Three-Minute Fiction
4:49 pm
Sat March 9, 2013

Three-Minute Fiction: The Round 10 Winner Is ...

Originally published on Sun March 10, 2013 4:26 am

Did you leave a message after our prompt? For Round 10 of Three-Minute Fiction, we asked you to submit a short story in the form of a voice mail message. For this contest, the original fiction must be read in about three minutes, no more than 600 words.

After four weeks and more than 4,000 stories, we have a winner.

Graduate students at 14 different writing programs across the country helped read the Round 10 submissions. They passed the best of the best along to our judge this round, novelist Mona Simpson.

"There was a great variety, and it was surprising voice mail messages ... some were hilarious," Simpson tells Guy Raz, contest curator and host of NPR's TED Radio Hour.

Aside from the winning story, a couple of other entries stood out for Simpson. In Eric Bronner's "Everything's Under Control," a zookeeper has released an elephant for unknown reasons and uses his one phone call from jail to explain how to correct the situation. The voice mail left in Jacqui Higgins-Dailey's story, "After the Tone," is from a girlfriend to her boyfriend about their incompatibility, and she uses a dog pulling away from its owner as a metaphor.

But in the end, there is only one winner: Lisa Rubenson of Charlotte, N.C. She wrote "Sorry for Your Loss."

"It's funny at moments, and yet it's very strikingly yearning," Simpson says.

The story is a series of attempts at leaving a voice mail, which gives a rare perspective, Simpson says.

"I love the way she considers these various things she wants to say but erases them and what she finally comes to," she says. "Even though it's a vocal story, we get the privilege of hearing her thinking as well to herself."

Rubenson says she was excited by the prompt, and her idea came from the challenge of finding the right thing to say.

"There's always things that need to be said but aren't, or things that get said that shouldn't," she says. "And I struggle with that a lot, and I think it's kind of a universal thing."

Rubenson's story will be published in the next issue of The Paris Review. She will also receive a signed copy of Simpson's latest book, My Hollywood.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Well, you probably know what that sound means. After four weeks and over 4,000 stories, we finally reached the end of Round 10 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. I'm Guy Raz. I'm the curator of Three-Minute Fiction here on WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and also the host of the TED Radio Hour on NPR.

Three-Minute Fiction is, of course, our contest where we ask you, our listeners, to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes. The challenge this round was to write a story in the form of a voice mail message. And I have to say, we got some pretty amazing, interesting messages in return.

That challenge was given to us by our judge this round, the novelist Mona Simpson, who is with us now to talk about her pick for the winning entry in this round of Three-Minute Fiction. Mona, welcome. Thanks for being here.

MONA SIMPSON: Thank you.

RAZ: So first of all, you came up with this amazing challenge, which was to write a short story under 600 words in the form of a voice mail message. Give me a sense of what came in, what you saw people do with this.

SIMPSON: There was a great variety. And it was surprising voice mail messages. I think some were hilarious. Two in particular that I keep thinking of: one is called "Everything's Under Control"...

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

SIMPSON: ...by Eric Bronner...

RAZ: Eric Bronner of Eugene, Oregon.

SIMPSON: ...which is about a fellow who works for the zoo who released an elephant for unknown reasons, and then lost him and is trying to strategize the elephant's recapture from his one phone call from jail. It's very funny.

And another one I keep thinking of called "After the Tone" by Jacqui Higgins-Dailey from Phoenix. She's leaving this message for her boyfriend about the complete incompatibility. And she saw somebody walking a dog, and the dog was just straining and straining and straining to go faster, and the man was pulling him back with all his might. And she saw that as their relationship.

RAZ: Mona, we, of course, can only pick one story out of the more than 4,000...

SIMPSON: So I was told, yes.

RAZ: ...that we received this round. So who is it? Who is the winner for Round 10 of Three-Minute Fiction?

SIMPSON: Well, the great story is called "Sorry for Your Loss," and it's by Lisa Rubenson.

RAZ: Oh, wow. What was it about this story that struck you?

SIMPSON: It's funny at moments, and yet it's very strikingly yearning. And it's a story which the caller keeps revising her messages. I mean, we only get the message that's actually finally left. We don't get the five erasures and trials. And I love the way she considers these various things she wants to say but erases them and what she finally comes to.

