Di­verse au­thors on prize short­list

Fi­nal­ists for Townsend Prize re­flect wide range of back­grounds.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING & ARTS - By Tray But­ler For the AJC

Athens author Terry Kay will be pulling dou­ble duty at this week’s Townsend Prize for Fic­tion Award Cer­e­mony, at­tend­ing as both a fi­nal­ist and a fea­tured speaker.

The bi­en­nial gath­er­ing rec­og­nizes an ex­cep­tional novel or story col­lec­tion by a Ge­or­gia author. Kay is set to share re­mem­brances of the prize’s name­sake, the late Jim Townsend, found­ing ed­i­tor of At­lanta mag­a­zine. It was Townsend, along with Pat Con­roy, who goaded Kay into fin­ish­ing his first book 40 years ago.

“At that time, there were fewer than 10 writ­ers in Ge­or­gia be­ing pub­lished by rep­utable pub­lish­ers,” Kay re­calls. “New York had sort of lost in­ter­est in South­ern au­thors.” Townsend’s sway helped bring about “some­thing of a re­nais­sance” in re­gional ta­lent in the late ’70s, he says, buoyed by the suc­cess of Con­roy, Anne Rivers Sid­dons, Paul Hem­phill and oth­ers. “To­day, I don’t know one tenth of one per­cent of all the peo­ple who are be­ing pub­lished in Ge­or­gia,” Kay says.

The num­ber of new­com­ers on the prize’s 2016 short­list un­der­scores his point. More than 30 books were el­i­gi­ble for con­sid­er­a­tion, says Anna Schachner, ed­i­tor of the Chat­ta­hoochee Re­view, which spon­sors the prize along with Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity’s Perime­ter Col­lege and the Ge­or­gia Cen­ter for the Book. “This year’s batch of fi­nal­ists is more di­verse in scope and also in the back­grounds of the au­thors,” she says.

In ad­vance of the April 28 cer­e­mony, we caught up with the fi­nal­ists to talk ca­ma­raderie, ri­val­ries and the chal­lenges writ­ers face to­day.

Daniel Black, ‘The Com­ing’ De­scribe the novel in

your own words. “The Com­ing” is a nar­ra­tive of mem­ory. It is the story of how and why African peo­ple were dis­persed through­out the world. What did you learn from

writ­ing this book? I learned that African nar­ra­tive forms are not eas­ily trans­fer­able to English. Tra­di­tional West Africans con­ceived of lit­er­ary mo­ments, not as a sin­gle genre per­for­mance, but as a con­glom­er­a­tion of oral and rhetor­i­cal styles. Stay­ing true to th­ese frames proved re­mark­ably dif­fi­cult. What’s the last book you

loved? I re­cently fin­ished “Gilead” by Mar­i­lynne Robin­son — one of the best books I have ever read. What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? I’m a choir di­rec­tor and pi­anist.

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Ravi Howard. He’s one of the best ris­ing African Amer­i­can lit­er­ary voices we have.

Lynn Cullen, ‘Twain’s End’

De­scribe the novel in your own words. I wanted to know why Mark Twain/Sa­muel Cle­mens so bru­tally turned against his de­voted sec­re­tary, Isabel Lyon. What drove him to slan­der her with breath­tak­ing vi­cious­ness in let­ters to their friends and in the press?

What’s the best part about be­ing a writer to­day? I write nov­els care­fully based on his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence, so I ap­pre­ci­ate the ac­cess to ma­te­rial that the in­ter­net gives. What’s the last book you loved? “I Am Lucy Bar­ton” by El­iz­a­beth Strout re­ally struck a chord with me, as do all her books. What’s your other great hid­den ta­lent? My dance moves make Elaine from “Se­in­feld” look el­e­gant.

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? I think ev­ery nom­i­nee de­serves to win.

Mary Hood, ‘A Clear View of the South­ern Sky’

De­scribe this book in

your own words. This book is in my own words, so I am not sure how to an­swer this — ex­cept to say, “Isn’t that what all South­ern women do, plus carry con­cealed?” What did you learn from writ­ing th­ese sto­ries? I learned that I am still learn­ing how to write, and how to live, how to seek sal­va­tion through courage and hu­man con­nec­tion.

