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GUY RAZ, host:

You submitted nearly 4,000 original short stories for this round of Three-Minute Fiction. And our judge, the acclaimed author Ann Patchett, has picked a winner.

And Ann is on the line with us from Nashville. Ann, great to have you back.

Ms. ANN PATCHETT (Author): Hi, Guy.

RAZ: So, Ann, before we get to that winner, let's just remind everyone how this works. As always, the stories have to be under 600 words, right, and this round, Ann, the stories had to include four words, which were...

Ms. PATCHETT: Plant, button, trick and fly, which could have been used as verbs, nouns or adjectives.

RAZ: And we asked students from the Iowa Writers' Workshop to help us pick about 200 finalists, and they were stories that you actually read personally. Was it tough to pick a winner, Ann, or did you sort of agonize over it?

Ms. PATCHETT: I didn't. There were a lot of good stories, really a lot more great stories than I thought there were going to be. I picked more finalists than I was supposed to. But when I got down to my final batch, there was just no contest. I knew who the winner was going to be.

RAZ: All right, Ann. We've waited long enough. Who is the winner of Round Four of Three Minute Fiction?

Ms. PATCHETT: Yoav Ben Yosef, and the story is called "Not Calling Attention to Ourselves."

RAZ: Wow, "Not Calling Attention to Ourselves." All right, Ann, would you do the honors and read the story for us?

Ms. PATCHETT: It would be my pleasure.

Ms. PATCHETT: (Reading) So the date was a failure, I get it. He is a total plant, says Vuk, shooting me a look, all fire. A what, I ask?

A plant, he repeats, though sounding hesitant now. Vuk, a Slav, frequently muddles his idioms, taking leaps of faith in expressions, hoping, like a boy playing Scrabble, they withstand verification in the OED, if it came down to that.

A tool, you mean. I know what a tool is, thank you. I mean - he waits, the sharp, crescent moon of his face twisted in consternation, as if expecting the right word to come wafting by like a smell from the downstairs Chinese takeout place. A veggie. A vegetable. You know, utterly comatose.

It's true that Pete, the man I set Vuk up with, is guarded and a little stiff, but in him it amounts to a sort of subdued charm. A dark William Hurt was how I sold him. His contribution to the conversation was minimal, mostly variations on mm-hmm, says Vuk in his slow, laborious manner.

He's a meditator, I offer, a listener. That's where Pete and I met, at a gay men silent retreat at the Buddhist center on 6th Avenue. I'm a meditator and a listener; he was caging a fly in his mouth: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, Vuk demonstrates, his lips pinched shut.

No, he didn't, I say quietly, letting the argument fizzle out. It is a hot July afternoon, and Vuk and I will spend the rest of the day in his apartment in Astoria, probably not moving too far from where we are now, in the living room, stretched out on his rope rug, a little scratchy island provisioned with magazines, tepid iced coffee and an unstable moving fan that cranes its neck at us, curious as a lapdog. This has become the thing we do, the two of us, two middle school teachers on the long stretch of summer vacation, all our other friends out on Fire Island.

Why can't you and I be together, Vuk asks. Lately, he's been given to saying what he feels about us, and I've been given to allowing it. I turn my face away. I try to think of something glib to say. It's not you, I tell him. It's life. Then, inexplicably, I feel like crying. Glib, but true.

A lie, Vuk determines. It flies in the face of reason. In whose face? I ask, so he questions getting the expression right. Shush, he says, deep-voiced, the word lingering, becoming a soft whistle. Heavily, he lifts his hand from the rug, bringing his finger to trace the shape of my lips. Now, tell the truth.

Don't. I push his hand away. It's because you broke up with me. You've had your chance. This makes more sense to him. That's better, he says. He doesn't mind it if I hold a grudge; he finds grudges sexy and fecund, his word. But you mention something about feeling broken or irrevocably damaged, not even by him, necessarily, and Vuk shuts down, quick as anybody.

So, next week you will fix me up with whom, he asks, milking the M of his whom. No one, I say. I can't turn tricks for you anymore. He lifts his gangly frame up on his elbows. No. Please. C'mon. I like being fixed with your zombies. I know, I say. But the zombies, think about them.

Vuk shakes his head and smiles. You are just as cute as a mutton, he says. I don't say button. I know he knows this one. I say, thanks.

RAZ: What a story. Ann, two things stuck out to me. One line, he was caging a fly in his mouth, and then that last part, cute as a mutton instead of, of course, cute as a button, really creative piece of writing.

