The search is over for the winner of Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction, the contest where listeners submit original short stories that can be read in about three minutes.
We received help this round from graduate students at 16 different writing programs across the country. They poured through thousands of submissions and passed the best of the best along to our judge this round, novelist Karen Russell.
Here was your challenge for this round: A character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.
Russell was struck by the "inventiveness and diversity" the prompt inspired in the submissions, she tells Guy Raz, contest curator and host of NPR's TED Radio Hour.
"Reading the entries felt a little like a treasure hunt — I couldn't wait to see what object they were going to bury inside the story for their characters to find," she says. "In most cases, the 'found' objects did not have a huge dollar value — any value they had was reflective of the character's secret desires, or the product of some human relationship."
"They represent two very different takes on the prompt, but each is marvelously dramatic and packs an unbelievable amount of characterization and suspense into the three-minute word allotment," Russell says.
In the end, there is only one winner: Ben Jahn for his submission, Reborn.
"Ben Jahn's use of language, the specificity of his details, just blew me away. It was indelible and unforgettable and really chilling," Russell says.
Jahn's story is set at the "Reborn Convention," where adults shop in the "high fluorescence of toyland" for baby dolls. A "sky blue onesie" catches the eye of the male narrator. Jahn had been researching doll shopping for a novel he's writing. "There's something inherently creepy about dolls, to me anyway," says Jahn, who grew up with four sisters.
Jahn, of Richmond, Calif., is an English teacher. He says his earliest inspiration came from his father, who was not a writer but tried to win a chainsaw by writing a radio jingle.
"I loved watching him toil over language. I didn't know people wrote and tried to achieve something in writing," he says. "I liked the effect it had on me, and decided I wanted to try to do that for others."
Jahn says he's honored to win the contest and hopes to inspire others to pick up "a piece of serious fiction."
"Whether you read me or not, it's an important pastime. Sometimes it takes something very short to get the reader's attention piqued," he says.
Reborn will be published in the fall issue of The Paris Review, and Jahn will receive all three of Russell's novels.