on a Broken Column” by Attia Hossain.

What’s your great hidden talent? Cooking and Bollywood dancing (not hidden anymore).

Terry Kay, “Song of the Vagabond Bird”

Describe the novel in your own words. I’d say it’s a story of the intensity of relationships. I might have said, “It’s a story about the intensity of men in relationships,” but then I get scolded. People say, “Oh, so it’s not a book for women, then?’ But I’m not saying that at all.

What did you learn from writing this book? I learned nothing about writing because I’ve been writing for 50 years. But what I learned from the book itself is that it’s OK to write about the fragility of men.

What’s the last book you loved? “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” by Luis Alberto Urrea. The author writes in the style of Gabriel García Márquez, who I think is simply one of the best fiction writers ever.

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? The question offends me and here’s why. Why in the name of God would I risk offending a dozen or more people and praising one? To be honest, I hate the idea of competitive prizes for kids in writing, and I’m not sure they’re good for adults.

Maggie Mitchell, “Pretty Is”

Describe the novel in your own words. “Pretty Is” follows the lives of two girls who are abducted by a stranger when they are 12 and held in a hunting lodge in New York’s Adirondack Mountains for six weeks. The narrative picks up years later, when they’re almost 30.

What did you learn from writing this book? I learned that you have to be able to empathize with all of your characters, even the ones who seem the most despicable or depraved. Especially, those characters, in fact.

Who is your ideal reader? I think it’s myself! I read constantly.

What are you reading now? James Wilson’s “The Dark Clue.” It’s an extension of “The Woman in White,” a Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins.

What’s the last book you loved? “Arthur and George,” by Julian Barnes.

What’s your great hidden talent? I am an excellent hula hooper.

Reetika Khanna Nijhawan, “Kismetwali & Other Stories”

Describe the book in your own words. Set against the backdrop of modern India, “Kismetwali and Other Stories” offers a rare glimpse into the parallel lives of the privileged and penniless, converging on those astonishing moments when free-will intercepts fate and the rigid divide between social classes is rendered insignificant.

What are you reading now? My foxed, dog-eared copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has found its way back to my nightstand.

What’s the last book you loved? Anthony Doerr’s exquisite “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? As a writer of short stories I would cast my vote for Mary Hood. Like Margaret Atwood, Hood compresses the tumult of life with exquisite brevity.

Brian Panowich, “Bull Mountain”

Describe the novel in your own words. It’s the “Godfather” if it were set in the South, and how the Southern man’s perspective is drastically different then the rest of the monsters born out of the Prohibition era.

What did you learn from writing this book? That there are no rules. This book took me to places I had in me I didn’t even know existed.

What’s the last book you loved? Jamie Kornegay’s “Soil.” The novel is breathtaking.

What’s your great hidden talent? I’m incredibly well-versed in pushing the envelope to the limit without even trying. I sometimes can feel the hand of someone pulling me down from the ledge, before I even realize that I’m dancing on it.

Which of the other finalists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Lynn Cullen is my favorite for the win. She is brilliant on the page, and a deserving, talented, storyteller.

“Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey” by Andy Plattner

Describe the novel in your own words. The story is about a veteran horse racing jockey who experiences a little unexpected luck in his career — and the luck has him wanting something else in his life, something he’d more or less already given up on.

What did you learn from writing this book? I learned — was reminded of — that the story is the thing. If you don’t have a good story to tell, all those other things, your deep, complex, meaningful thoughts on the world and so on, aren’t going to matter much.

What’s the most challenging part of being a writer today? There are a lot of writers out there, a lot of very smart writers. And they see a lot of what I do. But in the end, I have to trust in the idea that I am unique. And, not to sound like a jerk about it, I have to believe that no one can do what I can do.

What’s your great hidden talent? I gamble, but it isn’t gambling. I’m a pretty good fisherman, actually.

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