Ms. PATCHETT: Really terrific. And the way he used all four of the words, I didn't see anyone else use the words in these ways. And aside from that, it's just a great piece of writing.

RAZ: Well, Ann, the author of those words is on the line with us from New York. Yoav Ben Yosef, are you there?

Mr. YOAV BEN YOSEF (Author, "Not Calling Attention to Ourselves"): Yes, hi.

RAZ: Hi. Congratulations.

Mr. YOSEF: Thank you very much. This is a great honor.

RAZ: And Ann, of course, is with us. Ann.

Ms. PATCHETT: It's such a good story. And boy, Yoav, if you haven't been writing, time to get back to work because this is what you should be doing. This is your mother, Yoav. This is what you should be doing with your life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Ann, aside from the way Yoav used the words, what was it about the story that struck you?

Ms. PATCHETT: You know, what I think constitutes a good short story is something where they use a small amount of time to capture a moment where things are shifting. This is a very small moment. It takes place in real time, it's one conversation, but you really feel the subtle shift in their relationship. They don't quite know where they're going, but they're going forward in some way at the end of this story, and I love that.

RAZ: Yoav, are you a professional writer? Have you been writing a long time?

Mr. YOSEF: Well, I finished an MFA program in creative writing in Long Island University in Brooklyn. After that, I sort of was having a little bit of an identity crisis for a year, and whatever I was writing, it was more about giving up writing, poetry about not having written anything. And but, yeah, I've been practicing writing for a long time.

Ms. PATCHETT: Every writer worth their salt needs to have a year of an identity crisis. You're right over that one.

RAZ: And Yoav, I understand that Hebrew is actually your native language, and yet you seem so at ease, you know, sort of constructing these really complex ideas in English. Is it fairly easy for you to do that or do you sort of struggle with ideas and expressions that might not always translate back and forth?

Mr. YOSEF: I don't translate to English when I write. So I write I start with English. It's often harder, I think, when I speak because then I have to be, you know, on the fly, so to speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOSEF: But I think, you know, this is partly what this story is about and not the narrator's character but Vuk's character. Even the piece itself, there's something kind of sharp about the tone that I don't have in my speaking voice but I do have in my writing, and it's kind of a desire to have sort of seamless language.

Ms. PATCHETT: Did you come away from it thinking, hey, this is pretty good, this could be a winner?

Mr. YOSEF: I did. But then I looked at it again, and I though oh, my god. This is terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOSEF: And I think that probably...

Ms. PATCHETT: That's the way it always goes.

Mr. YOSEF: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter).

Mr. YOSEF: And then I looked at another submission that somebody that you posted on the net, and I thought, wow, this has a lot of - a lot more details than my story. I have to have more detail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOSEF: So I added a few of the details with the, you know, the moving fan and stuff.

RAZ: Ann, Ann Patchett, now that you have picked Yoav's story as the winner, do you have any advice for him? What should he do?

Ms. PATCHETT: He should write. You know, to me, it would be harder to put together a 600-word story than a 600-page novel because you've got to be so succinct and on target. I was talking to a very successful creative writer friend of mine when I was judging this contest, and she said to me: I couldn't win a 600-word short story contest if I were the judge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PATCHETT: So just the fact that you pulled this really hard thing off makes me have a lot of confidence in you. And I hope that what the prize ultimately will be is that it will give you a lot of confidence in yourself because you should have it.

Mr. YOSEF: Thank you so much. This is really a great validation.

Ms. PATCHETT: It's your intervention. It's your fiction-writing intervention. Guy and I are here today to tell you, you need to work on being a fiction writer.

RAZ: Absolutely. It doesn't get much better than getting Ann Patchett's seal of approval, Yoav.

Mr. YOSEF: Yeah. Next stop detox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Yoav Ben Yosef. He's the winner of Round Four of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. His story, "Not Calling Attention To Ourselves," is on our website, along with the runners-up. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction, and threeminutefiction is all spelled out, no spaces. Yoav, thank you so much and congratulations again.

Mr. YOSEF: Thank you to both of you. Thank you so much.

RAZ: And Yoav will receive signed copies of Ann Patchett's books, "Truth & Beauty" and "What Now?."

And Ann, it's been such a pleasure having you as a judge this round. And hopefully you'll do it again?

Ms. PATCHETT: I will. I've really had fun.

RAZ: And thanks to the brilliant readers, the students from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who helped us read each and every story. We're taking a short break from Three-Minute Fiction, but we'll be back with new judges, new challenges and of course new stories from you.

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RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz at NPR West in Southern California. We're back in Washington next week, but for now, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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