15th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

The winners, the judges, and the reasons why

It's my fifth year of heading up this thing, and each one has begun and ended in the same ways for me: with an overwhelming fear at first and humbling fulfillment when all's said and done.

Whatever you think a short story is – our judges' decision dinner at El Gringo on Monday night took on that very debate for stretches at a time – it's not the same as a letter in our "Postmarks" section or a comment on our Web site. Nowhere near. It's not just someone's opinion or tip or belief or complaint. It's someone's creation, and chances are that they consider writing fiction their craft, or at least a diversion from their daily nonfiction.

Whatever you think of fiction, the fact that the someone in question, usually from this community but sometimes from across oceans, has entrusted their own particular art to us – an alternative weekly known for its politics and pop coverage as opposed to a like-minded literary journal offering asylum – has always meant a lot to me. It has always felt like a great big connection.

More practically, though, it's also an opportunity for writers to get their work published for a readership of 250,000 while getting paid for it. This year, 400 people gave it a shot, and 10 stories survived three discrete reads – two by trusted volunteers and one by me – to land in the laps of our final judges: Coleman Hutchison, Jill Meyers, Amanda Eyre Ward, and Abe Louise Young. It should be said that all of the reads were blind: None of us knew the authors' names. When I learned the authors' names – to alert them of their status and to invite them to Wednesday's announcement reception at BookPeople – my role in any decision-making was no more.

Still, I did sit with the judges as they deliberated, and the foursome pegged "Tuber" as their favorite before the appetizers even hit the table, although Hutchison "had a hard time with its shifts in tone" and with its "painful earnestness," preferring instead "Ana's Opening." Young responded to "Ana's Opening," as well, but "Tuber" for her was "different from the other stories ... masterful in its delivery of information, in its timing ... elegant."

"Tuber" is narrated by a dying man who fears his much-loved son will "make a game of finding meaning in life"; "Ana's Opening," meanwhile, by a young girl being sexually abused as she sits in a church pew. Meyers found the latter "manipulative. ... The story is flawed, but there are electric moments. ... It was my first thrown out." Interestingly, it was Hutchison's "number 1 story in a walk." His distant No. 2 was "Tuber," and it emerged as the overall leader.

We announced Mark Grayson Mayer's "Tuber" as our winner on Wednesday at BookPeople, with Stacy Muszynski's "Ana's Opening" taking third place. In between would be William Sparks' "bottom," which Ward – who, it was decided, would be the "plot person" of the group – considered a "beautifully written segment of something. It didn't feel like a story, but I loved the writing. ... How is this a story?" In turn, Hutchison asked Ward how she defined one. "Something happens," she said simply, and, for her, nothing did in the dreamlike observations of a mortally wounded Japanese soldier. "Sometimes," Hutchison replied, "resisting imperative and the will to narrative can make for a beautiful story." Ward was eventually persuaded and made room for "bottom" amid our select few.

That left two slots: the contest's honorable mentions. Three stories – "It Ain't the Fall That Kills You," "La Machinista," and "Nothing Here Has Any Real Value" – remained in contention. Four others – "Sins of Monsoons" by Shaila Abdullah, "Rest E-Z, Florida" by Melanie Alberts, "Bird Men" by Karl Monger, and "He Got Down on His Knees" by Sigers Steele – had been eliminated by the judges. Young's peers agreed with her when she called "La Machinista" consistent and confident, and Lisa Carroll-Lee was in.

"It Ain't the Fall That Kills You" and "Nothing Here Has Any Real Value" were "hard to argue against each other," according to Ward, because they were respectively stronger in substance and style. This time, style ruled, and Sarah Elizabeth Eastep was in the money over Jason Scott Katz, whose "Applesauce" received second prize two years ago, when he lived in Austin. He now lives in Seattle with his wife and son. I don't know if Katz is still shopping his first novel and working on his second or third or what, but I know I want to thank him for thinking of us again.

