Thomas Mullen won the Townsend Prize for Fiction on Thursday night for his novel “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,” an inventive magical-realist tale of a pair of bank-robbing brothers who keep popping back to life after being shot dead. Rooted in historical detail but propelled by the fantasy of resurrection, the story gathers force as the brothers become trapped in legend, adored as outlaw heroes by a downtrodden public in the Depression-era Midwest.
The Townsend Prize is awarded biennially to an outstanding work of fiction by a Georgia writer.
Mullen, a native of New England and writer of historical and futurist fantasy, moved to Atlanta three years ago after stints in Ohio, North Carolina and Washington D.C. Accepting the award in a dinner ceremony at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, he commended our city’s “vibrant, wonderful artistic community.” Nowhere else, he said, has he found such easy access to fellow writers. Connecting with an author one admires, he said, is as simple as picking up the phone and saying, “ ‘Hey, I loved your book. Let’s have coffee.’ And they’ll say, ‘Which coffee shop?’ ”
USA Today named Mullen’s first novel, “The Last Town on Earth,” centered on a small town’s fear of the deadly 1918 flu epidemic, the best debut novel of 2006. His third novel, “The Revisionists,” published last year after “Firefly Brothers,” is a dystopian literary thriller imagining a future global crisis.
The Townsend Prize is regarded as the state’s most prestigious literary award. Established in 1981, it honors the legacy of Atlanta Magazine founder Jim Townsend, who mentored an earlier generation of Georgia’s most talented writers, including Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons. The prize is co-sponsored by the Southern Academy for Literary Arts and Scholarly Research and The Chattahoochee Review, both based at Georgia Perimeter College, and the Georgia Center for the Book. The winner receives $2,000 and a commemorative silver tray. Kathryn Stockett won the last Townsend in 2010 for her best seller “The Help.”
This year’s 10 finalists were chosen from 42 eligible books by a selection panel drawn from the three co-sponsors. The short list, selected to represent the diversity of Georgia writers, was then judged by a three-member jury of writers and editors based out of state in the interest of impartiality.
This year the sponsors made a significant effort to highlight the prize by showcasing the award ceremony at the botanical garden and promoting the event to local book clubs and writers’ groups. More than 200 people attended, including many well-known figures of the Atlanta literary scene. The Atlanta Writers Club also awarded a scholarship to Joshua Carl, a writing and film student at Georgia Perimeter College.
Speaking at the event, Ann Beattie, the acclaimed short story writer and novelist, paid homage to “the writer’s writer,” who may never reach an audience beyond a group of admiring fellow literary artists.
“Really fine fiction is meant to slow us down,” Beattie said, noting that authors such as James Salter and Peter Taylor somehow got lost in the crowd but brought immense pleasure with prose that sparkled with the essentials of great writing: sensuous description and surprising revelations.
The convivial evening seemed to illustrate Mullen’s take on Atlanta’s literary community as warm and unpretentious. Not long after Mullen stepped off the podium, fellow finalist Daniel Black congratulated him and the two decided to meet for coffee. People from the Atlanta Writers Club approached Mullen about speaking to the 700-member group later this year. Someone asked to photograph Ann Beattie’s hands because they are so perfect and elegant. Loud, neighborly and a little eccentric, the particular charms of the South cut through the night’s gloss.