Winners 2004: Slow and steady wins...

If you haven't had Lasik yet, grab your reading glasses: It's time to read the 2004 winner of The Hook's annual fiction contest!

As in past years, the contest garnered well over 100 entries. And while choosing a winner was no easy task, our able judges– George Garrett, Stephen Boykewich, and Deborah Prum– were up to the challenge.

Their top pick? Sarah Honenberger's "Waltzing Cowboys," published for your reading pleasure this week; runners-up will see their stories in print by the end of May.

So, without further ado, meet the winning scribblers:


Sarah C. Honenberger

 Who can forget Sarah C. "Sally" Honenberger, a runner up in The Hook's 2002 fiction contest for her story "Repeater"?

Honenberger knows plenty about repeating: She entered the premiere local fiction contest (which had its start at another local weekly) 12 times before taking top honors this year­ along with the $600 prize. (She also garnered runner-up status the contest's first year.)

Her first-place tale? "Waltzing Cowboys," a story about an old man's last ride on an wild horse.

Contest judge George Garrett calls it "a very strong story and an exciting one."

Judge Stephen Boykewich says Honenberger's tale is "a lesson in how the quietest fiction can often be the most powerful."

And Judge Deborah Prum says her connection to the main character kept her attention. "I found the protagonist to be memorable and interesting," she says. "I cared what happened to him." And the ending, she adds, was "just right, not too ambiguous and not too tightly wrapped up."

In fact, says the author, the story doesn't actually end there. "Waltzing Cowboys" is an excerpt from a novella she's written by the same name, and she's hard at work finding a publisher.

In the meantime, she's teaching a creative writing course to 8th through 12th graders, and placed second in the adult category in this year's Writer's Eye contest, sponsored by the University of Virginia Art Museum.

So what's next for Honenberger?

"I love my stories and love entering contests," she says, "but I'm looking for a book contract."

Yoo hoo, Random House, are you listening?


John Ruemmler

 Finding a balance between heartstring tugging and emotional overkill proved challenging for Ruemmler while writing "A Day Without Weather," one of this year's three runners-up.

Because the story details the relationship between grandchildren and their nursing home-bound grandfather, "I was concerned about it being too sugary and cutesy," says Ruemmler, 55, who earns his living at Crutchfield Corporation.

"Anytime I hit some obvious emotional tone, I tried to x it out." As a result, Ruemmler hopes the ending feels "full and complete and emotional, but not too 'TV movie of the week.'"

The judges agreed.

"One of the most surprising things about 'A Day Without Weather,'" says Boykewich, "is the way it finds comedy in the unlikeliest places: mid-life sibling rivalry and late-life decline in a nursing home. It pokes fun at our family mythologies while showing us what's most important in them."

Ruemmler is no stranger to winning local writing contests, though in last year's, he laughs, "I had no luck whatsoever."

Back in 1996, he took top honors in this premiere local contest for his story titled "Carter." (He's the one who brought the house down by calling his $250 winnings "nothing to sneeze at," pausing, and then delivering his punch line: "Gesundheit, Mr. Grisham.")

Ruemmler's had success in several writing genres. In 1988, he wrote Brothers in Arms, a "Civil War potboiler," under the pen name Courtney Bishop. Four years later, Smoke on the Water, a novel about the Powhatans of Jamestown, hit the shelves.

But Ruemmler says he won't be churning out novels again anytime soon. "It's just too difficult," he says. With short stories, "You can bite one off and spit it out in a couple of weeks."

So what'll Ruemmler do with his $150 prize?

"Put it toward my first artificial hip," he laughs. "It could be any day now."


Susie Langenkamp

 "We all have immediate needs," says Langenkamp of her story, which took its inspiration from a "disturbing" incident she witnessed years ago in the Paris subway: an elderly homeless woman urinated out in the open.

She says she was struck by how little someone's suffering affects other people's lives. "You can see something so modern-day tragedy," she says, "and then you can go later that day to have a glass of white wine."

The Hook's judges agreed that LangenKamp's story had impact.

"I loved the verbal energy of this story," says Boykewich, editor of Meridian, a literary magazine. "There aren't many authors who can make you laugh with an adjective."

For editor and writing teacher Langenkamp, a self-described "woman of a certain age," writing is nothing new; winning, however, is a different story.

"I've never entered a contest before," she says. "I've written many stories, got a box of genius beginnings."

Langenkamp says her winnings could end up as food for thought: "Maybe I'll take a friend out for a really fancy meal."

Since her winnings include a gift certificate to Al Dente restaurant, that seems quite possible.


Ross Howell Jr.

 When 53-year-old Howell had the idea about an angel visiting a middle-aged man, he says he thought it would be funny. Making the angel look like Pamela Anderson? Even funnier, he says.

The judges felt Howell hit the mark and honored his story, "The Trouble with Angels," with runner-up status.

This isn't the first time Howell has earned honors in a fiction contest, but it has been a while.

Back in 1972, as a UVA undergrad, Howell took third place in the Atlantic Monthly's collegiate writing contest. He went on to other writing acclaim, studying literature at Harvard before ending up at the University of Iowa's writers' conference.

"It was a phenomenal time to be there," says Howell, who recalls sitting in class with such big names as Jane Smiley and Allen Gurganus, author of The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All.

After a few academic appointments (and a story published in the Virginia Quarterly Review), Howell started the Howell Press in 1985. The Press puts out about 10 coffee table-type books annually, which in past years have included Mary Motley Kalergis' Charlottesville Portraits, and Coy Barefoot's UVA history tome, The Corner.

 But it wasn't until Howell joined a writing group two years ago started by one-time Albemarle magazine editor Kathleen Valenzi that he again "got serious" about his own writing.

Since finishing "Angels," he's hard at work on two, more serious, stories. Getting them published may pose some difficulty, but he stays lighthearted.

"My writing career is going well," he jokingly tells friends. "My work has been rejected by some of the finest publications in the world!"