When Matthew Ulmer received an email with the subject line, “Exciting news!,” he instantly thought it was spam. But the Langhorne resident took a risk and opened the message, and is grateful he did.
The email was from Elizabeth Luciano, a professor in Bucks County Community College’s Department of Language and Literature, who informed Ulmer he won first place in the school’s fourth annual Bucks County Short Fiction Contest.
Ulmer, a husband and father approaching 40, felt a deep sense of accomplishment. Finally, he was recognized for a passion that started in childhood, when he’d write stories in a notebook at the age of 12.
“If nothing else happens in my writing career, if a novel never goes anywhere, I feel like I have some level of fulfillment,” he told The Times. “At the very least, there were people who found something I wrote worthy enough to finish first place. It feels like a weight off my shoulders.”
Ulmer won a $200 honorarium for his story Poached, which he read portions of during an online YouTube reception earlier this month. Joseph O’Kane, of Richboro, who finished in second place for All the Way Home, and Quakertown’s Barbara Beck, who captured third place for A Little Ghost Story, were also present for the virtual event.
Poached, explained Ulmer, was inspired by a real-life belief in Asia that rhinoceros horns have medicinal abilities, which is causing the species to become extinct. Owning a horn is also considered a sign of great wealth.
“The main thread of the story is a man in Vietnam who is the only son of the richest woman in Vietnam, and she is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He believes that the powder of the rhinoceros horn is the only thing that can cure his mom,” said Ulmer.
In the story, the man’s last batch of rhino horn powder is destroyed by the eco-terrorist group the Conservationist Army, and he decides to take matters into his own hands.
“Things don’t go well,” Ulmer said with a laugh.
Kiley Reid, a Philadelphia-area novelist who penned Such a Fun Age, was the final judge in the Short Fiction Contest. When describing Poached, Reid said it’s “an exciting and twisting story of a regretful son, his late attempts to do the right thing, and the all-too-familiar understanding that sometimes, it’s far too late. It’s nicely paced, its main character is full and flawed, and it does what every short story should do, in that it made me quite curious and with more questions than I started with.”
For Ulmer, his love of putting pen to paper began while growing up in South Jersey, where he could usually be found jotting down brief stories. His writing ambitions became more serious after he graduated from college and was looking for a job. Out of boredom, he began drafting a story to keep himself occupied. Before Ulmer knew it, he had written his first novel.
“It was not a good novel. It was clearly something that was thrown together,” he reflected.
But he wanted to try it again. This time, it would be intentional. After a few years, Ulmer had six novels to his name, though none got much recognition. It simply became a hobby as he got married, had children and advanced in his marketing/public relations role in the higher education field.
However, when his wife pushed him to attend a writing conference in Philadelphia, which included a one-on-one session with an editor who would provide feedback, the fire was “reawakened.” Ulmer returned to one of his novels, and transformed it into something he thinks is ready to be submitted to agents.
Additionally, Ulmer joined an online writing group, where he worked with a critique partner to gain and give constructive feedback. Here, he was encouraged to keep writing short stories while awaiting critiques on his larger projects. It was at this point about a year ago that Poached was born.
If someone told Ulmer during those years of trial and error that he’d win a countywide contest someday (not to mention as a first-time entrant), he wouldn’t have believed them. Fictional writing was something he lost touch with for some time, but his love for it was never really gone.
“Something I started doing when I was a kid, writing fiction and hoping that it would be able to connect with somebody, yes I fell away from it because life got in the way, but I managed to find my way back to it,” he said. “The world is crazy right now and our jobs take us away, our family takes us away. But there’s no reason to ever stop caring about doing this for yourself. You can be 20, you can be 70. It doesn’t matter as long as you accomplish whatever you set out to accomplish.”
This “never too late” mindset inspired one of Ulmer’s middle-aged colleagues to revisit something he set aside in his 20s – creating beats for rap and R&B songs.
“There is no ‘too old,’ ” said Ulmer. “If you like doing it, keep doing it.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com