RAZ: Well, without any further ado, here is Lisa Rubenson's story, "Sorry for Your Loss." It's read by NPR's Tamara Keith.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please record your message after the tone. When you are finished, you may hang up or press the pound key for more options.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: (Reading) Hi, it's me, Christine. I can't believe you still have this number, that I still remember it. But there's your voice on the machine, like no time has passed. I'm so sorry for your loss, Nick, for your mom. Can anyone else hear this?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message, press three.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Hi, Nick. It's Christine - Christine Williams, remember? It's been a long time. I called because I know it's tough right now. I'm sorry to hear about the death of - that your mom passed. Try to say something real.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message, press three.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Nick, it's Christine. Hey, long time, no anything. Too jaunty.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message, press...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Hi, Nick. It's Christine. Stacy told me about your mom. It was in the paper here too. How are you? What a thing to say. I'm sorry - for everything. Your mom and I - well, whatever, you know, but I was still fond of her. Is that what I was?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message, press...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Nick, it's Chris. I'm so sorry. I'm in town, and I wanted to come over - bring you dinner or something. Stacy said you're single again. I left that guy - you called it, ha. Maybe now we can - no, please no. Let me press the right button here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Nick, it's me, Chris. Christine. I'm sorry about your mom. I've been thinking about you - about her. For some reason, about the time she picked up the phone and said: You two are too young to be this serious. Remember how we laughed as she spit out the words two and too? I tried so hard to get her to like me. It's weird. I have a daughter now. She's the same age we were. Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Christine, it's Nick, love of your life. Nice...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Hi, Nick. It's Christine. It's been so long. I'm in town. Listen, I'm sorry to hear about your mom. I'll never forget the house on del Cielo. Her garden with those ocotillo with the octopus arms and the squat prickly pears in front of the gate? How we said she planted them to keep girls like me away?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) Nick, it's Chris. I'm in town, would love to see you. I'm sorry about your mom. It's so hard to find the right words. I'm rambling, nervous, so much to say. I keep thinking about the old days. It's weird. I have a teenager now, a daughter the same age as we were. I think about us, and it's hard. I think about skiing and finding that circle of pine trees, about pretending the clouds were our kids and giving them all Greek god names, about sitting at dinner with our faces bright red.

Your mom thought we were up to something, but we were just burned from the sun and the wind and the future shining down hard all around us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) It's me. I'm in town. I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To re-record your message, press...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

KEITH: (Reading) It's me. Call me back. Please? This is Christine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To send your message, press the pound key.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEY TONE)

RAZ: Wow. That story by Lisa Rubenson from Charlotte, North Carolina. And she is with us now on the line from WFAE in Charlotte. Lisa, what an amazing story. Congratulations to you.

SIMPSON: Yes, congratulations. I loved the story.

LISA RUBENSON: Oh, thank you. Thank you both.

RAZ: I mean, you heard Mona's prompt a few weeks ago on the show, and how did you figure out to write such an amazing, moving piece like that?

RUBENSON: I thought it was a great prompt, and it was a lot of fun to think about what are the things that you would try to say in a voice mail that were so important and yet could still be said kind of naturally. There's always things that need to be said that aren't or things that get said that shouldn't. And I struggle with that a lot, and I think it's a kind of a universal thing. So that's kind of what started me down that path.

SIMPSON: What I love about it is it's very, very sad and poignant, but it's also hilariously funny. The revisions are hilarious. She first is sort of fumbling to get to the three button to make sure she can actually erase what she's just said. And then she gets good at it and kind of gets going and sort of lets herself leave messages that she knows she's not going to allow, that she knows she's going to erase. So even though it's a vocal story, we get the privilege of hearing her thinking as well to herself.

RAZ: Do you have any questions that you wanted to ask Mona?

Oh, my goodness. I would love to talk about writing all day with you and storytelling. And I think it may be a little bit of a cliche, but I would love to just ask the question that new writers are always asking: how do you start? When you sit down to write something, how do you talk to your characters? How do they start coming into the world with you?

SIMPSON: That's a good question. You know, I've been writing for a long time. And I think, for me, it's almost a kind of a meditative practice. Characters come to me as sort of compounds or exaggerations of things I see in life, something I'll read.

RAZ: Great words of advice from Mona Simpson, our judge this round, Round 10 of Three-Minute Fiction. Can't believe we're already at Round 10. The winner this time around was Lisa Rubenson from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her story, "Sorry for Your Loss," can be found on our website. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction.

That story will also be published in the next issue of the Paris Review. Our friends at the Paris Review have agreed to publish that story. And Lisa will also receive a signed copy of Mona Simpson's latest book, "My Hollywood." Lisa, thank you so much. Congratulations on such an amazing story.

RUBENSON: Thank you. It's really quite an honor.

RAZ: And, of course, thanks to our judge this round, Round 10 of Three-Minute Fiction, the novelist Mona Simpson. Mona, what a great challenge. It was great having you. Thank you so much.

SIMPSON: Oh, it's my delight. It's really fun reading them.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

That's our judge, writer Mona Simpson. And special thanks to Guy Raz, curator of Three-Minute Fiction and now host of the TED Radio Hour. And thanks to our wonderful readers, the graduate students at 14 creative writing programs across the country who helped us wade through those 4,000 stories. We appreciate everybody's help. And Three-Minute Fiction fans, stay tuned for a whole new round with a new judge, new prompt coming soon to a radio near you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.