Round 7 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest attracted more than 3,000 story submissions. Tasked with writing an original short story that can be read in about three minutes, contestants had to include one character arriving to town and one character leaving town.
The judge for this round, writer Danielle Evans, has picked her favorite.
Evans is the author of the short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She read the submissions with the help of students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the faculty and students from NYU's creative writing graduate program.
Evans tells host of weekends on All Things Considered Guy Raz that something about this round's challenge brought out "a tremendous sense of nostalgia."
"There were kind of an astonishing number of child narrators," she says, "maybe people remember that idea of coming and going more clearly in childhood."
Evans agonized over a few entries before picking a winner. One in particular that came close was Sleep Lessons, by Chad Woody from Springfield, Mo.
"I thought that there was a way in which it kind of captures that idea of a child's sense of the world," Evans says. "There are all these ... strong images, very sharp sentences that really, you kind of see what's going on with the mother in a way that the child can't name."
The piece that did win came from Chris Westberg of Williamsburg, Va. Her story is called Little Hossein. The setting is not explicitly mentioned in the story, but Westberg says it takes place in 1963 in a village outside of Tehran, Iran. She says all of the characters were real people in her childhood. The event, however, is fictional.
Evans said the story stuck in her mind after reading it.
"I got the sense that there was this whole world here," she says. "[Westberg] took that feeling and those memories and made them something kind of heightened and compressed and really interesting."
Westberg teaches acting at the College of William and Mary.
"I think my directing and acting experience is really feeding my work," she tells Raz.
Westberg says the parameters for this round were not challenging. In fact, they helped her frame the story.
"[Evans] gave me a great, great gift, because I wasn't even thinking about the story, and when she said it's about somebody arriving and somebody leaving — Whoa! It all came together," she says.
The next Three-Minute Fiction challenge and a new judge will be announced after the New Year.
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
We made it. The end of Round 7 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest is finally here. And who else to help reveal the winner but Guy Raz.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Well, thanks, Jacki. And as you know, I've been filling in on the weekdays, but I couldn't miss coming back to my home here on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for the winner of Round 7 of Three-Minute Fiction. That's our contest where we ask you to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes. Now, in case you forgot, the challenge this round: In each story, one character had to arrive to town and one had to leave.
And our judge Danielle Evans is also the author of the short story collection, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." And she's here with me. Danielle, it's great to have you back.
DANIELLE EVANS: Thanks so much for having me.
RAZ: Before we get to that winner, describe what the writers did with the challenge this time that you laid out?
EVANS: They did a lot of things. There were a kind of astonishing number of trial and errors. I think something about the challenge maybe people remember the idea of coming and going more clearly in childhood. There was this tremendous sense of nostalgia, I think, about the challenge.
RAZ: I know there were so many stories that you really loved and a few that you agonized over, you know, who you were going to pick as the winner. But there was one in particular that came very close. This one was called "Sleep Lessons" by Chad Woody from Springfield, Missouri. Tell me about that story and what it was that appealed to you.
EVANS: I thought that there was a way in which it kind of captures that idea of a child's sense of the world. There are all these really kind of strong images, very sharp sentences that, really, you kind of see what's going on with the mother in a way that the child can't name. And you get the sense that the story is opening up into something instead of closing down at the end.
RAZ: Well, you can find that story, "Sleep Lessons," and others that Danielle has selected at our website, npr.org/threeminutefiction. Danielle, it's time. Who is the winner of Round 7 of Three-Minute Fiction?
EVANS: The winner is Chris Westberg for the story "Little Hossein."
RAZ: Well, before I ask you what it was that drew you to the story, let's hear it in full. Our own Susan Stamberg reading the entire story. This is "Little Hossein" by Chris Westberg, the winner of Round 7 of Three-Minute Fiction.
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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: (Reading) Little Hossein was the first person I knew who died. We started calling him Little Hossein when Big Hossein moved down from the mountains to live with his brother Mohammed, our cook. Little Hossein was older than me but just my size. His head was shaved. His father, Mashala, our gardener, spent the whole day every day watering the rose bushes because the minute he stopped, they got dusty.
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STAMBERG: Little Hossein's skin was the color of the dust and smelled like kerosene. One day, Big Hossein found him stealing Kool Pops from our refrigerator and hit him on the head with his flip flops over and over, harder and harder. Little Hossein started to cry, and so did I. After that, I guess we were friends, except I spied on him and he spied on me. He crept onto the terrace and looked through my bedroom window. I told him the picture of President Kennedy on my dresser was the Shah of Emrika. He stared through my window at that picture a lot, or maybe he was looking at my piggy bank right next to it.
