The Austin Chronicle

17th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

By Kimberley Jones, February 13, 2009, Books

Now that the very realness of the recession is upon us, it seems like everybody's cooking up a backup plan, from seasonal Internal Revenue Service gigs and massage licenses to the teaching trenches of public school. (I sadly appear to be suited only to this, and maybe selling fruit by the side of the road, although customer service has never been my strength.) The number of submissions to our annual short-story contest doubled in a year's time –from 256 to almost 500 – and I can't help but wonder if the economy has something to do with that. Maybe, for many of the entrants, writing is Plan B – albeit, as far as backup plans go, it has about the same success rate as banking on the lottery. Or maybe it's the tightening of belts: It's a lot cheaper to put pen to paper than bar hop on a Friday night. But just maybe those 250 extra entrants discovered something the other 250 already knew: that when the writing is going well, there is nothing quite like that giddy thrill of creation, of craft.

And for most of the entrants, that giddy thrill is all the reward they'll get, at least from us: Only five stories received prizes at a Feb. 11 event at BookPeople. So how did we get from 500 to five? Each blind submission was read twice and scored a 0 to 5 rating by one of our workhorse volunteers. I then read about 100 of the top vote-getters and narrowed the field to 10 finalists, at which point I learned the names of the authors and contacted each to congratulate him or her on what I count as no mean feat. At this point, I removed myself from the decision-making process – it was now up to our team of judges: Bonnie Brzozowski, Rebecca Beegle, Doug Dorst, and last year's contest winner, Greg Koehler (who, in addition to being a poet and fiction writer, is the possessor of a law degree – hell of a backup plan there, Greg).

The judges and I gathered at Manuel's last week to have a nice long sit-down about the stories. I've heard tell of judges' dinners past – boozy, brawling evenings officiated by my predecessor, Shawn Badgley (a boozy, brawling sort himself). I must have a civilizing effect, because for the second year in a row, the judges comported themselves beautifully, and all decisions were reached amicably.

Five of the 10 finalists were dismissed before the appetizers had cleared the table. Two stories – Jessica Rutland's "We Are So Invisible Together" and Paul Slavin's "Bandera County Driving Lessons" – were admired – but with strong reservations – and ultimately pegged as too safe; they were awarded our two honorable mention slots. And then there were three. The judges agreed that "Speechless" – an early favorite –was perhaps the most finely written of the bunch (its author, Benjamin Reed, was a finalist last year). Beegle admired the Lynchian quality of its final scene, but the plot –about a citizenry that suddenly loses its ability to speak – didn't set anyone on fire, and more than one of us noted its similarity to José Saramago's book Blindness.

That left two to jostle for top honors – Burke Nixon's "Fayette" andPerry Tyson Midkiff II's "May the Passenger Pigeon Sing Thee to Thy Rest." "Fayette," about a young man's road trip with his grandfather that detours at a county fair, is a deceptively slight-seeming story that deepens with every read. We all fell for the irascible, trouble-making grandfather character (so much so that Dorst wondered if the narrator was dwarfed in the process). "May the Passenger" was the more ambitious piece: Its res-kid narrator must negotiate the town bully, a brutalized gay best friend, and his snake-farm-running big brother's exploitation of their American Indian heritage. But Brzozowski was put off by an overly dense opening paragraph, and Koehler, citing some abrupt passages, wondered if the story had been gutted to meet the 2,500-word limit. Dorst kept silent on the story; he had informed me previously that he recognized an earlier draft from one of his workshops at St. Edward's. (After we locked the winners down and I revealed the names of the authors, Koehler realized he knew Midkiff, as well: small world, eh?) In the end, it was "Fayette" which took top honors. It's a surprising, endearing story, full of impish play and eccentric but true-to-life detail.

Deeply felt thanks go to our judges, who gave their time, careful consideration, and corking good dinner conversation. Thanks also go to marketing whiz Erin Collier and her first lieutenant, Logan Youree, and to our army of first-readers: Nora Ankrum, Nick Barbaro, Sarah Jean Billeiter, Wayne Alan Brenner, John Davidson, Wells Dunbar, Mark Fagan, Liz Franklin, Cassidy Frazier, Gerald McLeod, James Renovitch, Monica Riese, Josh Rosenblatt, Audra Schroeder, Jordan Smith, Meghan Ruth Speakerman, Fred Stanton, R.U. Steinberg, Darcie Stevens, Kristine Tofte, Anna Toon, Tim Warden, and Richard Whittaker. And, as ever, thanks go to all the struggling writers out there who submitted. See you next year.

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