Created in 1981, the biennial prize was named for Jim Townsend, the founding editor of Atlanta magazine and an early mentor to Georgia writers Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, Bill Diehl and Anne Rivers Siddons. Previous winners of the Townsend include Kathryn Stockett for The Help and Alice Walker for The Color Purple.
This year’s event honors ten Georgia writers, including Williams, and will be from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26th, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Reservations are available through April 20th at giving.gpc.edu/townsend.
“I’m just thrilled to be on the Townsend list. It surprises me every time I think about it,” Williams said.
For the Decatur author, the road to the Townsend was anything but golden. “I dropped out of school when I was sixteen—I was a really poor performer,” she said. It wasn’t until she was twenty-two years old that Williams discovered she was dyslexic. For years she made a living as a pet sitter and dog walker in Decatur, as well as other odd jobs that have helped form a foundation for her novel.
“The jobs informed my writing in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated,” she said.
That information was important—she had a lot of catching up to do. “I’m going to be fifty-five this year, but when I was growing up, I guess no one knew what the term learning disability meant—it just wasn’t on their radar,” Williams said. “I knew my ABC’s, but didn’t read my first book until I was twenty-three years old.”
When she was finally given some learning tools to help her read, the world opened up to her, she said.
“I went to a librarian and asked her, ‘What would you start reading, if you just started today?’ She recommended Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think she was a little bit of a sadist,’’ Williams said with a laugh. “But that book was life-changing for me—it was hard, but a love affair with books was born.”
Writing Stranger was a long process as well. She knew she wanted to write crime fiction, but didn’t have the “voice” of the protagonist. “I took some courses in criminal profiling, and tried to understand how profilers handle an investigation. But I didn’t have a main character.”
That was, until she heard her then six-year-old niece say something to her at Thanksgiving. “Bells started ringing,” Williams said. “Here was this gorgeous Asian child, but when she opened her mouth, she sounded like Ellie Mae Clampett. I was so charmed by this kid. Driving home that night, I pulled over the interstate and wrote the very first lines to The Stranger You Seek.”
Her publisher was equally charmed. When she finally finished the book in 2010, Random House offered her a six-figure deal for a series. Her next book, Stranger in the Room, featuring Keye Street, will be released in late August during the Decatur Book Festival, and there is a some “talk about a television series” but she could not reveal the details.
Williams will be on a book tour in July, and will be a featured writer during Thriller Fest in New York and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in the United Kingdom. She will sign books during the Townsend event. Book club members are encouraged to bring five or more members to the event, for an opportunity to have one of the authors speak at their club during the year.
For more information about the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and to get tickets, go to giving.gpc.edu/townsend. Tickets are $40 and include entrance to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, dinner and program.