FICTION WINNERS- House of fames: Everybody loves their WriterHouse

Rachel Unkefer plans to donate her $700 winnings to WriterHouse.Photo by Jen Fariello
Second-place winner David Ronka asks, "What if?"Photo by Jen Fariello
Christy Strick, the third-place winner, praises Charlottesville's literary community.Photo by Jen Fariello

It may just take one to read a story, but it takes a community to inspire a winning entry. Just ask the winners of the Hook's eighth annual short story contest. The three winners all credited their participation in writing groups and the larger Charlottesville literary community as key components to their success.

"There are so many opportunities for writers here, to make connections and meet people who struggle the way you do," beamed third-place winner (and 2008's first place winner) Christy Strick. 

Despite a busy schedule– promoting his latest novel, The Associate– third-year judge John Grisham took time to participate in Charlottesville's close-knit writing community and judge a diverse batch of approximately 80 entries. With the varying degrees of humor, wit, and intrigue, this year's winners prove that it may take a village to shape a writer.

Rachel Unkefer

Was first-place winner Rachel Unkefer taking cues from contest judge Grisham when she found inspiration for her entry, "Remote Control" in news headlines? The story, centered around a mother and on-going television coverage, was "timely and sad and instantly believable," according to Grisham. 

"I started thinking about how people empathize with stories they see," Unkefer says.

The first-time winner gives most of the credit to her fellow writers for pushing her to enter the contest. Unkefer, 50, is on the board of the year-old organization, WriterHouse, which provides space, classes, and community to Charlottesville writers.

"I wouldn't have even submitted the story if I hadn't had my writing group critique it," says Unkefer. "The process of having people critique it, having to rewrite it, to go through drafts, made it the story it became."

Currently finishing up a novel and editing a second (short stories being a new venture for her), Unkefer plans to donate her winnings to WriterHouse. Focusing on writing and volunteering full-time after running a technical bookstore chain for most of her professional life, the winner encourages future contest entrants to embrace the literary community Charlottesville has to offer. 

"Without the feedback, I would be a terrible, mediocre writer," says Unkefer. "It makes a huge difference in my own writing to have people give me good feedback."

David Ronka

If "what if" is a question we ask everyday, David Ronka can provide an answer. His second-place story, "Off Limits" stemmed from a childhood memory and blossomed into a completely different world. 

"I won a three-legged race with a friend of mine when I was in the Cub Scouts," Ronka explains. "The story came out of a 'what if' scenario– something that had been knocking around in my head." 

Ronka, who won this contest's grand prize back in 2005, admits that while the story's conclusion was far from his own reality, the concept of carrying around emotional relics is a universal experience. Judge Grisham agrees. 

"Many of us carry the baggage of a cruel childhood deed inflicted on someone less fortunate," he says. "As this story illustrates, the memories haunt us forever."

A Monticello historical interpreter (he has yet to delve into historical fiction, oddly) and UVA creative writing professor, Ronka finds solace in the life of a writer.

After earning his MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1997 and publishing essays occasionally throughout the years, the 65-year-old has pitched in at WriterHouse and finds the surrounding literary community an essential asset for Charlottesville.

"There are so many writers here, so many things going on all the time," he says. "It's a great scene."

Free advice from the professor? "Write and write and write, and send things out," Ronka says. "Writing is a blue-collar trade– you've got to get up in the morning and do it."

Christy Strick

If third-place winner Christy Strick had anything to say about Charlottesville's literary scene, it would be "Just Like Family" to her. The 53-year-old former Farmington Country Club catering director and first-place contest winner from 2008 took time off last year to focus on her writing and has since finished a draft of her first novel. As the president of WriterHouse, she, too, credits her writing group for inspiring her to re-enter the contest. 

"I honestly hadn't planned on doing it again, but Rachel really encouraged me to do it," Strick says.

If her 2008 winning entry– a humorous take on breaking up– is any indication of her literary voice, this year's entry confirms it. "A very funny story about an unlikely encounter between two strangers who share family secrets," Grisham commented.

"My stories often start out as an image or sentence in my mind," Strick confides. "I never intentionally set out to put humor into it, but I think that's the way my brain works. Humor tells the truth better than straight, serious narrative."

Echoing the enthusiasm of her WriterHouse comrade, Strick encourages under-the-radar writers to join a community to strengthen their work.

"I really believe joining a writing group is a wonderful thing," she says. "It's an opportunity to see your work through different eyes."