The search is over for the winner of Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction, the contest where listeners submit original short stories that can be read in about three minutes.
We received help this round from graduate students at 16 different writing programs across the country. They poured through thousands of submissions and passed the best of the best along to our judge this round, novelist Karen Russell.
Here was your challenge for this round: A character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.
Russell was struck by the "inventiveness and diversity" the prompt inspired in the submissions, she tells Guy Raz, contest curator and host of NPR's TED Radio Hour.
"Reading the entries felt a little like a treasure hunt — I couldn't wait to see what object they were going to bury inside the story for their characters to find," she says. "In most cases, the 'found' objects did not have a huge dollar value — any value they had was reflective of the character's secret desires, or the product of some human relationship."
"They represent two very different takes on the prompt, but each is marvelously dramatic and packs an unbelievable amount of characterization and suspense into the three-minute word allotment," Russell says.
In the end, there is only one winner: Ben Jahn for his submission, Reborn.
"Ben Jahn's use of language, the specificity of his details, just blew me away. It was indelible and unforgettable and really chilling," Russell says.
Jahn's story is set at the "Reborn Convention," where adults shop in the "high fluorescence of toyland" for baby dolls. A "sky blue onesie" catches the eye of the male narrator. Jahn had been researching doll shopping for a novel he's writing. "There's something inherently creepy about dolls, to me anyway," says Jahn, who grew up with four sisters.
Jahn, of Richmond, Calif., is an English teacher. He says his earliest inspiration came from his father, who was not a writer but tried to win a chainsaw by writing a radio jingle.
"I loved watching him toil over language. I didn't know people wrote and tried to achieve something in writing," he says. "I liked the effect it had on me, and decided I wanted to try to do that for others."
Jahn says he's honored to win the contest and hopes to inspire others to pick up "a piece of serious fiction."
"Whether you read me or not, it's an important pastime. Sometimes it takes something very short to get the reader's attention piqued," he says.
Reborn will be published in the fall issue of The Paris Review, and Jahn will receive all three of Russell's novels.
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Tess Vigeland.
You've been waiting patiently. But finally, here is a familiar voice to reveal the winner of our listener writing contest.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)
GUY RAZ, BYLINE: All right. You know what that sound means. It's time to announce the winner of Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction writing contest. I'm Guy Raz, the curator of Three-Minute Fiction and the host of the TED Radio Hour.
Three-Minute Fiction, of course, is our contest where we ask you to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes. In this round, you submitted almost 4,000 original stories. And our judge this round, the novelist Karen Russell, who, of course, wrote the book "Swamplandia," had to go through a lot of those - not all 4,000, right, Karen?
KAREN RUSSELL: Not all 4,000. I had sort of the easiest job. A fabulous team of readers from MFA programs in the Paris Review really whittled it down for me. But I did get to read many entries.
RAZ: So remind us what the - first of all, hello, Karen. Welcome.
RUSSELL: Hi, Guy. Thank you. Just swinging out of the shadows.
RAZ: Remind us what the challenge was this round. What did listeners have to write?
RUSSELL: So the challenge was called Finders Keepers, and they were tasked to come up with a story where a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.
RAZ: And I know that you had a tough time picking the winner, which we will get to in just a moment. But just before we do that, there were two stories that were finalists. So we're - amazing stories. Can you tackle a little bit about those?
RUSSELL: Oh, I had an extremely difficult time finding a winner. We had such great finalists - two that I loved. One was by Manuel Gonzales, and it's called "Picked Clean."
RAZ: "Picked Clean." Yeah.
RUSSELL: Has an ending worthy of Flannery O'Connor. A sister finds her brother's amputated finger. And the other one was by Kristina Riggle, and it was called "Chips." And it's every writer's horse story - about a man who loses a flash drive that contains the last 20 pages of his novel.
RAZ: So it is now time to announce the winning story, Karen.
RAZ: We've been waiting - who is the winner of Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction?
RUSSELL: I wish I had brought like a kettle drum.
RUSSELL: The winner of Round 11 - I'm so excited to announce - is Ben Jahn with his story "Reborn."
RAZ: "Reborn." Ben Jahn - Richmond, California. That is an incredible story. What was it about his story that stood out?
RUSSELL: Ben Jahn's use of language, the specificity of his details just blew me away. It was indelible and unforgettable and really chilling.
RAZ: And without further ado, here is Ben Jahn's story, "Reborn." It's read by our own Bob Mondello.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: (Reading) At the Reborn Convention at the Creektown Holiday Inn, the women mill and mingle, fawn over mohair follicles, blue-blotched underpainting, voice boxes uploaded with found sound. Distant crying. Summer afternoon nap meltdowns. I'm the only man, and I sense their suspicion. I feel lost. I eat a tasteless finger sandwich. I touch a doll with the back of my hand. A pamphlet explains: Real Baby Heater Systems. I've been doll shopping all day.
