We made it. After six weeks and nearly 4,000 stories, we've reached the end of Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, where we ask listeners to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes.
Graduate students from around the country helped read all the submissions. The winning story was chosen by this round's judge, novelist Brad Meltzer. Meltzer wrote the best-selling books The Inner Circle and The Book of Lies. His new book, due out in January, is called The Fifth Assassin.
Meltzer gave you this challenge: Write a story that revolves around a U.S. president, who can be fictional or real.
He says the submissions were as diverse as he had hoped.
"They came from every direction. They came from real presidents, they came from fake presidents, they came from their personal lives, they came from something that touched them, they came from something big about America," he says.
The winner for this round is Marc Sheehan of Grand Haven, Mich., who wrote The Dauphin. The story is about a man taking care of his father, who thinks he's President Spiro Agnew.
"Forget about whether Spiro Agnew was or wasn't president, forget about the fact that clearly this guy is not the president," Meltzer says. "It's really about this guy who's suffering and his son taking care of him."
Meltzer says the story stuck in his mind, and the character was so well defined that a whole book could be written around him.
"And the one thing I will say that caught me more than anything else is it was the story I was most jealous of, and I mean that in the very best way," he says.
Sheehan has never entered the Three-Minute Fiction contest before, but he says this prompt really resonated with him. While pondering the challenge, Sheehan says he was interested in the idea of a fictional president and the possibility of writing an alternative history. Then it got him thinking about his own father, who passed away in 1984.
"I'd actually tried to write about that more realistically different times," he says. "It had never turned out well, and then suddenly having this different slant on it paradoxically gave me a kind of way into an emotional truth that I hadn't been able to get to, again, writing more realistically about it."
Meltzer lost his own father last year.
"Sometimes a story just hits you in that personal spot, and this one just hit me," he says, "and it helped me, and I appreciate [Sheehan] sharing it."
But Meltzer says his personal connection with the story was not the reason he picked it.
"That's just the emotional thing that I can feel in the back, but that had nothing to do with [being drawn to it]," he says. "What I recognized was just the complete picture that [he] painted of this man and his son and ... it really was more than just plot — it was real-world building."
For his day job, Sheehan is the communications officer at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. He writes on his own — he has even published two books of poetry. Sheehan says he recently finished the draft of a comic novel. Meltzer wants to buy the first copy when it's published.
Sheehan's Three-Minute Fiction entry will be published in the next edition of The Paris Review.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
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RAZ: We finally made it. After six weeks and nearly 4,000 stories, we've reached the end of Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. That, of course, is our contest where we ask you to come up with an original short story that can be read in about three minutes. We had help this round from graduate students all over the country reading through those stories, and our judge this time around, the thriller writer Brad Meltzer, has finally picked the winning story.
Now, this time around, the challenge that Brad threw out was to write a story that had to revolve around a U.S. president who could be fictional or real. And let's bring Brad in right now. Brad Meltzer, welcome back. And thanks for picking the winner.
BRAD MELTZER: No. Thank you for giving me the challenge. It was one of the most humbling experiences I've ever been a part of because all I was doing was looking at writers who were better than me.
RAZ: And actually, the timing couldn't have been better because we're just days before an actual presidential election. Before I ask you about who won, Brad, what did the writers do with the stories? I mean, you were sort of given the cream of the crop. What did people do with that idea that you threw out there?
MELTZER: You know, I think it was, to me, what I was hoping for, which is they came from every direction. They came from real presidents, they came from fake presidents. They came from their personal lives, they came from something that touched them, they came from something big about America.
And everyone who was involved in Three-Minute Fiction kind of put a little bit of their heart out there, and in a strange, odd way they thought they were writing about the president, but the real magic trick was they were all writing about themselves.
RAZ: All right. This is the moment of truth, Brad. Who is the winner of Round 9?
MELTZER: So the winner of Round 9 of Three-Minute Fiction is Marc Sheehan of Grand Haven, Michigan, who wrote the story "The Dauphin."
RAZ: What struck you about it? What stood out?
MELTZER: It's a very personal story. It's about a man who's taking care of his father, and his father actually thinks that he's President Spiro Agnew. Now, I'm going to say that again. His father thinks he's really President Spiro Agnew.
And forget about whether Spiro Agnew was or wasn't president or forget about the fact that clearly this guy is not the president. It's really about this guy who's suffering and his son taking care of him. And the one thing I will say that caught me more than anything else is it was the story I was most jealous of. And I mean that in the very best way.
It was the one that I was thinking about the next night and the next night and thinking I could do a whole book around this character. That's how realized this situation was.
RAZ: Well, Mark Sheehan's story, Brad, as you know, will also be published in the Paris Review this time around, which is amazing, incredibly exciting. Before we talk more about it, let's hear Susan Stamberg read the story "The Dauphin" by Marc Sheehan.
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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: President Agnew is tired after his daily briefing and ready to watch a rerun of "The Love Boat." Next to his glass of jug wine on the kitchen table rests The Football, an old scuffed Detroit Lions model. He refuses to go anywhere without it. He often complains about the responsibility of knowing the nuclear codes.
