From gun-toting grannies to death and divorce to a family who can't say "I love you," this year's winning stories pack a wallop. And there's a strange coincidence as well: the first and second place winners are tour guides at TJ's Monticello, while our third place winner attends his university. We had no idea our celebrity ghost judge had so much pull!
FIRST PLACE DAVID RONKA
Anyone who's ever started a sentence with "I'm too old to..." should take a few pointers from first-place winner David Ronka.
"I was 49 or 50 when I went back for the MFA," says Ronka, a long-time government worker who earned his graduate degree from University of Massachusetts-Amherst where he studied fiction under famed novelist John Edgar Wideman.
These days, Ronka, 61, is a historic interpreter at Monticello, but writing remains a passion.
"It's something I can be doing when I'm 90," he says.
His winning story, "What Can't be Cured," explores death through the eyes of a man whose marriage has also expired– but just might be resurrected.
Judges offered glowing praise.
"By putting an interesting twist on some recognizable male emotions, the author delivers present conflict and resolution in a light, but sincere vision of a man willing to admit his mistakes and try again," they wrote. Ronka's compliance with the contest rules, they said, earned him high marks as well.
So just how does one come up with the idea for a winning story?
"By observing, listening, asking myself constantly, 'What if?'" says Ronka, whose inspiration for this story– originally a 61-page novella– came when a good friend passed away.
So what's his favorite part of the story?
"The opening line is a pretty good hook, if I do say so myself," he laughs. Getting readers interested immediately is "pretty essential," he explains, "so I'm pleased with that."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
BONNIE HOLMBERG - SECOND PLACE
For architect Bonnie Holmberg, writing began with tragedy. Diagnosed with an incurable form of leukemia, Holmberg's first husband, Miami Herald reporter Robert Liss, had written most of Fading Rainbow, a book about his experience with a terminal illness. When he died before the book was finished, Holmberg completed his last few chapters in 1983, and the writing bug bit.
As the head of corporate design for now-defunct Eastern Airlines, she wrote her next book, Cruising at 30,000 Feet, aboard planes, writing about her life as a new widow and mother of three school-age boys (two of whom are now writers).
These days, Holmberg, 60, is remarried, retired, and a guide-in-training at Monticello, working under first-place winner David Ronka. Neither knew the other had entered.
Her winning entry, "Felonious Monk," she says, was inspired by a friend who had put her home in her son's name.
"I thought, 'Oh gosh, what could go wrong there?'" she says. Fortunately for that friend, nothing terrible happened, but the thought stayed with Holmberg– and a recent Charlottesville bank robbery offered further inspiration.
The judges were drawn to her "felonious but strangely empathetic central character," suggesting that the story's only flaw was "a sense that the ending may best serve as the end of a beginning!"
They must have ESP (or else Jefferson really was whispering secrets from beyond). It turns out that "Monk" is her first short story, and it's actually a part of her third novel. The first two, she laughs, "no one seems to want."
She keeps her spirits up in a writing support group– an idea she suggests to anyone who wants to get into writing.
"It's really given me a lot of encouragement," she says, "kind of like AA."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
SHI SHI WANG- THIRD PLACE
Once again, Jefferson's influence over the contest is obvious– Shi Shi Wang is a 19-year-old first year at UVA, whose story "The Inarticulate Speech of the Heart," reveals that love exists even when it isn't spoken.
Like her protagonist, Wang is Chinese, though she lived in Germany, where her father was earning his Ph.D., until third grade.
Upon arriving in the United States, she honed her new English skills on her very first literary effort, "The Living Doll," which she recalls as a "very scary story about this doll who came alive and started killing everyone."
Wang laughs recalling her use of a short story writer's "biggest no-no."
"She woke up and it was all a dream," she laughs. "It's a total cop out, but I was in third grade..."
These days, judges say, she's left cop-outs far behind.
"As the little girl in this story searches for love between her parents," they wrote, "her sorrows and joys become ours, too, and that spark of story magic is no simple thing."
Wang says this particular story is "autobiographical," and says the experience of living away from home for the first time was her inspiration.
"College has helped me reevaluate my relationship with my parents," she says. In college, she adds, "you're not really independent, but you think you are."
Wang says she'll continue to write– she contributes to several literary publications at UVA– and she plans to declare a major in foreign affairs later this spring. This summer she'll get her U.S. citizenship. Sounds like fodder for another story!
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO