Pushing the Quill in the Peach State

Stone courthouse

Old courthouse, Decatur, Georgia

Here in Georgia, every other year, a literary award called the Townsend Prize is given for fiction. Because it’s a Georgia prize, both dogs and hillbillies are allowed to attend the awards dinner. As proof, I offer the fact that last week I attended. I said I was a golden retriever.

In spite of wagging tails and occasional shouts for more banjo music, it’s a serious literary affair, and some winners have achieved national acclaim, such as Alice Walker for The Color Purple (in 1984) and Kathryn Stockett for The Help (in 2010).

This year the ceremony took place at the history center in downtown Decatur, a town with lots of really good restaurants on the east side of Atlanta. The history center is in the old courthouse, a beautiful two-story building made of stone. (The courthouse with actual courts, next door, is about ten stories and architecturally it’s, um, let’s don’t talk about that. We’ll just start crying.) The old courthouse is also one of the venues used by the Decatur Book Festival, a rather fabulous bookorama extravaganza that happens in September.

I’m getting off topic here, but then again, this is a blog. What topic? I went to the Townsend Prize ceremony this year not because I’m so sophisticated as to naturally be there (cause aw, shucks, I ain’t hardly), but to see who I might talk to, to network if possible. In addition, I was hoping to meet the writer Stacia Brown, who wrote Accidents of Providence. Two years ago I was at the Townsend ceremony, and afterward I reviewed four of the nominated books for the website artsatl.com. Stacia’s book was one of them (very nicely written—read Stacia’s book), so I was hoping to meet her in person, but I didn’t see her.

One of my friends from Georgia Perimeter College, now incorporated into Georgia State University so I don’t know what the hell their name is, runs the awards ceremony. By chance beforehand I was talking to her just as the keynote speaker entered the room, so I was introduced to him. He was T. Geronimo Johnson, and man, if I could have the name Geronimo, I’d even tolerate a common name like Johnson. We talked about five minutes or so, a pleasant conversation about writing and finding time to write. He told me I should write in the mornings when I’m feeling fresh, which I might could do on the weekends, when I don’t go to work, but I don’t, because I refuse to get my good-God-lazy ass out of bed on Saturday and Sunday. Mr. Johnson was there because he was promoting a book, called Welcome to Braggsville, and it sounded good to me. I think I will read it.

I was surprised by how many people I knew at this event. I expected to see one or two, but some people were coming up saying hello to me as if I were worth the effort, and I wonder if they mistook me for someone interesting. Other than Mr. T. Geronimo Johnson, none of the people I talked to were well-known writers, but decent people, nevertheless. In fact, everyone I knew was connected with one of the two schools in town where I either worked or was a graduate student. It was nice to see them, and I was glad I was wearing my silk scarf writer’s uniform. You never want to go to a literary awards ceremony without a silk scarf. You young writers remember that.

The ceremony more or less began (that is, after we filled up our plates with snacky stuff that would constitute dinner), with the writer Terry Kay, who is prominent here in Georgia, talking about knowing Jim Townsend, for whom the award was named. I’ve heard Terry talk before to a group of my students when I was still at the college, and I have to say that when it comes to literary connections, I never knew a luckier bastard than Terry Kay. Pat Conroy (you know, Prince of Tides) helped Terry publish his first novel.

Before the award was given, T. Geronimo gave a talk, and I wish I had taken notes, because I would tell you some of it. Since I remember almost nothing, you now get only the fact that I was impressed by his erudite intelligence. I went up afterward and told him I wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. If he didn’t mind the dogs in the kitchen. And I was sorry that I kept yelling for more banjo music.

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