Mom-pop small shops, to midrange chains hanging on in the e-conomy, to toy depots built into stucco strips. The high florescence of toyland. The dolls' faces sealed behind cellophane. The saleslady said these were the top sellers. None of these speaks to me, I said. Oh, we got dolls that coo and laugh. Laughing's not speaking. We got dolls that cry. You might try the Reborns in Creektown. You might find what you're looking for there.
At the hairing station, I watch a woman with craft-specific tools tweeze strands through micro-perforations in a scalp. A small digi-cam and halogen lamp beam down on her knuckles and project on a portable screen, before which others have gathered with notepads and clandestine camera phones to bootleg instructions. When she has a patch on the soft spot, she palms the wispy fuzz to prove the sensory logic of it all. A plastic placard at her table reads real human.
I ask what's the story of the hair there. That came off a 3-year-old girl. Does that add to the value? Right, how could it not? Did the girl know what she was doing? Did she think she was shaving her head for the sick? I know what you're thinking. She waits several seconds and says, the answer is yes and no. I wander in a trance watching the reborners create the semblance of infant life. Diorama style setups with mood lighting, bassinets, blankies and mobiles.
Night monitors for the baby noises. Music boxes. Strollers folded in the corner for endless calming walks. A brawny mannequin in plaid and jeans, like me, with a reborn in a Bjorn. Are you in the market? I want to say yes, make me one with an electric heart that never stops. Make me one with a real GI tract, real stench. I want to say yes, sell me a kit with six toes on the left foot, a harelip and a palsied hand. I'd take that.
Can I take - I almost say it - this little guy - it's wearing a sky blue onesie - for a walk? Just to see how it feels. This one's 500. She lifts it off the mannequin and helps me into the straps. Just around here, I say, a test drive. You can have my car keys for collateral.
Outside, in the natural light, I can see his underpainted, blue-blotched blood vessels, the most accurate glue-fleck cradle cap. Away from all of the other dolls, he looks realer than ever, sleeping with those tight-shut eyes. Passersby don't think twice. Passengers on the train give knowing looks. So sweet. By the time I get to my stop, it's easy enough to imagine the heartbeat I'm feeling isn't my own.
RAZ: What an incredible story. Ben Jahn is with us now from KQED in San Francisco. Ben, congratulations to you. What an incredible story.
RUSSELL: Congrats, Ben.
BEN JAHN: Thanks, Guy. Thanks, Karen.
RAZ: So how did you get the idea for this story? Where did it come from?
JAHN: I had been researching, doll shopping a little bit on my own for a novel that I'm writing. And there's something inherently creepy about dolls, to me anyway. Maybe it's because I have four sisters, and I had to grow up around dolls.
RAZ: Where did the spark come from? Like, when did you realize that you love doing this?
JAHN: My first sort of model for writing was actually my dad, who's not a writer. He'd entered a contest to win a chainsaw because he needed a chainsaw. And it was a radio jingle contest, and I watched him write this thing, hunched over at his desk for hours and hours. And he ended up getting third place, which was a baseball hat.
JAHN: Which doesn't help a man who needs a chainsaw.
RUSSELL: Have you guys considered having the Paris Review also send a chainsaw...
RAZ: That's a good idea.
RUSSELL: ...as part of the prize?
JAHN: Yeah, I can give it to my dad.
RAZ: That's a good idea. We should ask them about that.
JAHN: Twenty five years too late.
RAZ: Well, Ben, congratulations. And we're, of course, excited to read your novel. We can't wait until that comes up.
JAHN: I can't wait till comes out too.
RAZ: That's Ben Jahn whose short story "Reborn" is the winner of Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. Ben's story will be published in the fall issue of the Paris Review, and Karen Russell will send him signed copies of all three of her novels, including, of course, "Swamplandia." Ben, again, thank you so much. And congratulations.
JAHN: Thank you, Guy. And thanks, Karen.
RUSSELL: Thank you, Ben.
RAZ: And, of course, thanks to you, Karen Russell, the judge for Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction. It has been an absolute pleasure having you judge these stories for us.
RUSSELL: Oh, my gosh. I had the best time. Thank you, guys, for asking me. It was really so fun.
RAZ: And thanks to all of you who submitted stories this time around. If you want to read Ben's story, as well as all of Karen Russell's favorites, go to our website, npr.org/threeminutefiction with Three-Minute Fiction all spelled out. I'm Guy Raz, the curator of Three-Minute Fiction, thanks for listening.
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