Meet the winner of our latest fiction contest.
For someone about to have a novel released by a major publisher, you might think winning this magazine’s annual short-story competition would be anticlimactic. “Not at all!” declares Courtney Miller Santo. “I’ve been entering this competition since 2006. In fact, that was the first time I sent out a manuscript.” Though that story didn’t win, it paved the way for her to be accepted into the University of Memphis’ MFA writing program, which led to a thesis that became the basis for her novel. “It all comes back to the Memphis magazine fiction contest,” she says. “I think it’s amazing.”
Santo grew up in Portland, Oregon, the oldest of seven children. Heading east to attend Washington and Lee University, she received a degree in journalism and worked for a couple of newspapers in Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia, before moving to Memphis with her husband in 2005. For a few years working from home, Santo edited Cooper-Young’s Lamplighter newspaper and did some freelance writing while raising two small children. And all the time she’d be writing in her head. “That’s how I do it,” she explains. “I craft the story and can play it back like a tape recorder. Then when I have five minutes, I sit down and bang out a paragraph. I’ve just had to train myself to do that.”
She has little patience for those who simply talk about writing. “I don’t have the luxury of sitting around in coffeeshops complaining about lack of time,” says Santo. “If you really see yourself as a writer, you prioritize a time for it.” It helps, she adds, to have a supportive husband, but nothing takes the place of discipline. To keep herself focused, Santo uses a timer on the computer. “I write solidly for 25 minutes, then give myself five minutes to play, or catch up on something else. It works for me.”
Though inspired by several writers, including Alice Munro and John Steinbeck, Santo says her real inspiration has been her 103-year-old great-grandmother. “When she was 85 she went to community college to learn how to type,” says Santo, “and she sat down and wrote her family book, her memoir. She was a single mother in the 1930s and always worked an office job, never let herself be locked into one role, one life. Seeing that in my family history, I have no excuses.” In fact her novel — Roots of the Olive Tree, scheduled for release in August from William Morrow, a subsidiary of Harper-Collins — tells the story of intergenerational women in a family of olive growers. She had entered the book in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award last May, and though it didn’t win, excerpts from it drew the attention of a publisher who offered her a six-figure deal. “When I got the call, I was with my family in California. That was fitting, because we’re all storytellers, and my mother always encouraged me.” Then Santo adds with a laugh. “I grew up in a house full of books and no TV!”
Her prize-winning short story, “Wind Gap,” follows a wife and mother named Ellis who was badly burned in a massive traffic disaster that made national news. A decade later, Ellis and other victims agree to appear on Oprah and talk about their lives since the accident. Santo says she drove through such a wind gap, actually a geological depression, every day when she lived in Virginia, and would think about a woman suffering the physical and emotional scars of a fiery wreck. “I kept thinking of a woman enduring this fate and wanting to reach out and get her feelings out there, let the big world understand who she is,” says Santo. “But she realizes she’s not confident about the small world of her family. Have they loved her out of obligation, or the genuine place in their hearts?”
Santo earned $1,000 for the story, while honorable-mention awards, each worth $500, went to Burke Nixon, formerly of Oxford now living in Georgia, and Becky Hagenston, an associate professor at Mississippi State University. Meanwhile Santo — who is the creative writing program administrator at the U of M — is working on a second novel as part of her book contract with Morrow. “Deadlines make you keep working,” she says. “But the main thing is wanting to. Don’t just talk about writing. Do it.”