(Soundbite of timer)
GUY RAZ, host:
And now, it's time to announce the first winner of our summer writing contest, Three-Minute Fiction.
In June, we appealed to your inner author. We asked for original short stories, works of fiction that could be read in three minutes or less. And we received more than 5,000 stories. We'll hear from our winner in a moment. But first, to our series guide, literary critic James Wood of The New Yorker and author of "How Fiction Works." Hi, James.
Mr. JAMES WOOD (Author, "How Fiction Works"): Hi.
RAZ: You've read through hundreds and hundreds of stories in the last week of judging alone. Was it hard to pick a winner?
Mr. WOOD: It was. There's something about the brevity of the form that incited people to produce tremendous range of pungent anecdotes and wonderful brief monologues. So it was a tightly fought field, and I ended with five or six finalists. Among them were Sally Reno, Bernard Mendillo, Paul Luikart, Deborah Kaple, and Gabriel Louis.
RAZ: But, of course, you had to make a decision about one story that was going to win this competition. James, who is the winner?
Mr. WOOD: The winner is Molly Reid and the story is "Not that I Care." It was a story I mentioned a few weeks ago.
Mr. WOOD: It's an early entrant, and it held its own against many later entrants.
RAZ: Well, James, Molly Reid is on the line with us from member station KUNC in Greeley, Colorado. That's near her home in Fort Collins.
Molly Reid, congratulations.
Ms. MOLLY REID (Winner, Three-Minute Fiction): Thank you so much.
Mr. WOOD: Congratulations, Molly, tremendous story.
Ms. REID: Thank you, James. Thank you for reading and choosing my story.
RAZ: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do?
Ms. REID: Well, this summer I'm actually waiting tables at a restaurant in Fort Collins. And during the school year, I teach at Colorado State University. I teach freshman composition and literature.
RAZ: Well, how long have you been writing?
Ms. REID: Oh, I would say seriously writing for about 10 years. I try to write every morning for an hour or two, and I usually write longer pieces. Lately, I have been writing in the shorter form, and I'm really enjoying it.
RAZ: When you teach freshman composition at Colorado State, what advice do you give to your students? How can they become better writers?
Ms. REID: Well, I believe a lot in finding your own personal voice and, you know, we all have something to say. And it's just about finding your particular individual way of saying it.
RAZ: We heard some excerpts of this story midway through our contest, but we now want to hear the whole story.
So James, would you mind reading the whole story for us?
Mr. WOOD: I'd be delighted to.
(Reading) "Not that I Care" by Molly Reid.
There goes our neighbor, Jim, running into the street again. He grabs one of the ducks crossing, doesn't even look to see if anyone is looking. Just scampers out; hunched over, elbows bent, and reaching behind him like he's trying to grow wings or is throwing himself to the asphalt, then scoops a duck and holds it with both hands close to his chest and runs back into his house.
This has been going on for two weeks, started around the time Marcus left, or at least that's when I first noticed it. The ducks always squawk like someone has just thrown a hundred bread crumbs into the lake, moving in frantic, dizzy eights around the stolen duck's absence. I don't think anyone sees him but me. The houses on our street keep the curtains closed. There's nothing ever to see on our street.
I sit at the window drinking pot after pot of weak black coffee, drumming my fingers on the windowsill, and chewing off the extra tiny bits of skin inside my cheeks, pondering whether it's always a different group of ducks that cross our street, migrating from the manmade lake across town, or if Jim lets the snatched duck go some time later, and maybe the same group of ducks make the same trek every day, an afternoon waddle, forgetting about the dangers of this street. Or maybe the ducks and Jim have reached an understanding, a mutually-agreed-upon ritual.
When Marcus left, he left behind a pair of dirty socks, one hiding under the bed and one right in plain sight, curled into itself and getting smaller every day, like a sad little salted slug. I can't bring myself to touch them. I wonder if he left them on purpose, if they're supposed to communicate something, something about cheating and the things we discard, the state of our souls, the process by which galaxies implode.
Once Jim has gone inside with the duck, the other ducks remain in the middle of the street, going around and around each other accusingly, angry toddlers pacing in waddles. I think about moving them to safety. Not that any cars drive down our street. Not, anyway, like Marcus used to, speeding, snarled music, brakes wheezing, spitting rocks. I should at least run out and comfort the remaining ducks, tell them it's going to be okay, that sooner or later, the sting of absence will lessen. One day, those blue and green feathers, you won't remember them so soft. Not that I know that for sure, or that I know anything about feathers. Not that they could understand me, being ducks.
Or I could go next door, take that duck back, let him go, let them all go free. If it wasn't for the look on Jim's face, lips pressed together like he has a mouth full of jellybeans, like he's getting away with something, which I let him believe, which I understand the importance of. I keep watching. And every time he takes another duck, I get closer to thinking about moving away from the window.
RAZ: What an evocative story. And that story, James, clocks in at two minutes 40 seconds, which…
Mr. WOODS: Wow.
RAZ: …really shows you can tell…
Mr. WOODS: Yes.
RAZ: …an incredibly rich story in under three minutes.
Molly Reid, there's a subtle sense of loss in your story. And I'm wondering if you could describe what informs your writing or this story, in particular.
Ms. REID: This story in particular, I sort of borrowed a friend's heartbreak, I think, and was thinking about that. And I also - at the time, I had a neighbor. My cat, actually, was spending a lot of time over in the neighbor's yard, and I was wondering why.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REID: And it sort of came out that this neighbor who was keeping geese.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
Ms. REID: And so that was just sort of really interesting to me, and I didn't get a chance to ask them how they got the geese or why they were keeping the geese or, you know, what they were doing with those geese. But so I sort of just started thinking about what might bring that kind of thing about.
RAZ: There's some lines in there, and I know that James had mentioned one line in particular to us.
(Reading) When Marcus left, he left behind a pair of dirty socks, one hiding under the bed and one right in plain sight, curled into itself and getting smaller every day, like a sad, little salted slug.
What was it about that that struck you?
Mr. WOOD: I think it works like all good simile or metaphor. It has an initial strangeness and then an absolute rightness, so that you read it and think, yeah, I never thought of it like that. Absolutely, that's what it is. It's being captured. And it was hard to find moments like that in any of the other stories, in fact.
But also, like really good simile or metaphor, it makes you think about its creator. And in this case, its user or creator is the voice, the person who's sitting at the window thinking about Marcus. And of course, it's a terrific, self-revealing image, because in some way, that person, too, is shrinking from absence, shrinking away from loss like a little salted slug.
RAZ: Molly Reid, I hope you'll share some of your forthcoming stories with us. We love this one.
Ms. REID: Thank you so much.
RAZ: That, of course, is our winning author, Molly Reid of Fort Collins, Colorado. Ms. Reid will receive a signed copy of James Wood's book, "How Fiction Works." James Wood, of course, is a literary critic at The New Yorker and our tireless guide to Three-Minute Fiction.
James, thank you so much.
Mr. WOOD: Thank you very much.
RAZ: And thanks to all the listeners who wrote in. To read the stories of the runners up and, of course, the winning story by Molly Reid, visit the new npr.org. And stay tuned for an announcement soon on our next round.
A quick note before we sign off tonight. I'll be your host on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED every weekend from here on out. And every weekend, we'll look for stories and voices from around the world that hopefully you won't hear anywhere else.
So thanks for letting us be a part of your weekends. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great night.