Townsend Prize to honor finest piece of fiction

The legendary Jim Townsend, who founded Atlanta magazine in 1961, was an editor who always encouraged his journalists to turn their talents to fiction and so became the revered mentor for Pat Conroy, Bill Diehl, Terry Kay, Anne River Siddons and others.

He left an indelible impression on everyone who worked with him, including editor and writer Lee Walburn, who, in his final column for the magazine in August 2007, fondly recalled Townsend as “a benevolent devil, a magic man ... a man whose lies could cause a writer to soar higher than eagles.”

Immortalized in Siddons’ novel “Downtown” as Matt Comfort -- “Merlin and Huck Finn and Casanova” rolled into one -- Townsend died in 1981 at age 48. The Townsend Prize for Fiction was established in his honor.

It is Georgia’s oldest and most prestigious literary award, presented biennially for the most outstanding work of fiction by a Georgia writer during the past two years. An independent panel of judges selects the winner, who receives $2,000 and a commemorative silver tray.

First sponsored by Georgia State University, custody of the award went to Georgia Perimeter College and the literary journal the Chattahoochee Review in 1997.

In 2000, the Margaret Mitchell House and Atlanta magazine assumed sponsorship. Sponsors and partners of the 2010 Townsend Prize include the Georgia Center for the Book, the Atlanta Writers Club and A Cappella Books.

This year’s keynote speaker will be author and former poet laureate of North Carolina Fred Chappell, whose most recent collection of short stories is “Ancestors and Others” (2009).

At the award's presentation in 2002, Chattahoochee Review editor Lawrence Hetrick explained that the prize is intended to recognize two accomplishments by a writer: “First, we're looking for excellence and originality in language. Second, we're looking for human insight.”

The selections for 2010 more than fulfill both those requirements.

Consider this passage from finalist Susan Rebecca White’s “Bound South”: “I grip the steering wheel even tighter while telling myself to calm down. These are only boys, only children Caroline's age, and there is no reason, just because they are black, that I should be afraid of them. We studied the perception versus the reality of actual danger once in Sunday school and how it is our internalized racism that makes us scared of those who are -- in fact -- quite often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Still, it's not as if Nanny Rose and I blend into the neighborhood. It's not as if we are driving a rusty old car. No, we are driving the new silver Lexus that John Henry gave me for my birthday.”

The finalists:

1. James Braziel: “Snakeskin Road”

2. Phillip DePoy: “The King James Conspiracy”

3. Tom Edwards: “Blue Jesus”

4. Amanda Gable: “The Confederate General Rides North”

5. Joshilyn Jackson: “The Girl Who Stopped Swimming”

6. Sang Pak: “Wait Until Twilight”

7. Kathryn Stockett: “The Help”

8. Bailey White: “Nothing With Strings”

9. Susan Rebecca White: “Bound South”

10. Philip Lee Williams: “The Campfire Boys”

Past winners include Renee Dodd, Mary Hood, Ha Jin, Terry Kay, Judson Mitcham, Ferrol Sams, Celestine Sibley and Alice Walker.


Reception and book signing

6-9 p.m. April 22. Free and open to the public. Margaret Mitchell House, 990 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-249-7015. Please RSVP to Debbie Riggs at or call 678-891-3275.