Things were going so smoothly.
Everyone agreed on wine and appetizers – eerily so, in retrospect – and even our waiter (hi, Paul!) commented that our judging would go suspiciously quickly if we decided everything so unanimously.
But sometimes things just don't go the way we plan.
Case in point: When this contest kicked off last fall with its annual call for submissions, I wasn't the Books editor. And furthermore, when I took over this job, I publicly swore I'd save myself the headache of tiebreaking by having an odd number of judges – and then, in an ironic twist, our fifth judge was sidelined with a migraine the night of our dinner.
So there we were, three hours in to our judges' dinner, completely deadlocked, and all we could agree on was that our meal was delicious, our server hilarious, and our problem the best one to have: too few prizes for too many good stories.
Each of the 410 submissions to this year's Short Story Contest was read twice (blind) and ranked before I took the top 20% and winnowed it down to 10 finalists. Cancer and unemployment and depression and death – still further proof that life is all about its curveballs – were, as ever, the order of the day. But what set our finalists apart was their ability to leave their readers enthralled by their completely heartfelt approach and memorable moments of gut-wrenching honesty.
Ultimately, the vote was unanimous for the feature that follows – but only one came to dinner with it ranked as No. 1. It's full of beautiful language and an eminently approachable voice that lend it, yes, that genuine, heartfelt feeling. It's not what any of us expected at the outset, but, as if the story knew in advance its destiny and the tumultuous road to the top: its title? "Better This Way."
I guess things work out after all.
Speaking of heartfelt, my deepest thanks to the judges: It was an honor to share a meal with you all. To Kimberley Jones: Your shoes are too big. Thanks also to our marketing gurus Erin Collier, Dan Hardick, and Noël Marie Pitts; our co-sponsors KGSR and BookPeople; and, of course, our army of first-readers, Nick Barbaro, Wayne Alan Brenner, Jessi Cape, Brian Carr, Amy Cavender, Jaime deBlanc-Knowles, Cassidy Frazier, Anne Harris, Shelley Hiam, Darlene Jones, Kimberley Jones, Josh Kupecki, Kate X Messer, Susan Moffat, James Renovitch, Amy Smith, Jordan Smith, R.U. Steinberg, Jason Stout, Kristine Tofte, and Derek Van Wagner. And to you, our readers and writers: thank you, and see you next year.
First Place: "Better This Way" Benjamin Reed has lived in Austin for 15 years. His short stories have appeared in West Branch, PANK, Arcadia, and other journals.
Second Place: "Black and White Photograph" Bill Cryer is currently underemployed as the majordomo and chef for his employed wife. He has worked mostly honorably as a newspaper reporter, state employee, and semiconductor industry spokesmodel. His children hated this short story for some reason.
Third Place: "Another Long Stretch of Continuous Soft Rock" Josh Justice, no relation to Buford T., can be found roughhousing cats or working on his upcoming autobiography, Eat the Extra Taco Now, or Save It for Breakfast? The Crucibles of an American Eater, at an overcrowded Austin coffee shop near you. This is his first submission into the gaping maw of American letters.
Honorable Mention: "See You Tomorrow" Josh Magnuson is a writer and an IT manager living in Austin with his beautiful wife, brand new baby girl, and two exceptional boys. His work has been published in American Short Fiction and dirt.
Honorable Mention: "Cards" Avery Rux is a sophomore English major at Carleton College in Minnesota, and he's coping as much with the cold as he is with the workload. He plans on going to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature, specializing most likely in Irish literature and 20th century American literature.
Other Finalists (In alphabetical order by author): HC Hsu ("Tree"), Henry Martinez ("The Bird Book"), Kristen Meyers ("Peacock Throne"), Mia Joyce Ortman ("Black and White"), Dee Pratt ("A Party for Cancer")
Bob Byington is a local filmmaker. His new movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me, stars Nick Offerman and opens in select theatres nationwide in March.
Katherine Catmull is the author of Summer and Bird, which was named one of the 2012 Top 10 First Novels for Youth by the American Library Association's Booklist magazine. Her next book is due out in 2014. Katherine is also a freelance arts writer for The Austin Chronicle and has acted onstage in various Austin venues for over two decades. She does voice work for online games like DC Universe Online and Wizard101.
Owen Egerton is the author of the novel The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and several screenplays for Warner Brothers, Fox, and Disney studios. He's also a member of the Alamo Drafthouse's Master Pancake Theater. His new novel, Everyone Says That at the End of the World, comes out in April.
Jeanne Thornton is a co-founder of the Fiction Circus literary magazine/performance group and the co-publisher of Rocksalt Magazine, as well as the author of the novel The Dream of Doctor Bantam and creator of the comic strips Bad Mother and The Man Who Hates Fun. She is also an undying fan of the Beach Boys and is writing her next novel about them.
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of a collection of short stories, Love Stories in This Town, and four novels, most recently Close Your Eyes, which was named one of Kirkus Review's Best Books of 2012 and Elle magazine's Book of the Year in 2012. Amanda's work has been optioned for film and television and published in 15 countries. Her first published story was "Miss Montana's Wedding Day," which won third prize in the 1999 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest.
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