Philip Lee Williams (b. 1950)

Philip Lee Williams is an award-winning and prolific writer who has lived his entire life in Georgia. Williams has authored books in the genres of fiction, memoir, essay, poetry, and children's literature. He also founded and edited the poetry journal Ataraxia. In 2007 Williams received a Governor's Award in the Humanities in recognition of his many contributions to the state's literary heritage, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
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) tells of retired history professor Andrew Lachlan, who returns to his family cabin on the shores of a lake in central Georgia. Williams uses another academic setting in The Song of Daniel (1989), which takes place on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. In this novel poet Rebecca Gentry uncovers the secrets of a minor Georgia poet (based loosely on Byron Herbert Reece) while beginning a relationship with the mentally and emotionally challenged Daniel Mitchell. In Perfect Timing (1991), the musicologist Ford Clayton seeks to mend his broken marriage while tracking down a former college girlfriend he believes is now homeless.
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). Here, Jake Baker, a former construction worker, and washed-up novelist Lucas Kraft form an unlikely duo as they break out of a nursing home in search of adventure. Williams's comic masterpiece is perhaps The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset (1997). Writing in the voice of Henry Hawthorne, a southern family servant who lived during the American Revolution (1775-83), Williams tells the tale of the rambunctious and revolutionary Charleston maid Jenny Dorset and also creates an exceptionally realistic memoir (complete with descriptive titles and a dedication to President Washington).
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.
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Further Reading
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.

Philip Lee Williams, Crossing Wildcat Ridge (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).

Philip Lee Williams, A Distant Flame (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

Philip Lee Williams, The Heart of a Distant Forest (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984).

Philip Lee Williams, The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
Cite This Article
Ferguson-Avery, Brian C. "Philip Lee Williams (b. 1950)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 26 November 2013. Web. 31 October 2014.
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