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GUY RAZ, host:

We've been getting a lot of letters asking when this sound will return to the program.

(Soundbite of clock ticking)

RAZ: So after a summer hiatus, it's back. Three Minute Fiction has returned to weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and today, we're launching round five. Now, if you've missed any of the previous rounds or you're not familiar with the contest, it's pretty simple. We're looking for original, short fiction that can be read in less than three minutes, so the story can't be any longer than 600 words. And each round, our judge throws out a challenge.

So, for example, last time, each story had to include the words plant, button, fly and trick. That idea came from our round four judge, the novelist Ann Patchett.

Anyway, we now have a new challenge and a new judge for round five, and it's Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the "The Hours."

Michael, are you there?

Mr. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author, "The Hours"): Yes, I'm here.

RAZ: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to judge this round.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, I'm thrilled.

RAZ: And it's also very cool to have you join us this round because next month, you have a new novel coming out. It's called "By Nightfall." And the story -I'm not going to give away the story now - but it takes place against the backdrop of the New York gallery scene. And I've read that you actually wanted to be a painter originally. Is that true?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I did. I did. I wasn't a strange little writing child. I was a strange little drawing and painting child, and really thought that that was what I would do. And it really wasn't until I got to college and began to understand that, oh, I just didn't have the talent. And I started writing.

RAZ: Well, we're going to talk a lot more about your new book in the coming weeks, Michael. But for now, as you know, we have asked you to throw out a challenge to our listeners. So what's it going to be?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I would like people to take a first line and a last line that I've written and write everything that comes in between those two. Take the opening and the closing lines and give them a middle.

RAZ: So they have to use the opening and closing lines that you provide, which are?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: The opening line is: Some people swore that the house was haunted.

RAZ: Okay.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: And the closing line is: Nothing was ever the same again after that.

RAZ: So the first ling has to be: Some people swore that the house was haunted. Every story has to begin with that sentence and every story has to end with: Nothing was ever the same again after that. And that counts as part of your 600 words. How did you come up with that idea?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I chose that opening line - I wrote that opening line, because I am a huge fan of ghost stories, though, of course, I don't expect everyone to write a literal ghost story. There are all sorts of hauntings, many of which do not necessarily involve the spirits of the dead.

And the last line - nothing was ever the same again after that - is actually from Gogol, the great Russian writer, who didn't actually use that line but said that every good story should come to such a definitive conclusion that it's true unwritten last line is nothing was ever the same again after that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Right.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I want my writers to use it literally.

RAZ: And by the way, I mean, just looking at your new book, "By Nightfall," the first line of that book is: The Mistake is coming to stay for a while, which is a really intriguing first line. How much do you agonize over first lines when you sit down to write?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I agonize for months over first lines. It is so important and so indicative of the book to come. Once you have the language and the rhythm and the point of view and the tone of the first line, the novel has, in a matter of so many words, set itself down. It has begun to acquire its identity. And you know, at least in theory, how to write it, what version of the English language to write it in and off you go onto line two.

But I will take - I can take up to three months coming up with that first line.

RAZ: All right. Well, our listeners have about two weeks to write those short stories, Michael.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Mmm.

RAZ: Round five of Three Minute Fiction is now open, so we're going to accept submissions until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time - that's important - Eastern Time on Sunday, September 26th. And we have to be able to read your stories aloud in three minutes or less. So, no more than 600 words maximum. And, Michael, remind us of the opening and closing lines that have to be used in each story.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: The opening line that needs to be used is: Some people swore that the house was haunted. And the closing line that I need you to use is: Nothing was ever the same again after that.

RAZ: Okay.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Good luck.

RAZ: And there's only one entry per person. And to send in your story, go to our website, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction. That's Three Minute Fiction, all spelled out, no spaces. Each and every story will be read with help by our expert readers from the Iowa Writers Workshop. And as round five progresses, we'll post some of our favorites at our website each week.

And we'll be checking in with you, Michael, a few more times as well to find out which stories have caught your eye. And then eventually, you will read the winning story on the air in its entirety. The winner will get a signed copy of Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" and his new forthcoming novel, "By Nightfall."

And, Michael, any final words of advice before our listeners get started on their short stories?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm just sitting here waiting by the computer. You know, please, amuse me, amaze me. Let's go.

RAZ: Let's go. That's author Michael Cunningham. He is the judge of round five of our Three Minute Fiction contest. It is now open.

Michael, thank you so much.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.

(Soundbite of clock ticking)

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