What’s the most chal­leng­ing part about be­ing

a writer to­day? Any writer has a lot of per­sonal chal­lenges and dis­trac­tions. Mine in­clude how in­ter­est­ing life is. Oh, and Net­flix. What’s the last book you loved? Three books I have re-read, and con­tinue to feast on, are Cyn­thia Shearer’s “The Ce­les­tial Juke­box,” Mar­i­lynne Robin­son’s “Lila” and “The Late­home­comer” by Kao Kalia Yang.

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Are you kid­ding? I like to see us all cel­e­brated! Lit­er­a­ture is not a foot race, and I hope not a com­pe­ti­tion ex­cept for our per­sonal best.

Ravi Howard, ‘Driv­ing the King’

De­scribe your novel in your own words. The novel ex­plores the Alabama child­hood of Nat King Cole, told from the per­spec­tive of his friend and limo driver, Weary. What did you learn from

writ­ing this book? I saw the im­por­tance of mak­ing his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives feel con­tem­po­rary. The char­ac­ters are in th­ese mo­ments as they un­fold, so I learned how to make the reader that same sense of pres­ence.

What’s the best part about be­ing a writer to­day? The im­me­di­acy of com­mu­nity is stronger to­day than when I started writ­ing. What’s the last book you loved? Naomi Jack­son’s

novel “The Star Side of Bird Hill” is an amaz­ing read. What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? I’m in the process of re­uphol­ster­ing a chair that be­longed to my grand­mother. I’m hop­ing that’s a hid­den ta­lent. So­niah Ka­mal, ‘An Iso­lated In­ci­dent’

De­scribe the novel in

your own words. “An Iso­lated In­ci­dent” is a story about two peo­ple who fall in love and then learn what it means to like each other through good times and, more im­por­tantly, bad times. What did you learn from writ­ing this book? Re­silience.

What’s the best part about be­ing a writer

to­day? The best part will never change: Typ­ing “the end” and know­ing you passed the en­durance test that is sit­ting in a chair and writ­ing day af­ter day, of­ten with no guar­an­tee of any­thing ex­cept that you must cre­ate this mad dream. Who is your ideal

reader? A reader who can see that ge­og­ra­phy is ar­bi­trary and kind­ness uni­ver­sal. What’s the last book you loved? I just fin­ished “An In­vis­i­ble Man” by Ralph El­li­son, which I loved. As for the last non-exam book I loved, it’s got to be “Sun­light on a Bro­ken Col­umn” by At­tia Hos­sain. What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? Cook­ing and Bol­ly­wood danc­ing (not hid­den any­more).

Terry Kay, ‘Song of the Vagabond Bird’

De­scribe the novel in

your own words. I’d say it’s a story of the in­ten­sity of re­la­tion­ships. I might have said, “It’s a story about the in­ten­sity of men in re­la­tion­ships,” but then I get scolded. Peo­ple say, “Oh, so it’s not a book for women, then?’ But I’m not say­ing that at all. What did you learn from writ­ing this book? I learned noth­ing about writ­ing be­cause I’ve been writ­ing for 50 years. But what I learned from the book it­self is that it’s OK to write about the fragility of men. What’s the last book you

loved? “The Hum­ming­bird’s Daugh­ter” by Luis Al­berto Ur­rea. The author writes in the style of Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, who I think is sim­ply one of the best fic­tion writ­ers ever.

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? The ques­tion of­fends me and here’s why. Why in the name of God would I risk of­fend­ing a dozen or more peo­ple and prais­ing one? To be hon­est, I hate the idea of com­pet­i­tive prizes for kids in writ­ing, and I’m not sure they’re good for adults.

