Plotting Along: Contest winners pack a punch with their fiction

"I had the twist ending in mind about the teacher," explains 2011 Hook Short Story Contest winner and high school teacher Steven Turner. "Maybe in some Freudian way, this was a little insight on the idea of the powerlessness teachers feel sometimes."

To win the acclaim of best-selling author John Grisham, Turner used unique elements of perspective and plot. So did the other two winners.

"I like my stories to be about things that aren't quite as they seem," says third place winner Gary Kessler.

And as it turns out (and as was the case in the 2010 contest also), two of the three winners let the competition serve as the springboard for their imagination– writing their very first fiction specifically for The Hook.

"Charlottesville is for writers," says Kessler– and with the entries for The Hook's Short Story Contest again at its highest number ever (150 entries in both 2010 and 2011) he seems to be absolutely right.

The contest, now in its 10th year, drew participants from all levels of experience– seasoned writers involved in local writing clubs, UVA MFA graduates, and first-time fiction writers.

With stories inspired by snowstorms, antique cars, or relationships, the contest drew on the diverse talents of Charlottesville's writing community. But the winners circle wowed the heart of Judge Grisham with sympathetic characters, fast-paced plots, and innovative narrative techniques.


Steven Turner: "A Small Brown Box" (First Place)

Occupation: Advanced Placement Psychology teacher, Albemarle High School
Why C'ville? I've been here since 1990– I came for UVA, where I was a history major.
Fiction background: This is the first fiction I've ever written. I did not read my first book for pleasure until I was over 20 years old.
Pre-contest writing experience: I've written a few articles published in youth ministry magazines, and I've been writing on a few blogs for several years– one with my friend related to education and teaching,, and one with my own, more personal stuff,
My next fiction will be… probably related to school life in some way– it's really mostly what I know.
How will you use your prize money? We're actually going on a family vacation over spring break, so we'll use the money towards that.

Albemarle High School teacher Steven Turner might grade dozens of papers every week, but never had the itch to write one himself. A UVA alum and current AP Psychology teacher, the father of three and active youth minister never even grew up with an urgent inclination towards literature. But after years of journaling and writing articles for faith-based publications, Turner, 38, began a blog with a fellow teacher friend.

"It really started out of a frustration with this Waiting for Superman movie that came out in the fall," Turner explains. "Suddenly, there are voices nationwide about what we need to do with education. From Bill Gates to politicians to Oprah Winfrey– everyone's talking about education. The two voices that were missing were the voices of students and the voices of teachers."

The blog became a space for Turner and his colleagues to share the thoughts and experiences of real-life teachers. But when the Hook's short story contest was announced, a small thread of an idea began to form– and Turner found himself creating characters instead of blog entries.

The basis for "A Small Brown Box" stemmed from an experience Turner, and dozens of other teachers, had had while in the classroom: what happens when a school goes into lock-down mode.

"When I wrote the story, one of the things I was thinking was how you're in a classroom, behind a door, isolated from everywhere else," he says. "Sometimes, you just want your voice to reach beyond those four classroom walls, and from the desperation of the teacher who was stressed out and anxious to the calm teacher that was struggling inside, I thought each of these characters were distinct voices that deserved a forum."

Turner split the tale into various sections, voiced by different teachers isolated in their own classrooms.

"A compact, tense story about one of our greatest fears," praised Judge Grisham. "Artfully constructed with shifting narratives, the plot races to an ending that is unexpected but strangely believable."

And while Turner did experience a similar situation at Albemarle, he says the real-life outcome was aided by the school's clear communication policies. While he can create a scenario where teachers and students would be kept in the dark, he says he's confident it's one he'd never have to encounter while in the local school systems.

Joshua Armstrong: "The Canadian" (Second Place)

Occupation: UVA PhD student, French literature
Fiction background: When I was 20 or 21, it just hit me– wow, this is what I want to do. Reading the modernist experimental stuff made me realize what joy there is in inventing with language.
Pre-contest writing experience: I've mostly written short stories, and all of the stories I write have the basic format of a normal person who is on track to be fairly successful, but who then allows him or herself to fall out of that, to fall into the abyss.
Fiction versus Academia: I do see academic writing as having the possibility for having some creativity, although I do get in trouble with that sometimes. I'm writing a dissertation, so I try to get up in the morning, do some creative writing first, so that can give me the energy to go to my dissertation after that.
My next fiction will be… the main thing I'm thinking about right now is a novel, about a guy who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina… or so he thought.
How will you use your prize money? I bought my daughter a LiteBrite, and maybe I'll buy a new pair of pants: all my pants have holes in them.

After spending a year living in France, Joshua Armstrong is focusing his dissertation on French literature and teaches the French language to UVA undergraduates. But Armstrong will never write fiction in French– because he's not sure he gets all the nuances of his second language.

"Take swear words, for example," he explains. "I understand the full impact of an English swear word because I'd get spanked for using it as a kid. When you go to write, it has to come from lived experience."

A valid point, especially as his second place-winning story, "The Canadian," places a man in a precarious position– one that Grisham describes as an "abyss"– that certainly calls for the use of swear words. Armstrong explores the emotional depths to which one could go in crossing the border between your real life and your dream life, peppering his piece with drug use, infidelity, and that sinking feeling when you realize you've made a huge mistake.

Gary Kessler, "Fire on Ice" (Third Place)

Occupation: Retired CIA, freelance book editor and novelist
Why C'ville? My wife and I both went to UVA and bought here before we went overseas with the CIA– we knew we were going to retire here.
Fiction background: I didn't work for the secret side of the CIA, but the news agency– there are a lot of good stories out there, and I used to collect stories and put them aside to form the basis of books I wrote later.
Pre-contest writing experience: I didn't seriously start writing fiction until about 20 years ago. When I was living in Cyprus, I wrote six books. I have an espionage fiction series under a pen name, and now I'm writing almost exclusively fiction. Because I'm retired agency, I have to get anything cleared that isn't fiction.
My next fiction will be… novellas.
How will you use your prize money? I gave a third of it to the Boy Scouts to have a pizza party, because it was essentially their story. The rest will go into travel.

Gary Kessler bases much of his fiction on fact. His years working in the CIA news agency put him in contact with several fantastical stories– but he insists the parts of his stories that seem far-fetched are not invented, but stem from real-life occurrences. His third place-winning story, "Fire on Ice," is one such example.

"I was at a Christmas party, and a friend told me this story happened to him thirty years ago here in Charlottesville," says Kessler. "The facts are the way they are– three scouts went missing, it was at Humpback Rock, and they built a fire on the ice."

Kessler has written a large swath of fiction, from espionage novels to mystery novellas. This story, along with some of his other short fiction, has a Central Virginia location, but many of his characters are infused with the backgrounds and emotions of the people Kessler has met throughout his years of travel to Japan, Cyprus, and Thailand. The emotional shock of the adults in "Fire on Ice" may have been based in fact– but their personalities and reactions are of Kessler's own making.
Turner's first place-winning story is published in the March 24 issue of the Hook, and the other two winners will be published later this year.

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Gary (if you read this)... any relation to Ronald Kessler?

Albeboy: Nope, but I read his books/columns.

Thanks, GK. I just figured with similar areas (CIA, gov't agencies, authors) that maybe you also had familial connections. Can't wait to read your story!