Brian Railsback wrote some prose that would have made “Papa” proud.
Dean of Western Carolina University’s Honors College, Railsback recently received word that a short story he penned won first place in Prose for Papa, the annual short story-writing contest sponsored by the Ernest Hemingway Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Sun Valley is where legendary author Ernest Hemingway, also known as “Papa,” often hunted and wrote for more than two decades. Railsback, who won a $500 check, has been invited to give a public reading of his story during the Sept. 28-Oct. 1 festival.
Railsback said his winning entry, “Clean Break,” is the story of a college administrator “who is suddenly confronted with a great lack of meaning in his life. The ‘clean break’ refers to his need to clean up a great personal mess, both figuratively and literally.”
Railsback became the first dean of WCU’s Honors College when it was given “college” status in 1997. He left the position in 2000, but returned to it in 2004.
Railsback said he didn’t write the story specifically for the Prose for Papa contest. “I wrote it while I was wrestling with my reasons for stepping down as dean of the Honors College the first time around, while my three children were younger and I felt I needed to be home more,” he said.
“I submitted the story to the contest because I promised some Honors College students that I would. We had been following Hemingway’s footsteps through France and Spain as part of an honors field course, so Prose for Papa made sense.”
The contest, which drew entries from all over the country, was judged by Daniel Orozco, a featured writer on National Public Radio.
Railsback’s thesis for his master’s degree in English was a collection of short stories, but “Clean Break” is the only short story he’s written in a decade. He published his first novel, “The Darkest Clearing,” in 2004, and his other published works have concentrated on a major figure of American literature, John Steinbeck. He has published numerous book chapters about Steinbeck and has delivered lectures about him in this country and in Japan and Mexico.
Railsback is the author of “Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck” and co-editor of “A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia.” He is currently finishing a Steinbeck project for the Library of America, and said he hopes to begin a second novel this fall.
Although “The Darkest Clearing” and “Clean Break” are generally gloomy tales about the seedier side of life, the bow-tie-wearing Railsback said the stories are not a reflection of his general state of mind.
“When ‘The Darkest Clearing’ came out, people would e-mail me and ask if I had a terrible childhood, if I collected guns, or if I had psychotic tendencies,” he said.
“I imagine people who read ‘Clean Break’ might think I am a very unhappy administrator. The point is: It’s all fiction. None of it is real, but it is great fun to make up. I never outgrew that childhood game, “what would happen if….”
“Clean Break” is published on the Web at www.ernesthemingwayfestival.org (link no longer active).