Every other year since 1982, Peach State literati have collaborated to determine which Georgia books are deserving of the Townsend Prize, an award that honors great writing (and, incidentally, is named for Atlanta magazine’s founding editor, Jim Townsend). For recent contests, Anna Schachner, a Georgia Perimeter College professor and editor of the Chattahoochee Review, has partnered with the Georgia Center for the Book to whittle eligible novels and short-story collections to ten finalists. This month, three esteemed (and anonymous) outside judges will name one to the winner’s circle, which includes Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The prize will be presented in a ceremony on April 24.
How did the award come to bear Townsend’s name?
He was a mentor to writers who went on to make big names for themselves—including Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, and Celestine Sibley. The story goes, on the day of Townsend’s funeral, a group of them—those three included—decided they wanted to memorialize him in some capacity. And so they came up with the idea of creating this literary award.
Is there anything you specifically look for to determine finalists?
No. This being a literary prize, we like to think that the ten finalist books are literary in nature and not necessarily books that are commercial. Books interested in character depth and substance.
There’s a lot of diversity in the short list, thematic and otherwise. Intentional?
I think it kind of happens naturally. There is such a thing as cliche territory and cliche styles, especially in the South. I don’t think any of the books on that list, obviously, are examples of that.
How would you characterize the state of fiction writing in Georgia?
I think it’s phenomenal. It’s very inspiring to see the amount of talent we have.
So the novel’s not dead here?
The novel is not dead here. I would say the short-story collection is alive and kicking in Georgia too.
Accidents of Providence
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In 1649 London, the glove-making heroine is caught in a secret affair when a child’s body is found in the woods and all hell breaks loose.
The Starboard Sea
(St. Martin’s Griffin)
A blue-blooded New England teenager navigates the death of a friend, discovers his sexuality, and grapples with a secret uncovered by a pummeling hurricane.
Someone Else’s Love Story
Single mother Shandi Pierce finds love in an unexpected situation—a gas station robbery. But there’s more to her savior than she initially sees.
Where You Can Find Me
(Thomas Dunne Books)
After a three-year search, a family locates their missing adolescent son—living with a man he calls his father. In time, the mystery of the gone years unfolds.
The magic realism–infused “last battle of the American Civil War” follows 114-year-old Confederacy veteran Threadgill Pickett on his epic quest through 1960s America to kill the last living Union soldier.
I Want to Show You More
A subversive, poignant short-story collection set in the New American South that addresses themes as disparate as infidelity and physical paralysis.
A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, and Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag
An Ivy League grad student finds similarities between college life and seventeenth-century captivity narratives, in which Native Americans murdered and enslaved Puritans.
A Place at the Table
Susan Rebecca White
Three people with complex personal histories converge in New York to discover deep human connections and the healing power of good food.
Philip Lee Williams
(Mercer University Press)
A portrait of the final, transcendent year in the life of a mentally challenged Massachusetts man, whose brother is poet, lecturer, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the early sixteenth century, a crew of gold-seeking Spanish sailors discovers a gentle, naked race of people in Jamaica. Disease and destruction ensue.
The Townsend Prize award ceremony will be held April 24 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, with a keynote speech by National Book Award–winning author Jesmyn Ward. The winner receives $2,000 and an engraved silver tray, per tradition. Admission is $25.
This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue under the headline "Townsend Prize: The Backstory."