Philip Lee Williams (b. 1950)
Born in Madison in 1950 to Ruth and Marshall Williams, Williams has lived nearly all of his life in and around Athens. He received an A.B. degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1972 and began his career working for newspapers. From 1974 to 1978 he served as associate editor of the Madisonian and from 1978 to 1985 as managing editor and then editor for the Athens Observer. Williams also worked for nearly twenty-five years in various capacities at the University of Georgia, including science writer, director of public information for the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and adjunct professor of creative writing. He lives in Watkinsville with his wife, Linda, and his children, Brandon and Megan.
Williams's first novel, The Heart of a Distant Forest, won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 1986. For The Song of Daniel he was named Georgia Author of the Year in Fiction in 1991. His work has been translated into Swedish, French, German, and Japanese. In addition, he has written and coproduced several screenplays for documentaries and has composed symphony, choral, and chamber music.
Williams writes about a wide range of themes in a variety of settings. The Heart of a Distant Forest (1984)
These characters may live in intellectual environments, but emotional conflicts lie at the heart of their stories. Other novels, such as his crime mystery Slow Dance in Autumn (1988), derive their emotional impact from drama and action. In Final Heat (1992), Williams uses the Southern Gothic mode to relate the story of a depraved rich girl in love with a mechanic and their botched robbery and escape from a small southern town. Blue Crystal (1993) takes place mainly in a Kentucky cave, where three former convicts and their tagalong girlfriends mistakenly believe there is a fortune to be stolen from a one-eyed spelunker.
In contrast to these more dramatic offerings, Williams has a comic side that is especially apparent in All the Western Stars (1988).
Williams returned to a more dramatic mode with the historical novel A Distant Flame (2004), for which he received the 2004 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction. Told from the perspective of a Confederate sharpshooter, the novel chronicles the Union assault on Atlanta near the end of the Civil War (1861-65). Alternating chapters reveal the sharpshooter, fifty years later, struggling to prepare a speech about his experiences for his hometown's commemoration of the Atlanta campaign. In 2009 Williams followed up A Distant Flame with a second Civil War novel, The Campfire Boys. Based on actual events, the novel follows the experiences of three brothers who entertained Confederate troops with Cobb's Legion, under Thomas R. R. Cobb, in Virginia during the war.
Williams's books reflect his strong inclination to meditate as a naturalist, whether from a lake cabin (The Heart of a Distant Forest) or an Appalachian cave (Blue Crystal). His attitude toward nature also lies at the center of his memoirs. It is in the woods behind his childhood home where he reaches a final epiphany in the Christmas memoir The Silent Stars Go By (1998). Crossing Wildcat Ridge (1999) interweaves concerns of his own health following open-heart surgery with a resurgent sensitivity to the landscape around his woodland home.
In 2006 Williams published an essay collection entitled In the Morning: Reflections from First Light, and in 2009 he published the poetry collection Elegies for the Water. The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram, which explores the life and work of eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, was published in 2010, followed in 2011 by The Divine Comics: A Vaudeville Show in Three Acts, a reimagining of Dante's Divine Comedy.
Williams has received the Georgia Writer of the Year Award from the Georgia Writers Association for In the Morning, Campfire Boys, and The Flower Seeker.
Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, vol. 65 (Detroit: Gale, 1998), s.v. "Philip Lee Williams."
Don O'Briant, "Writing from the Heart," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 18, 1997.
Greg S. Rider, "Interview with Philip Lee Williams," Chattahoochee Review 12 (fall 1991): 90-109.
Brian C. Ferguson-Avery, Georgia Southwestern State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.