I also want to thank all 400 of our entrants, of course, and our judges. And very special thanks to Nora Ankrum, Austin Java, Nick Barbaro, Michael Bartnett, Louis Black, BookPeople and Alison Kothe, Wayne Alan Brenner, Sadie Caplan, Brian Carr, Erin Collier, El Gringo, Mark Fagan, Liz Franklin, Cassidy Frazier, Dan Hardick, Anne Harris, Melanie Haupt, Taylor Holland, Christina Jupson, KGSR and Bryan Beck, KUT and Julie Moody, Bobby Leath, Jeremy Martin, Jenn Nuzzo, Carolyn Phillips, James Renovitch, Sofia Resnick, Josh Rosenblatt, Audra Schroeder, Andrea Skola, Meghan Ruth Speakerman, R.U. Steinberg, Darcie Stevens, Tim Warden, Richard Whittaker, and Cindy Widner. Among the aforementioned are sponsors, highers-up who haven't cut the contest from the budget, generally helpful people, fur trappers, Satanists, track stars, free birds, experts in fields, collectors of Precious Moments figurines in previous lives, poster children for assorted causes and campaigns, mall rats, members of a Clash tribute band, figures of speech, movie buffs, social butterflies, decorated poet warriors, and exacting volunteer readers, without whom none of this would be possible.


THE WINNERS

First Place 'Tuber'

Mark Grayson Mayer is 22, a Coloradoan, and a recent graduate from the literary arts department at Brown University. He works with Badgerdog Literary Publishing – an Austin nonprofit – teaching creative writing in public elementary schools. He has three other jobs, too. His short stories have appeared in the Deseret Series from Small's Clone Press, the Brown Literary Review, and Issues Magazine.


Second Place 'bottom'

William Sparks lives in Austin.


Third Place 'Ana's Opening'

Stacy Muszynski would like to do it all. She would like to be a professional soccer player, a pickpocket, a globe-trotting philanthropist playboy at the turn of the last century. She would like to be a 13-year-old runaway, vengeful and sweet, with a patch over one eye and a hole in her heart. She would like to be a hundred million different people doing, saying, and thinking a hundred million different things – and then she would like to be dead and shout her story through a megaphone from the other side. Stacy Muszynski would like to spend the rest of her life figuring out how to do these things. Maybe if she is steadfast and determined and writes one word at a time – time and time and time again – she might, as Hemingway suggested, finally write one true sentence. And maybe, in the end, that is what "doing it all" really means, anyway.


Honorable Mention 'La Machinista'

Lisa Carroll-Lee has an M.A. in comparative literature and a desk drawer full of short stories. She is currently completing a novel and lives on Lake Travis with her husband, two geriatric dogs, and a cat.


Honorable Mention 'Nothing Here Has Any Real Value'

Sarah Elizabeth Eastep is from Beaumont, where she graduated from Lamar University with a business degree. Currently, she lives in Austin. Eastep divides her time between designing jewelry for her company, Maneki, and attending the University of Texas, where she is pursuing a second undergraduate degree in English. After graduation, she hopes to attend a graduate program in creative writing.


THE JUDGES

Coleman Hutchison is a new Austinite, having previously called Portland, Ore.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Chicago home. He's an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas, where he teaches and writes about 19th century American literature, poetry, and popular music. In another life, Hutchison wrote several mediocre short stories and one terrible novel. Thankfully, none of these will ever see the light of day.

Jill Meyers is the managing editor of American Short Fiction, a literary quarterly based in Austin. She is a graduate of Stanford University and earned her MFA from the University of Houston. Her work has appeared in Chelsea, Shenandoah, and Small Spiral Notebook.

Amanda Eyre Ward was born in New York and lives in Austin. Her third novel, Forgive Me, will be out with Random House in June. Ward's first published short story was "Miss Montana's Wedding Day," which won third prize in the 1999 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest.

Abe Louise Young is a poet and teacher born in New Orleans, in 1976. She is editor of Hip Deep: Opinion, Essays, and Vision From American Teenagers (Next Generation Press). Her poetry has been published and anthologized widely, most recently in The Massachusetts Review and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship, the First Annual Nell Altizer Award for Poetry from the Hawai'i Review, and three awards from the Academy of American Poets. She makes her home in East Austin and on the Web at www.abelouiseyoung.com.

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