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STAMBERG: It's a mystery how, when my father's dementia struck, it took the form of his belief that he is President Spiro T. Agnew. Father was never political. He did get upset when Gerald Ford, the representative of our west Michigan district, became president without being elected, but not enough to even write a letter to the Grand Rapids Press.
Now it's 1984, after what would have been the Agnew administration, and long after I gave up athletics for chasing girls and smoking pot. Back in junior high, I was a second string quarterback, and Dad, already in his 50s, used to jog across the yard with his arms outstretched for a catch as I practiced my spiral.
In the spring, when I got laid off from my injection-molding job, I moved back in to spend time with him and give Mom a rest. The wine and "Love Boat" is everyone's reward for getting through another afternoon cabinet meeting. Are we doing all we can to further relations with China, he asks. After everything that's happened to Dick, I think it's the least we can do.
Yes, Mr. President, I say, although Chairman Mao is unpredictable as always. Would the president like the Salisbury steak or turkey and peas for dinner, asks my mother, the secretary of the Interior. President Agnew ponders, a finger stroking the pebbly surface of the football. Turkey and peas, he announces.
Then the vice president is having Salisbury steak she says, looking at me. The White House kitchen has only one turkey and peas. We've had frozen dinners most nights since an X-ray found a tumor, inoperable and fast-growing, in the president's lung. The doctor said we could try radiation and chemo but thought the cure would kill him faster than the disease. Before the X-ray, we had gently tried to convince him he was not President Agnew.
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STAMBERG: Summer drags on. We survive the Mayaguez incident, the Fall of Saigon and Hoffa's disappearance. His breath becomes shallow and labored, even with the flow from the oxygen tank cranked up high. By mid-September, it's just mother and me sitting at the kitchen table, drinking rosé and watching ocean-borne romance with the sound turned low while the president drowses in his recliner.
One night, after eating our microwave dinners on TV trays in the living room, I help get the president dressed in his pajamas and tucked into bed. I ask him if he wants to keep up with events. He nods, and I turn on the portable Magnavox perched on my parents' dresser. Father cradles the football next to him atop the chenille bedspread.
He has the little nozzle portion of the plastic tubing from the green tank in his nose. The oxygen makes a hissing sound as he stares blankly at a man shaving his thickly foamed face with a disposable razor.
You'll make sure everything is OK when I'm gone, won't you, he wheezes. I don't know who's asking me this - my father or Spiro Agnew. Yes, I will, Mr. President. Dad, I say. He smiles. Then he nudges the football up onto his stomach where he can grab it firmly and hands it off to me.
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RAZ: That's NPR's Susan Stamberg reading the story "The Dauphin" by Marc Sheehan of Grand Haven, Michigan. He is the winner of Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. And Marc Sheehan joins us now from WMUK in Kalamazoo. Marc, congratulations. What an incredible story.
MARC SHEEHAN: Thank you so much.
RAZ: Tell me about how you came up with this story.
SHEEHAN: Well, with the challenge, I was thinking that it was really interesting if you had to choose either a real or a fictional president. And as I was thinking this, sort of pondering it, the idea of, sort of the alternative history - what if Spiro Agnew had been president? As soon as that was in place, it got wedded to an incident that my father passed away in 1984. And I had actually tried to write about that more realistically different times and it never turned out well. And then suddenly having this different slant on it paradoxically gave me a kind of way into an emotional truth that I hadn't been able to get to, again, writing more realistically about it.
RAZ: Marc, please say hello to Brad Meltzer, our judge this round, who chose your story. Brad, can you hear us?
MELTZER: I can hear you. Congratulations, Marc.
SHEEHAN: Brad, thank you so much. It's a real pleasure to meet you and thank you for seeing something in the story.
MELTZER: Let me tell you something. Let me say the most important thing I'm going to say to you, Marc, which is thank you. I lost my father last year. And this was one of those stories - you know, sometimes a story just hits you in that personal spot, and this one just hit me, and it helped me. And I appreciate you sharing it.
SHEEHAN: I'm terribly sorry to hear of the loss of your father.
MELTZER: Hey, you know, that's just the emotional thing that I can feel in the back, but what I recognized was just the complete picture that you painted of this man and his son. And it really was more than just plot. It was real-world building as I keep - I keep using that word over and over, but it really completed that picture for me.
RAZ: Well, Marc Sheehan, thank you so much. Congratulations to you.
SHEEHAN: Thank you so much.
RAZ: Marc's story, "The Dauphin," is the winner of Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. You can read Marc's story and many, many others from this round at our website, npr.org/threeminutefiction with Three-Minute Fiction all spelled out, no spaces. Marc's story will also be published in the next edition of the Paris Review.
And thanks, of course, to our judge for Round 9, Brad Meltzer. He's the author of "The Inner Circle," "The Book of Life" and his new book, which is due out in January. And that book is called "The Fifth Assassin." Brad, thank you so much for being our judge this round. It's been a pleasure.
MELTZER: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: And stay tuned for a whole new round of Three-Minute Fiction with a new judge and a new challenge coming soon to a radio near you.
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RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.