May graduate wins prestigious short story contest

imageMichael Capel, a May SUNY Oswego graduate, put a little bit of reality into a short story that recently bested an international field to win the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize.

“Divers,” a story about a narrator discovering a good friend has signed up for active duty in the military, was influenced by a real-life situation, Capel said. The story began as a creative fiction exercise in Leigh Wilson’s class at a time when the country prepared for the war in Iraq and one of his best friends was planning to enlist. It’s partially about dealing with knowing that a friend is “going to be gone very far away, most likely to go to battle,” Capel noted. In his story, the narrator ponders his friend’s very grown-up decision to sign up for active duty, even as two other buddies continue to revel in immaturity.

Capel topped a competitive field that annually averages around 200 entries from undergraduate writers from across the United States and Canada. “Now in its fourteenth year the prize, which awards $1000, has come to the attention of writing faculty in all states and provinces who encourage their best students to enter,” said Carolyn McGrath, the contest’s coordinator. “The quality is high, the competition tough.”

The judges were impressed by Capel’s subtlety in developing contrasting characters through dialogue, action and the narrator’s observations, McGrath added.

Ira Sukrungruang of Oswego’s English writing arts department, who has served as mentor for Capel, saw promise in the story and “grabbed it out of my hand and said, ‘you’re submitting this,’” Capel recalled.

“Michael’s story had a legitimate chance of winning. Mike had already published a story in a national literary magazine—Sou’wester—earlier this year. Because of the prestige of this contest, I didn’t want him to miss this opportunity,” Sukrungruang explained.

“There are so many things in Michael’s writing I find astounding in one so young,” Sukrungruang said. “His gift of crafting scene, his use of dialogue, expert exposition. But what most impresses me is his sense of plot, how to move a story along in complicated, yet effortless ways. Things are happening in his stories, characters set in motion. Every word, every sentence propels the story forward. There is a need, an urgency to the things he puts on the page.”

Capel is the second first-place winner from the SUNY system in the contest’s history. Previous winners and honorable mentions have gone on to publish novels, earn awards, write screenplays and teach writing at the college level. The English writing arts graduate from Amsterdam will continue to write and is looking into graduate schools.

He credits SUNY Oswego’s program, which is “chock full of great writing teachers” for giving him his start. “The creative writing program here is top-of-the-line,” Capel said. “They are the people who first got me to write and are continuing to keep me writing.”

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(Posted: Aug 18, 2004)