16th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

The drama, the deliberations, and one winning story: Greg Koehler's 'Black as Your Lungs, Black as Pitch'

16th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

"Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?" –Vampire Weekend

Driving crosstown to SoCo restaurant the Woodland for our judges' dinner two Tuesday nights ago, I must have listened to the absurdly addictive "Oxford Comma" about 10 times in a row (hey, it's three minutes short, and the rush-hour drive, so very long). To answer the band's seemingly rhetorical question about the merits of what is more commonly known as the serial comma: Writers do. Writers give a mighty fuck about like-minded minutiae, and a missing or misplaced comma, a single off-putting line, can mean sink-or-swim for the authority of the author.

And sometimes our debate over the 10 finalists' submissions to the 16th annual Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest cut just that exacting, with impromptu line readings and impassioned cases made for and against. But we'll get to that.

To get to those 10 finalists, who were all feted at BookPeople on Wednesday, Feb. 13, we started with 256 submissions (down dramatically from previous years – was it something I said?). Each story was read twice (blind) by a hardworking panel of volunteers and enthusiasts culled from all departments at the Chronicle. Numbers were crunched. I put my eyes on every opening page. (Would that there were a prize for best title: My money's on Alison Lyons' "Batman Keeps Putting His Fingers in the Pudding and It's Giving Us Really Bad Street Cred.") I then hunkered down with 30 or so of the not-just-top vote-getters but also the most polarizing: Second-place winner "Why Jimmy" netted a 1 – the lowest score – by its first reader, then a 5 –the highest – from its second, who hand-delivered the story to me all giddy and gosh-wow.

Ten emerged. Those 10 were delivered to four local judges – Christine Granados (making an hourlong drive just for us), Alex Smith, Amanda Eyre Ward, and my Chronicle predecessor, former Editor Shawn Badgley, who, after years of keeping mostly mum as contest runner, finally got to open his mouth and cast a vote. The judges knew the stories only by title and number – no names disclosed. (Having informed the finalists personally of their status, I did know names, hence my no-vote, mostly mum presence at the table.)

Whittling the 10 down (with honorable mentions going to Bryan Jones' "Investigating the Claim" and Nicholas Pausback's "Fairgrounds") proved painless. Stories were discarded for not being, well, storylike enough; early on, it was agreed that we weren't awarding for ambition or intent or something that looked like, two drafts down the line, it would be a very fine story, indeed.

Things got hairier when it came to ranking the Top 2. (Carolyn Lindell's "Counting Water" was amiably agreed upon for third-place slotting.) Our ranks broke evenly: Badgley and Granados fought hard for Erin Pringle's "Why Jimmy," a daring, child's-eye story that ends in a gut-punch moment of violence (one that was open to wild interpretation among our group), while Smith and Ward lobbied for ultimate winner Greg Koehler's "Black as Your Lungs, Black as Pitch," an undeniably accomplished monument to restraint with pitch-perfect rendering of landscape.

(Full disclosure and proof of what an insular community we have: Granados discovered, after the fact, that "Why Jimmy" was penned by fellow San Marcosite Pringle, and I know Koehler a little bit from our shared days at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers. Cry conspiracy all you want: Like I said, Granados read blind, and I had no final vote. If I did, my vote would've gone to "Why Jimmy," which rattles me still. It's available online at austinchronicle.com/books. Go read it.)

In the end, the "Why Jimmy" camp stood down (although Granados sent me an e-mail the next morning, wishing she'd hung tough). Ward never wavered in her disbelief in the narrative voice of "Why Jimmy," and Smith made the compelling argument that, according to our preset parameters, Koehler's story was the one that, quite simply, wasn't two drafts away but rather was, and is, a very fine story, indeed.

Thanks, first and foremost, to our judges –you guys were a blast. Thanks also to Nora Ankrum, the ever-indulgent Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, Bryan Beck, Wayne Alan Brenner, Erin Collier (logistics, boosterism, hand-holding), three-word-review man Wells Dunbar, Mark Fagan, Liz Franklin, Cassidy Frazier, Meredith Greenwood, Melanie Haupt, Jenn Nuzzo, James Renovitch, Sofia Resnick, Audra Schroeder, Meghan Ruth Speakerman, Darcie Stevens, Jason Stout (whose awesome design makes me want to punch the air, hug a Soviet), Kristine Tofte, the fine folks at the Woodland, and the Chronicle's co-sponsors, 107.1 KGSR and BookPeople. And finally, thanks to the 256 brave souls who submitted. Keep plugging.

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