COVER- FICTION- Fresh-Faced Fiction: Contest winners bring raw talent to the table
Charlottesville has always boasted a healthy community of interested cultural connoisseurs and their events: the Virginia Festival of the Book, the Virginia Film Festival, numerous art galleries, the University's arts programs. But this year, a curious thing happened: The Hook's ninth annual short story contest saw an increase in entries– from approximately 80 entries in past years to 150 stories submitted in 2010, to be exact. Perhaps literary interest has been re-kindled in the new decade by the surge of electronic readers on the market? Perhaps the economic recession sparked a flooding of aspiring novelists to enter the growing fiction business? Perhaps the life of a writer still has romantic allure?
But despite the upped ante, the winners of the Hook's 2010 short story contest weren't old hats at the art of fiction. In fact, two of the top three used the contest as their very first attempt at writing for an audience, just to see if they had what it takes. Apparently local literary star and contest judge John Grisham thought they did.
"I'm just really grateful that somebody at that talent level had read two words I put together," says second-place winner John Davidson.
While 2009's round-up of winners all credited a close-knit writing community as instrumental to their writing, this year's finalists were refreshingly untapped in the literary scene. All brought previously unheard voices to the table and were rewarded with the confidence to plunge unhindered into the fray.
Michelle Damiani always wanted to write. But as a busy psychologist and mother of three, there was never the time– or the motivation– to put pen to paper. After reaffirming a New Year's resolution to write every day for a year– "to see where I was, if I wanted this to be a part of who I am," she says– she submitted a food piece to Saveur magazine, only to be turned down.
"I was giving up," she remembers telling herself. "I have neither the talent nor the motivation, so I'm giving up."
But after hearing an inspiring episode of NPR's popular radio show This American Life, the writer in her stirred again, and she found herself jotting sentences and scenes in the car and anytime she had a chance that day. It was four days before the Hook's short story deadline.
"I was just in complete disbelief," Damiani says upon hearing of her win. "I told my kids, and they were so excited– but they also keep me real. My son said, 'It's not like you are a prodigy.'"
Judge Grisham described her winning story, "Pockets," as a "gritty slice of life."
In a flurry of writing and editing, she submitted the story– her first fiction piece in years– and continued with her daily writing resolution. Each day is either journaling memories or finding inspiration from her Quaker beliefs or the connections she makes in her therapy sessions.
"As a psychologist, I'm used to putting myself in other people's positions," she explains. "In Quakerism, metaphors are huge, and sitting in silence helps you get underneath what you live through everyday. In 'Pockets,' I purposefully used many descriptions of light, because it figures prominently in Quakerism."
While admittedly not in touch with the writing community in Charlottesville, Damiani plans to use her prize money to explore the resources for local writers– while perhaps taking her family to the beach first.
"It's given me more courage. I love the process of writing," she says. "I want to be more committed to the process– and I think I'll do it for longer than [a year]."
Life as a busy trial lawyer is no easy task. Combine the everyday duties of defending civil rights with raising three children, and it's not hard to imagine that some goals– such as writing– can fall by the wayside. But the bug bit lawyer John Davidson hard when he finally slowed down long enough to take a sick day. As he recovered at home, he stumbled upon a Hook touting the short story contest– and realized his oft-neglected New Year's resolution to start writing was staring him in the face.
"You're supposed to reinvent yourself every fifteen years," he says. "Writing was something I always wanted to do– and if there was every a time to try, this was the time."
His piece, "First Church," was written the night before the contest deadline, and yet it won praise as "haunting and frightening" by judge Grisham. The story's central character, a priest haunted by "arrogance of faith," according to the author, was inspired by an image an eight-year-old Davidson had seen at his own hometown church. Accompanying his electrician father to the church late one night, he spied the pastor kneeling alone, praying.
"Praying was something people did in front of each other in church," remembers Davidson. "To see the preacher praying, when no one else was there, I didn't get it. But the vision stayed with me."
As a civil rights lawyer who worked in a big firm and later opened his own, Davidson is confronted daily with "the nature of evil" through his work with sexual harassment or assault victims or victims of discrimination. The question of evil or human nature is one that he's found driving his writing and, spurred by Grisham's praise, he plans to tackle the novel he's always dreamed of writing.
"Seeing someone victimized, it's hard not to take that home," he says. "You see tremendous, true-to-life stories as a lawyer."
Megan Alix Fishmann
While it's true that creative writing students at UVA have a built-in community and a star-studded pack of mentors, third-place winner Megan Fishmann, 26, looked to another local literary figure for inspiration: judge John Grisham himself.
"I love what he does– here is this man who is really excited to do short stories," says Fishmann, who went out and read Grisham's collection of short stories, Ford Country, after Grisham addressed her class last year.
The Bard College graduate and current MFA candidate at UVA was a finalist in the 2009 Hook competition and remained determined that she'd keep entering as long until she stopped walking away empty handed. She didn't have to wait for long. As her story, "The Last Itako," took third third-place this year.
"A marriage continues to crumble after the death of a child. Therapy is not working, and neither will a getaway to Japan," Grisham sums up.
Fishman credits UVA for honing her skills but a magazine article for her inspiration. She read in People about child run over by a car, and after a recent trip she took to Japan, Fishmann was stirred to explore the inner workings of loss.
"I wanted the story to be accessible and draw in the reader, make them feel more connected inside the characters' heads," she explains.
A voracious reader– Amy Hemple and Lorrie Moore are her favorites– as well as a pop culture fanatic who can chat about MTV shows, US Weekly, and fashion, Fishmann began her literary career as a publicist with Random House before becoming a copy editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review and entering the UVA's writing program. Now juggling writing most mornings– a novel she hopes to complete after graduation– and planning a wedding, the young writer intends to follow in Grisham's footsteps and see her writing hit shelves someday soon.