Longtime Parkite’s ‘The Starling Killers’ wins top short story in Utah competition
November 4, 2016
For nearly 60 years, the Utah Original Writing Competition, hosted by the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, has introduced new, local writers to the community.
Its mission is to help Utah writers on their path to publication and broader recognition.
Previous winners include Orson Scott Card, Ron Carlson, and Utah Poets Laureate David Lee, Ken Brewer, Katharine Coles and Lance Larsen.
This year, judges reviewed more than180 entries and announced 23 winners in seven categories.
Longtime Park City resident Joe Totten took top honors in the Short Story category for his piece, "The Starling Killers."
Judge Monica McFawn, who won the 2013 Flannery O'Connor Award, selected Totten's tale over Sandy’s Frank Stehno and Provo’s Daniel Robertson and their respective stories, "Desert Exposure" and "Far West."
"I've submitted a couple of stories the past three or four years, and this one I submitted in March and just went about my day," Totten told The Park Record. "I got a call in September that said I won the prize. I had to sit down for a little bit."
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Totten, as well as the other first place winners, received $1,000. Second place winners were awarded $150.
In addition, they and the second- and third-place winners will be honored from 1-5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Salt Lake Downtown Library's fourth-floor conference room.
The event will feature an awards ceremony, readings by 2015 competition winners, and a writing workshop with Utah Poet Laureate Lance Larsen.
"I'm pretty excited about it," said Totten, who recently moved from Park City to Midway.
"The Starling Killers" was written nearly four years ago.
"It was a longer story that I had to rework and cut down to a reasonable level," Totten said.
The idea hatched from American's avian history.
"A group in New York in the 1860s wanted to import all the birds that were mentioned in Shakespeare's writings — starlings, sparrows, doves, pigeons, meadowlarks and release them in Central Park," Totten said. "Well, the starlings took off and within 70 or 80 years, they expanded from the East Coast to California, where they were ruining crops and orchards."
In the 1960s, California implemented sanctioned population-control laws where people would go and kill millions of starlings.
"I put those two ideas together and thought I could write a story about a man and his son who go on these purges," Totten said.
The man, Randall Strayhorn is kind of an extremist.
"I'm originally from Texas and know crazy people — some who are even in my family –who have strange political, religious and economic views," Totten said. "Randall is a compendium of these bizarre characters. As I wrote, I embellished him a little more."
The son, who is the story's voice of reason, is about 15.
"When I started writing the story, my own son was in his late teens and he was the model of the boy in the book," Totten said. "I felt if you have a crazy guy, you should have a character that represents a conscience that says we shouldn't blow up trees to kill all of these birds."
Totten — a former newspaper reporter who now works in advertising, writing video scripts — wants to transition from that type of writing to publishing fiction.
He said this win was a boost to his confidence.
"This is a unique and best opportunity for a new writer to find a venue to show their stuff and get some recognition," he said. "It's great to call yourself a writer, but to have people outside your friends say that I'm a good writer is something else.
"I'm so grateful for this," Totten said. "I even wrote the judge who looked at my work to thank her."
Another reason Totten entered the contest was to help get his novel published.
"I'm worried about how to do that, because the publishing business is changing," he said. "I hope this story helps me get to the next step. Even though I'm old in years, I'm new in writing. And if there is anyone who knows of book publishers or agents, please send them my way."
The novel is an existential western called "The Rule of Capture."
"That's a legal term that means if you buy land, you, and no one else can exploit the natural resources of that land," he said. "It's about an outlaw who becomes a lawman."
For more information about the Original Utah Writing Contest, visit heritage.utah.gov/dha/dha-featured/ops-competition-original-writing-competition.