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‘Firefly Brothers’ author Thomas Mullen wins 2012 Townsend Prize for Fiction

By Rosalind Bentley

They are 10 strong Georgia novelists, but in the end Thomas Mullen walked away with the 2012 Townsend Prize for Fiction Thursday night during an awards dinner at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

“Sometimes you can get a little jaded when people aren’t reading as much as they did,” said Mullen as he stood behind the podium accepting his award in the packed Day Hall.

But the nearly two-foot long silver Townsend more than made up for it, he said.

Mullen won for his Depression-era noir novel, “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” (Random House),  a tale of two bank robbing brothers, who become folk heroes of sorts. His 2006 debut novel, “The Last Town on Earth,” won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction and accolades from critics.

With a Townsend field that included popular authors such as Joshilyn Jackson, Lynn Cull and Joseph Skibell, Mullen said it would have been uncouth of him to have prepared an acceptance speech before hand. But he went on to thank Atlanta’s community of writers, a community that embraced him when he and his family settled here three and a half years ago. In fact, Mullen and his wife had carpooled to the event with neighbor and fellow nominee, Josh Rusell, whose book “My Bright Midnight” (Louisiana State University Press) was also up for honors.

“We had the call the baby sitter to tell her we’d be 30 minutes late because he won,” Russell said of Mullen.

The Townsend, which has been awarded every two years since 1981, is named after James Townsend, founder of Atlanta Magazine and a former associate editor of Atlanta Weekly Magazine of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Past winners include Alice Walker for “The Color Purple” and Kathryn Stockett for “The Help.” It is administered by the Georgia Center for the Book, the Chattahoochee Review and the Southern Academy for Literary Arts and Scholarly Research at Georgia Perimeter College.

Mullen accepted the award after an impassioned keynote speech by award winning author Ann Beattie, who talked about the importance of being a writer’s writer. It’s not the most popular writer who is the most important, she argued, but the one who works diligently on his or her craft and is not upset if their audience is small. Better to have a small audience that gets it, she said, rather than to be a mediocre writer on the tip of every tongue.

“You have to lie low to be a writer’s writer,” Beattie said. “Some don’t tweet, some still write long hand.”

Along with Mullen and Russell, also nominated were:

  • Daniel Black for “Perfect Peace,” St. Marin’s Press
  • Lynn Cullen for “Reign of Madness,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons
  • Ann Hite for “Ghost on Black Mountain,” Gallery Books
  • Joshilyn Jackson for “Backseat Saints,” Grand Central Publishing
  • Collin Kelley for “Remain In Light,” Vanilla Heart Publishing
  • Andrew Plattner for “A Marriage of Convenience,” BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City
  • Joseph Skibell for “A Curable Romantic,” Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Amanda Kyle Williams for “The Stranger You Seek,” Bantam Books

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