Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of timer)

GUY RAZ, host:

After 3,600 stories and countless hours of reading, here's the moment we've all been waiting for: It's time to announce the winner of Round Two of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.

Now, I'm going to need some help with that. So let's bring in James Wood. James, are you there?

Mr. JAMES WOOD (Literary Critic, The New Yorker): I am.

RAZ: James Wood, of course, is the New Yorker's literary critic and our guide this round to Three-Minute Fiction.

James, we asked listeners to send in original short stories that can be read in three minutes or less, hence the name Three-Minute Fiction. But we made this round a bit more challenging by assigning a first line, which was...

Mr. WOOD: The line was: The nurse left work at five o'clock.

RAZ: Okay, what did our listeners do with that first line, James?

Mr. WOOD: They did amazing things. The standard story, which I hadn't expected at all, seemed to involve a nurse walking home, immediately lighting up a cigarette, and then as soon as she gets home, dissolving into alcoholism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

An interesting number of stories twisted it around so that it wasn't the perspective of the nurse, it was from the perspective of the patient as the nurse leaves the room, which was a nice thing to do.

And some wonderful stories, a good number, dispensed entirely with that kind of ordinariness, predictability, whatever, and just played wonderful games and arabesques with this idea. I have a few examples, if you'd like to hear them.

RAZ: Yeah, please, absolutely.

Mr. WOOD: Two terrific stories that were in tight contention with the eventual winner, Lisa Sarasohn's story, "Poetry at Six," is set in a creative writing class, and someone is actually speaking that first line and then doing an analysis of why it's a good line of poetry, sort of scanning it for meter.

And Will Dowd's story, "The First Session," is about a nurse leaving work and going to a marriage counseling session, only to find that her husband, a quantum physicist, has been exhibiting what is called quantum behavior. It's very funny. They're both extremely funny stories.

RAZ: And we'll be posting those online, as well, with the winning story. All right, James, we've been waiting long enough. Reveal our winner for us, please.

Mr. WOOD: The winner is Cathy Formusa. And we have here a terrific story, and I would love to read it out.

RAZ: So this story that you're about to read is called "Last Seen." It's by Cathy Formusa from Port Townsend, Washington. James, the story, please.

Mr. WOOD: (Reading) The nurse left work at five o'clock. He sauntered his words at me like he was king of the street.

How do you know, Pablo? Maybe you went cold, had a flash, you know, blacked out, and when you woke up, you thought it was five? I was pushing him now, just to see how sure he was.

I like her. He lowered his head humbly for a moment, then abruptly continued in a strength I hadn't ever seen or felt from him before. She brings me coffee sometimes at five o'clock. It was five o'clock when my angel in white brought me coffee. And she smiles at me, my coffee angel. No starbucko never done that for me, but my angel does at five o'clock. She left at five, and I saw her.

Pablo karate-chopped his right hand, slicing the air between us to make his point. He smelled so ripe in the afternoon's August heat. I let it go. I handed him a few bucks and continued my search for her killer.

RAZ: Wow, what a story. James, Cathy Formusa has been listening on the line from her hometown of Port Townsend, Washington.

Cathy Formusa, congratulations and welcome.

Ms. CATHY FORMUSA (Winner, Three-Minute Fiction, Round Two): I'm absolutely honored. Thank you.

Mr. WOOD: Congratulations, Cathy.

Ms. FORMUSA: Thank you so very much. Do I get to call myself a writer now?

Mr. WOOD: I think you decidedly do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

In fact, one of the questions I would have is whether you've been writing regularly up to this moment.

Ms. FORMUSA: No, I've always had this novel in my head, and I started writing it about a year ago. And I had left my main character in the Amazon, and she's actually on a shaman's drug trip right now, and I think that's why I took a break and wrote your story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Cathy, what do you do out there in Port Townsend?

Ms. FORMUSA: Coming up, 2010 will be my 20th year as a massage therapist.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Ms. FORMUSA: Yeah, I love it.

