In articulating their enthusiasm for "Chlorine," a story about a brother and sister who visit their aunt in Iowa, "hermetically sealed in her own biosphere of exotic competence," this year's judges chose words like "voice," "funny," "idiosyncratic," "fantastic," "charming," "wonderful," "playful," and, ultimately and more often than not, "favorite."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. In writing this, now and in years past, I (and others before me) attempt to demystify the process of our contest and provide some level of transparency as to how our judges decide on the winners. But there wasn't much mystery when it came to this year's first-place story. Four out of five judges all but agreed upon sitting down at El Chile Cafe y Cantina for dinner, drinks, and deliberation on Feb. 6: "Chlorine" was the best of the 10 finalists ("News/Print," Books, February 10, 2006), and it would lead the pack wire to wire. This isn't unprecedented, but I wouldn't call it common, either.
More common was what took place in deciding which stories would round out the five in the money, as it were, and in what order. For a couple of hours, Robert Byington, Doug Dorst, Elizabeth Harris, Clay Smith, and Dao Strom exchanged observations, theories, opinions, and outlooks on how certain stories would represent the paper in the eyes of its readership. How readers would respond. Frequently, this question and others would be answered with more questions more musings on notions of regionalism, arcs, strides, and sensibility, and, maybe most crucially, expectation in the harsh light of execution.
Dorst, for instance, wondered whether it was unfair to demand that each effort conform to a false dichotomy of humor vs. gravity just because many had. The lone dissenter on "Chlorine" he still slotted it as his second-place story Dorst favored "Mojo Nixon Is God" for its "tone, flow, and tighter, more controlled prose." Strom agreed, admiring how its structure "handled its weird premise" of a woman refusing to correct a botched breast implant even though it might kill her. But she stuck with "Chlorine": "It's not about anything huge, but it has a heart, and it doesn't try to shock you. I lean toward stories like that, about everyday things, told this well." "Mojo Nixon Is God," after mounting a short-lived charge on "Chlorine," would fall back and finish third after spirited discussion.
Claiming second was "That One Sad One," which shows a struggling country singer at an unfamiliar bar listening to two old-timers take turns singing George Jones songs on a karaoke machine "I think there's a great story in here," Dorst said. "The first two pages were maybe my favorite two pages of any." But he didn't even have the piece in his top three. Who did? Strom, Harris, and Byington, with one calling it "priceless." This adjective would prove to be enough of an edge, and "That One Sad One" sailed near the top.
Smith, meanwhile, clung to "An Unfit Man," one of our two honorable mentions, because "we look to fiction to help us imagine things we might not have imagined ourselves," and when he looked for it among the finalists, one of the places in which he found it was here. For Byington, who also advocated for "An Unfit Man," the day in the life of a man battling prostate cancer on top of his midlife crisis represented the "most assured writing that I ran across." For his part, Dorst refused to give in on "How to Make a Piñata," a companion to "An Unfit Man" in both subject matter a single mother with Stage IV cancer prepares herself to prepare her daughter for life without her and eventual honorable mention status. He loved how it made "nice associative movements without lingering for too long." Several judges read aloud its "many wonderful lines."
"How to Make a Piñata," which is wonderful part and parcel, was authored by a poet, Jenny Browne, so it's no surprise that a group of people would be compelled to share some of her more resonant sentiments. Martin H. Boozer wrote "An Unfit Man." Susan Shields, who won the 2000 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, wrote "Mojo Nixon Is God," and Will Furgeson, a finalist last year, "That One Sad One." We announced all of this Wednesday, Feb. 15, at BookPeople, just before we revealed "Chlorine"'s Gail Miller, of Albuquerque, N.M., as our favorite.
It should be said that all but one of the readers and judges knew the contenders only by story title and substance until after final decisions were made. I learned the authors' names only in alerting them of their finalist berths immediately preceding that notification, their stories had been plucked and paired with their corresponding contact information after which my role in any decision-making was over and done with. It should also be said that you can read "Chlorine" here, in print, and that you will find "That One Sad One," "Mojo Nixon Is God," "An Unfit Man," and "How to Make a Piñata" at austinchronicle.com. You really should and you really should. Should you not, it's your loss.
Very special thanks to each of our 550 entrants, of course, and to our judges. And very special thanks to Nora "Nostril Ankle" Ankrum, Nick "Nicolai the Back-Spiking Barbarian" Barbaro, Michael "Nü Guy" Bartnett, Marjorie Baumgarten, Louis "Pound Puppy" Black, BookPeople, Wayne Alan "Pancake né the Bastrop Bomber" Brenner, Sadie Caplan, Brian "Fast Food, Fast" Carr, Erin "Syracuse 81-Kansas 78" Collier, El Chile Cafe y Cantina, Mark "Dale Jr." Fagan, Liz "Poison" Franklin, Cassidy "Sweet Dreams Are Made of These" Frazier, Sarah Hamlin, Anne "A Belle" Harris, Kristin Hillery, Taylor "Show Pony" Holland, Serena "Coconut Oil" Horn, KGSR, Kimberley "Carolina née Lazy Bones" Jones, Michael "Mackadaisical" MacLaggan, Jamey Maness, Gerald "the Captain" McLeod, Jenn Nuzzo, Terry "T-Bone" Ornelas, "Jumpin' Gentleman" James Renovitch, Karen "KR" Rheudasil Barry, Frank Rivera, Josh "the Black" Rosenblatt, Jess Sauer, Audra Schroeder, Cheryl "the C Monster" Smith, Jordan Smith, Doug "the Flying Waiter" St. Ament, Frederick "Fred" Stanton, R.U. Steinberg, Diana Welch, and Cindy Widner. Hey, the leader of this great land of ours likes nicknames, so I do, too. I'm a patriot. The aforementioned, even those without nicknames, are patriots, as well. They're also readers, screeners, consultants, soothsayers, bootleggers, sponsors, volunteers, superiors, and just generally ideal people. Shawn Badgley
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