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Beth Hunter McHugh

Former Helenan

Beth Hunter McHugh, 31, won the Meadowlark Award for her first novel. She graduated from Helena High School in 2002.

HELENA - Former Helenan Beth Hunter McHugh recently won the 2015 Meadowlark Award for women writers for her book, “The Actor.”

Riverbend Publishing of Helena, which sponsored the contest, will publish McHugh’s first novel in September. She will also receive a $1,000 cash prize.

McHugh follows in the footsteps of Nedra Sterry, the writer who set up the Meadowlark Award.

Sterry, at age 82, wrote “When the Meadowlark Sings,” her memoir of growing up on the Hi-Line, which was published by Riverbend in 2003.

“I always loved writing,” said McHugh in a phone interview from her home in Hamilton. “I wrote poetry and short stories in high school.”

She went on to earn a master of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Montana, where she was inspired and encouraged by two of her teachers, authors Debra Magpie Earling and Deirdre McNamer.

But before them, McHugh’s sophomore honors English teacher, Gretchen Edelen at Helena High School, was the first teacher who encouraged her to keep writing.

“I can see her now sitting in front of me,” said Edelen, recalling teaching McHugh about the art of writing flash fiction -- capturing the essence of character and plot in a mere 250 to 750 words.

“The bell! I don’t want this to end,” McHugh exclaimed to Edelen during English class one day when they were engrossed in discussing a flash fiction story.

“She was a reader. She loved reading literature and the unfolding of literature and the arc of the plot,” said Edelen.

“I’m thrilled for her,” said Edelen about the prize, adding that she can’t wait to read McHugh’s book. “I’m so proud of her.”

“This book started as a short story based loosely on my grandparents and my mother and aunt in Missoula,” said McHugh. From there, “the story took on a life of its own.”

McHugh has been drawn to writing for a long time: “I think I’m an observer of people and human interactions. I like to think about their motivations. I like writing about people and relationships.”

She’s been inspired by such books as “My Antonia” by Willa Cather, as well as the short story, “Goodbye, My Brother,” by John Cheever and the writings of Alice Munro.

“I’m more of a descriptive writer,” she said, adding that she doesn’t like to write dialogue.

Writing is very emotional for her, which is why she writes in “short bursts,” she said. “I can’t handle sitting a long time."

“This book is a good example of how a real story can inspire fiction,” she said. She started out writing with something she knew -- a family story -- and then let her imagination take over.

But that was part of the challenge of the book, she added. Since it started with a family story, “I worried about sending it out.”

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But the judges are glad she did.

They unanimously chose her the winner, from a pool of nearly 50 contestants.

“Her book just stood out,” said Craig Sterry, one of Nedra Sterry’s two sons who helped judge the contest. “No doubt about it, it was a stand-out book. Everyone loved it. It was extremely well written and it’s compelling. It’s a coming-of-age story.”

“It’s a very modern kind of novel,” he added, with modern relationship concerns, although it’s set in 1967.

Sterry and his brother, writer Rick Sterry, helped their mother Nedra set up the first Meadowlark writing contest, which was initially geared in 2010 toward college women writing short stories.

This year is the inaugural Meadow Lark Award for a book-length manuscript and was open to women writers who had never published a book. The manuscript -- either fiction or nonfiction -- had to be about Montana and set somewhere in the state.

“It was captivating from the first sentence,” said Riverbend publisher Chris Cauble. “It was clearly one of the top three manuscripts.

“It’s subtly lyrical,” he said. “It has an elegance to the writing. It appears to be simple, but it’s very well crafted.”

The next Meadowlark Award contest deadline will be in 2016. For more information, visit www.riverbendpublishing.com/meadowlark-award.html.

Beth, 31, is the daughter of Robin and Sarah McHugh of Helena and graduated from Helena High School in 2002.  

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Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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