GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(Soundbite of clock ticking)
RAZ: All right. The wait is over. We've received your letters and Round Six of Three-Minute Fiction is now open here on the weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We've got a new judge and a new challenge to start off the New Year. 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 under three minutes. So the story can't be longer than 600 words. And each round, we have a new judge who throws out a challenge. Last time, it was the novelist Michael Cunningham, and he asked that each story begin: Some people swore that the house was haunted. And we saw a record-breaking number of entries in that last round, over 5,000 original stories.
Now, it's time for Round Six, and with me is our newest judge to take the helm. It's the novelist and short story writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She's the author of the critically acclaimed books "Purple Hibiscus" and "Half of a Yellow Sun."
Chimamanda, are you there?
Ms. CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE (Author, "Purple Hibiscus," "Half of a Yellow Sun"): I am. Yes.
RAZ: Thank you so much for agreeing to judge this round. We are so excited about this.
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: It's my pleasure.
RAZ: And I should say it's particularly exciting to have you do this contest because your last book, and we actually interviewed you on the program about this book, was a collection of short stories. What have you been up to since we last spoke?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: I have been pretending to be working on a new novel.
RAZ: (Laughing) You say pretending because?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: Well, because I'm always terrified about talking about work in progress because then it means there's something - there's a kind of a terrifying certainty about it because then people expect you to produce a book in a year or two. And then when you don't, they wonder why you talked about working on a book. So I think it's just safer to say that I'm supposed to be working on a book and I'm pretending to be working on a book just in case nothing results in the end.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: But in the meantime, you had some great news. This year, you had a piece that came out in a book published by The New Yorker. It was called "20 Under 40," so 20 stories by authors under the age of 40. And your story in there was called "Birdsong." That story was actually singled out by Alan Cheuse, who's the book reviewer for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED during the week. Can you tell us about that story?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: "Birdsong" is set in Lagos, in Nigeria. And for a long time, I've wanted to write a story in which the city of Lagos itself is a character because it's such a fascinating city in its extremes and its contradictions. And also, I wanted to write about what it is to be a young female - youngish, really - sort of late 20s and early 30s - working in a city like Lagos and then falling in love with a man who isn't necessarily right for you.
So, really, the story is about things I had observed, some personal experiences and very much wanting to try and capture Lagos in a story.
RAZ: Chimamanda, as somebody who has written a lot of short fiction, what do you make of the challenge of writing something under 600 words that has to be read in three minutes?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: I think it's a really difficult thing to do well and to pull off, as the Americans would say. But also, it's interesting, because what it forces you to do is that it forces you to go down to the essentials and to what really matters. Because sometimes, you find that stories have a lot of padding. I, for example, know that sometimes before I read my stories aloud at readings, I find myself editing with a pencil.
RAZ: You mean editing things that have already been published?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: Yes. And then you start to think, well, maybe this doesn't actually belong in the story, maybe this is superfluous. So I think that writing a story in 600 words is a challenge. But I think it's a fantastic thing for a writer because it really forces you to make choices about what the story really needs and what really matters and what's essential.
RAZ: Well, I think you're the perfect judge for this competition, and you're following in a long line of illustrious judges: James Wood and Michael Cunningham and Ann Patchett and Alan Cheuse. As we've done with each round, Chimamanda, we asked you to come up with a challenge for Round Six of Three-Minute Fiction. And so, as you know, in previous rounds, the stories had to include certain words like plant and button.
Last round, each story had to begin: Some people swore that the house was haunted. And I can tell you, after reading through thousands of stories that begin with "some people swore that the house was haunted," I never want to read that line again.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: What's your challenge? What are you throwing out to our listeners this round?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: The challenge this round is that one character must tell a joke and one character must cry at some point in the story. And it can be the same character who does both, but crying and telling a joke must be done.
RAZ: So, in those 600 words, a joke has to be told and somebody has to cry. It can be the same person and the crying doesn't necessarily have to be sad crying.
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: No, it doesn't. No. Certainly not.
RAZ: Why these two different emotions? Why crying and laughter?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: Well, I think for one thing, I find that I'm sort of very unapologetically old-fashioned in my tastes in fiction, which is that in fiction I'm interested in character and in emotion. I think that's really, for me, what fiction is about. And I think the ability to cry and the ability to laugh, for me, is in some ways what defines humanity and, you know, joy and sorrow, really.
I find that I'm drawn to fiction that can do both. And to try and do that in 600 words, I think, would just be very interesting to see.
RAZ: So what are you going to be looking for in these stories, Chimamanda?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: I'm hoping I will be entertained. But really, again, just the idea of a story that tries to grapple with human emotion. I would also like to see character. It would be lovely if there was an inventive use of language. It would be fantastic if all three were done, but also, it would be unusual.
RAZ: I think that you're going to have to actually try this challenge yourself.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: I often say no to judging fiction because I think it's a really difficult thing to do. I think that fiction, you know, that for me, literature is this huge house with so many different rooms, and there are so many different styles of writing that it's so difficult to judge and say this is better than that, right? But the wonderful thing about having an opportunity to judge something like this, which is, you know, more fun than the usual judging, is that I don't have to do it myself because I'm not sure that I could do it well, actually, if I did it myself.
RAZ: Right. You're going to have people from this program helping you out. And so, we're going to narrow those stories down. You're not going to have to read the thousands that will come in, but you'll read, you know, several hundred of them. So, not an easy task.
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: No, but one that I think will be exciting and interesting and also hopefully will nurture my own writing.
RAZ: That's actually a good point. All right. So let's recap, Chimamanda. This is Round Six of Three-Minute Fiction, and it is now open. We are accepting submissions until - let me check here - 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, January 23rd. We have to be able to read your stories out loud in three minutes or less, so no more than 600 words per story. And, Chimamanda, just remind us one more time of the challenge for this round.
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: One character must tell a joke and one character must cry.
RAZ: Okay. One character has to tell a joke, one character has to cry. There's only one entry allowed per person. To send in your story, go to our website, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction. That's Three-Minute Fiction all spelled out no spaces. You can find the full rules at our website as well.
And as in previous rounds, we'll be posting some of our favorites on the website each week as we begin to narrow it down. We'll be checking in with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie every few weeks as well to find out which stories have caught her eye. The winning story will be read on the air in its entirety, and the winner will receive a signed copy of Chimamanda's book "The Thing Around Your Neck."
So, Chimamanda, any final words of advice before listeners decide whether or not to get in there?
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: I think they should just have fun with it and not take it too seriously, because sometimes the best fiction comes out from a very light touch.
RAZ: That's the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is the judge of Round Six of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, which is now open.
Chimamanda, thank you.
Ms. NGOZI ADICHIE: Thank you.
RAZ: And once again, to submit your story, visit our website, npr.org/threeminutefiction, that's all spelled out with no spaces.
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