He'd stand outside my window where my bike was parked. It was a three-speed from the States. Finally, I let him borrow it. He rode it outside the gate to the village. He didn't let the village boys ride it, but he rode it round and round the square while the boys tried to push him off. Every morning I had to walk past the sand dunes on the way from the gate to the school bus. The village boys hid behind the sand dunes. They threw stones that hit the gravel near my feet. One day, when I came back from school, Little Hossein was hiding with them. Then my bike disappeared. Mohammed saw the village boys riding it. That evening, I heard Mohammed and Mashala and Big Hossein yelling at Little Hossein. You could hear the flip-flops slapping his head all the way from the servants' quarters. Early in the morning, Little Hossein tapped on my window screen. We snuck out of the gate and hid behind the sand dunes. We waited.
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STAMBERG: The sun rose. The mullah stopped singing. The roosters stopped kukukoolooing. Then Hassan, the tall, skinny, meanest one, appeared from far across the desert, riding my bike, skidding and scraping the tires. He was singing when he passed us. Little Hossein jumped from behind the sand dunes and knocked him over. I shouted, thief, thief, thief. Hassan scraped his face on the gravel but held tight to the bike. They were yelling about money and Hassan kept saying, Hossein AGHA. Mr. Hossein, Big Hossein. Then he yelled, teef, teef, teef, and turned my bike upside down.
The tires were still spinning fast. He grabbed Little Hossein by the back of his neck. He pushed Little Hossein's face at the bicycle, pressing his tongue against the tire until the spinning stopped. Then Hassan yanked Little Hossein's head back and at me. His tongue was covered with dirt and snot. Big Hossein didn't get fired for selling my bike. Little Hossein stopped sneaking around my window even when the 10-speed came from the A.P.O. He hid with the village boys and whispered, teef, teef, teef with them every day when I got off the school bus. The snot stayed on his face and his throat got swollen. Finally, Mashala took him to the hospital. The next morning, when the Mullah stopped singing, I heard Mashala crying so loud that the roosters hushed. Mohammed said it was the will of God.
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RAZ: "Little Hossein" by Chris Westberg of Williamsburg, Virginia, and that is the winning story in Round Seven of Three-Minute Fiction. And Chris Westberg has been listening in from her station in Williamsburg, WHRO. Chris, congratulations.
CHRIS WESTBERG: Oh, thank you so much.
RAZ: What an incredible story. One of the great things about this story is that you never reveal where it takes place. I mean, it could be Dubai, it could be Iraq, even Dearborn, Michigan. Did you have a particular place in mind when you wrote this?
It takes place in 1963 in a village on the fringes of Tehran, Iran.
So this is something that you experienced or...
WESTBERG: Little Hossein is a real person who did die of diphtheria. And all of those characters, Mashala and Mohammed, they were all characters in my childhood, but the event is completely made up.
RAZ: Hmm. Well, Chris, Danielle Evans is with me here in the studio. Say hello, Danielle.
EVANS: Hello. It's nice to hear your voice.
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RAZ: And, Danielle, can you tell us what it was about this story that struck you?
EVANS: You know, I said at the beginning that I was looking for the story that I couldn't stop thinking about. And I think this story kept coming back to me. And there was a whole world here, that you have this kind of condensed version of it. You know, I have a writer friend - I've got too many writer friends, probably, but one of them is a wonderful writer named Tyree Jones who says, you know, if you know what it's like to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about what it's like to be trapped in a spaceship. And I think that something about this story captures that idea. You took that feeling and those memories and made them something kind of heightened and compressed and really interesting.
RAZ: Chris, what did you make of Danielle's challenge?
WESTBERG: It was not a challenge. You gave me a great, great gift because I wasn't even thinking about the story. And when she said it's about somebody arriving and somebody leaving, whoa, it call came together. She gave me a structure and a design.
RAZ: Chris Westberg, thank you so much for joining us. Your story is incredible. It's "Little Hossein." It's the winner of Round Seven of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. You can find Chris' story and those of other contenders on our series page. It's npr.org/threeminutefiction, and three minute fiction is all spelled out with no spaces. Chris, once again, congratulations. It was great having you on. It's - what a great story.
WESTBERG: Thank you.
RAZ: And, of course, for our judge this round, Round Seven, Danielle Evans, she's the author of the short story collection "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." And clearly, Chris Westberg is one of the thousands of fans you have out there, Danielle. Thank you so much for judging the contest this round.
EVANS: Oh, thank you for inviting me. It was a great pleasure.
RAZ: And also, a shout-out to the graduate students at NYU's creative writing program and also students from the Iowa Writers Workshop. They helped us read through the thousands of stories we received this round and in previous rounds. And we'll be back with more Three-Minute Fiction, a new challenge and a new judge after the New Year, so stay tuned.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.