RAZ: We clocked your story at 50 seconds. So you could probably inaugurate our one-minute fiction contest. You had two minutes, 10 seconds to work with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You won with a 50-second story. James Wood, what distinguished Cathy's story from the other finalists?

Mr. WOOD: Well, you put your finger on it. First of all, brevity. In both this contest and the last one, I was looking for something that absolutely pushed the form as tightly as possible, most approximated to poetry, to some mysterious, snatched anecdote, and this has it.

It doesn't start the way you expect it to, it doesn't proceed the way you expect it to, it doesn't end the way you expect it to.

Ms. FORMUSA: Yeah.

Mr. WOOD: And I like particularly this possibility that the entirety of it is illusion, you know, that he's just having a trip or, you know, he's just making it up and is wasting the detective's time.

RAZ: Pretty high praise, Cathy, from James Wood.

Ms. FORMUSA: Wow, that is so nice to write something and not only to have it read the way that I had the voices in my head and the characters, but also to hear those comments. They just - they feel so good because I wondered if I really got that across to anybody.

RAZ: Cathy, how did you sort of come up with the conceit behind this story?

Ms. FORMUSA: Well, I thought it was so descriptive - the nurse left work at five o'clock. Boy, boom, an image. And then I thought, who saw her? And then I saw this character, this street man, and then I fell in love with him, and then I decided to bring in a detective.

RAZ: Do you have any formal training as a writer? Did you ever take any writing workshops or anything like that?

Ms. FORMUSA: Nope, just Mrs. Johnson(ph), junior high, saying that's good, Cathy, keep going. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Now, you are, Cathy, you are actually talking to us from your boyfriend's home sound studio in Port Townsend because you are way out on the Olympic Peninsula, about an hour and a half from Seattle, right?

Ms. FORMUSA: Yes. We can wave to Victoria, Canada, like Sarah Palin can wave to Russia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I heard that your boyfriend, Gary(ph), has made waffles for the entire town of Port Townsend every Sunday since 1969.

Ms. FORMUSA: Yes. It was his grandmother's tradition, and he kept it up. And every Sunday morning, he opens up his house to whoever drops in, and there are a lot of characters in our town, and it's a lot of fun.

Mr. WOOD: I can hear a story coming already.

Ms. FORMUSA: Oh, my goodness. Every person in this town is a story.

RAZ: I also heard a rumor that you once gave a massage to the former poet laureate, Billy Collins, after he came in for those Sunday waffles. Is that true?

Ms. FORMUSA: Oh, he came to visit our town for a Port Townsend Film Festival, and his back went out. So I helped him out.

RAZ: And you gave him a massage.

Ms. FORMUSA: I did.

RAZ: James, do you have any plans for next Sunday morning?

Mr. WOOD: Well, now you say it, my back is a little bit sore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FORMUSA: We use real maple syrup and real whipped cream.

RAZ: Oh, not for the massage, though, just for the waffles.

Ms. FORMUSA: Oh, the massage. We'll talk.

RAZ: That's Cathy Formusa, whose short story, "Last Seen," is the winner of Round Two of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. You can read Cathy's story, as well as those of the runners up, and other contenders at our series' page. It's www.npr.org/threeminutefiction with Three-Minute Fiction all spelled out.

Cathy, thanks so much and good luck to you.

Ms. FORMUSA: Thank you so much. And James, I'm looking forward to reading your book.

Mr. WOOD: Thank you very much.

RAZ: And as Cathy mentioned, she will received a signed copy of James Wood's book, "How Fiction Works." James is The New Yorker's literary critic. He teaches at Harvard, and he is the judge of the first two rounds of Three-Minute Fiction.

James, thanks so much for your help.

Mr. WOOD: Pleasure.

RAZ: We're going to take a break from Three-Minute Fiction for just a short while, but we will be back with new challenges, new judges, and of course, new stories from you.

(Soundbite of timer)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: