How the Townsend Prize for Fiction, which honors Georgia writers, came to be

Recognizing Georgia’s “best achievement in letters,” the prize, which is named for our founding editor James L. Townsend, was first awarded in 1982
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Townsend Literary Prize

Illustration by Kevin Whipple

When Atlanta magazine started in 1961, writers like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe were pioneering “New Journalism,” a revolutionary, literary approach to nonfiction storytelling. The next few decades proved a golden age of longform narrative, and few editors proved as visionary as our own founding editor, James L. Townsend, an Alabama native whom Time magazine later called the “father of city magazines in America.”

Though Townsend edited Atlanta for only six years, he had a profound impact on the city’s literary scene. He mentored such famed novelists as Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, and Anne Rivers Siddons. Paul Hemphill once wrote, “He could, quite simply, make you do better than you thought you could.”

Townsend passed away at the age of 48 in 1981 after a battle with cancer. At his funeral, several former close associates—including Conroy, Siddons, and Kay—decided to launch a literary award in his honor. Recognizing Georgia’s “best achievement in letters,” the prize was first awarded to beloved Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley for her book Children, My Children in 1982.

Every other year, the Georgia Center for the Book, the Atlanta Writer’s Club, and Georgia State University Perimeter College’s literary journal The Chattahoochee Review select 10 finalists from works of fiction by Georgia writers. Entries are then sent to three out-of-state judges. This year’s finalists include Sarah Domet (The Guineveres), Martha Hall Kelly (Lilac Girls), Jonathan Rabb (Among the Living), and Daren Wang (The Hidden Light of Northern Fires). The prize will be awarded on April 19 at the DeKalb History Center.

Recent winners include Mary Hood, Anthony Winkler, Thomas Mullen, and Kathryn Stockett—an accomplished group who inspire us to follow Townsend’s frequent admonition: “Brilliant, dear heart. Write it down. Write it all down.”

This article appears in our April 2018 issue.

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