Mag­gie Mitchell, ‘Pretty Is’ De­scribe the novel in

your own words. “Pretty Is” fol­lows the lives of two girls who are ab­ducted by a stranger when they are 12 and held in a hunt­ing lodge in New York’s Adiron­dack Moun­tains for six weeks. The nar­ra­tive picks up years later, when they’re al­most 30. What did you learn from writ­ing this book? I learned that you have to be able to em­pathize with all of your char­ac­ters, even the ones who seem the most de­spi­ca­ble or de­praved. Es­pe­cially, those char­ac­ters, in fact. Who is your ideal reader? I think it’s my­self! I read con­stantly. What are you read­ing now? James Wil­son’s “The Dark Clue.” It’s an ex­ten­sion of “The Woman in White,” a Vic­to­rian novel by Wilkie Collins. What’s the last book you loved? “Arthur and Ge­orge,” by Ju­lian Barnes. What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? I am an ex­cel­lent hula hooper.

Reetika Khanna Ni­jhawan, ‘Kis­met­wali & Other Sto­ries’

De­scribe the book in

your own words. Set against the back­drop of mod­ern In­dia, “Kis­met­wali and Other Sto­ries” of­fers a rare glimpse into the par­al­lel lives of the priv­i­leged and pen­ni­less, con­verg­ing on those as­ton­ish­ing mo­ments when freewill in­ter­cepts fate and the rigid di­vide be­tween so­cial classes is ren­dered in­signif­i­cant. What are you read­ing

now? My foxed, dog-eared copy of “The Pic­ture of Dorian Gray” has found its way back to my night­stand. What’s the last book

you loved? An­thony Do­err’s exquisite “All the Light We Can­not See.”

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend

Prize? As a writer of short sto­ries I would cast my vote for Mary Hood. Like Mar­garet At­wood, Hood com­presses the tu­mult of life with exquisite brevity.

Brian Panowich, ‘Bull Moun­tain’

De­scribe the novel in

your own words. It’s the “God­fa­ther” if it were set in the South, and how the South­ern man’s per­spec­tive is dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent then the rest of the mon­sters born out of the Pro­hi­bi­tion era. What did you learn from

writ­ing this book? That there are no rules. This book took me to places I had in me I didn’t even know ex­isted. What’s the last book you loved? Jamie Korne­gay’s “Soil.” The novel is breath­tak­ing.

What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? I’m in­cred­i­bly well-versed in push­ing the en­ve­lope to the limit with­out even try­ing. I some­times can feel the hand of some­one pulling me down from the ledge, be­fore I even re­al­ize that I’m danc­ing on it.

Which of the other fi­nal­ists would you most like to see win the 2016 Townsend Prize? Lynn Cullen is my fa­vorite for the win. She is bril­liant on the page, and a de­serv­ing, tal­ented, sto­ry­teller.

Andy Plat­tner, ‘Of­fer­ings from a Rust Belt Jockey’

De­scribe the novel in

your own words. The story is about a vet­eran horse rac­ing jockey who ex­pe­ri­ences a lit­tle un­ex­pected luck in his ca­reer — and the luck has him want­ing some­thing else in his life, some­thing he’d more or less al­ready

given up on. What did you learn from

writ­ing this book? I learned — was re­minded of — that the story is the thing. If you don’t have a good story to tell, all those other things, your deep, com­plex, mean­ing­ful thoughts on the world and so on, aren’t go­ing to mat­ter much.

What’s the most chal­leng­ing part of be­ing a

writer to­day? There are a lot of writ­ers out there, a lot of very smart writ­ers. And they see a lot of what I do. But in the end, I have to trust in the idea that I am unique. And, not to sound like a jerk about it, I have to be­lieve that no one can do what I can do. What’s your great hid­den ta­lent? I gam­ble, but it isn’t gam­bling. I’m a pretty good fish­er­man, ac­tu­ally.

“Song of the Vagabond Bird” is by Terry Kay

“Kis­met­wali and Other Sto­ries” is by Reetika Khanna Ni­jhawan

“A Clear View of the South­ern Sky” is by Mary Hood

“Of­fer­ings From A Rust Belt Jockey” is by Andy Plat­tner

“An Iso­lated In­ci­dent” is by So­niah Ka­mal

“The Com­ing” is by Daniel Black

“Bull Moun­tain” is by Brian Panowich

“Driv­ing the King” is by Ravi Howard

“Pretty Is” is by Mag­gie Mitchell

“Twain’s End” is by Lynn Cullen

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