The Townsend Prize for Fiction, Georgia’s oldest and most prestigious literary award was created in 1981 to honor James “Jim” L. Townsend, founding editor of Atlanta magazine; associate editor of the now-defunct Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s Sunday magazine; columnist; writing teacher; and all-out self-described devotee of the “wonderful world of publishing.” Townsend was an early mentor to some of the state’s most lauded men and women of letters, including Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, William Diehl, and Anne Rivers Siddons.
The Townsend, as the prize has affectionately become known, is presented biennially to a Georgia writer who has published an outstanding work of fiction during the preceding two years of its awarding. The Chattahoochee Review, the literary journal of Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, and the Georgia Center for the Book are the prize’s administrators, responsible for organizing book selections, judging and hosting the award’s reception at which the prize’s winner is announced. Georgia State University’s Perimeter College is the Townsend’s custodian and principle sponsor. Each winner of the Townsend Prize for Fiction receives a check for $2,000 and a silver tray commemorating the achievement.
Reflecting its namesake’s renown for nurturing the talents of budding writers of all stripes, such noted authors as Alice Walker, Ha Jin, and Terry Kay—whose writing covers a wide range of themes and possesses local, regional, and international appeal—have been winners of the award. In the prize’s more than 30-year history, it has become distinguished for its recognition of authors whose works embody excellence and originality in language, along with a depth of human insight.
Here are some highlights of the prize’s past:
In April 1981, on the day of Jim Townsend’s burial, a group of writers consisting of Gene-Gabriel Moore, Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, Paul Darcy Boles, and Anne Rivers Siddons conceive of the Townsend Prize for Fiction as a means of memorializing their friend and mentor.
That same year, Georgia State University is chosen as the custodian of the award.
Celestine Sibley, well-known southern author, journalist, and syndicated columnist, becomes the first recipient of the prize, celebrating her book Children, My Children. Ms. Sibley was the author of 25 books, mostly of the mystery genre.
Alice Walker, author, poet, feminist, and activist, becomes the first African American to win the prize for her Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Color Purple. The book, which is now a mainstay in the study of African-American literature, has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and has been adapted for film and the Broadway stage.
Ferrol Sams, a physician by trade, becomes one of the prize’s oldest recipients at 69 years of age for his work When All the World Was Young. Sams did not begin his writing career until he was in his late 50s. His first novel was published in 1984 and he went on to publish eight other books.
Georgia Perimeter College and The Chattahoochee Review assume custodianship of the award from Georgia State University.
Ha Jin (Xuefei Jin) poet, novelist, short story writer, and professor of English, becomes the first non-U.S. native and the first short story writer to win The Townsend for the collection The Bridegroom: Stories. Jin was born in Liaoning, China, and moved to the United States in 1985.
Judson Mitcham, a doctor of psychology, becomes the first two-time winner of The Townsend Prize for his novel Sabbath Creek. He won his first Townsend in 1998 for his book The Sweet Everlasting. Mitcham is the current Poet Laureate of Georgia.
Kathryn Stockett, former publishing industry professional turned novelist, wins The Townsend Prize for her debut novel The Help. The book, initially rejected by 60 literary agents, spent more than 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers List, selling more than 5 millions copies. The Help has also sold over a million copies as an e-book making it a member of the Kindle Million Club. In 2012, the film based on the novel won an Oscar.
The consolidation of Georgia Perimeter College and Georgia State University brings the prize back home under the roof of its original custodian.