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Three-Minute Fiction: Check-In With The Judge




RAZ: For the past few weeks, we've been reading close to 4,000 stories about fictional and real presidents - stories that were submitted by you to our writing contest, Three-Minute Fiction, here on WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. That was the challenge by our judge this round, the thriller writer Brad Meltzer. Your story had to revolve around a U.S. president who could be fictional or real.

Anyway, the weekend before the election, in two weeks, Brad is going to pick the winning story. The winner will appear on this program with me and Brad, and that story will also get published in the next issue of the Paris Review.

Brad Meltzer is on the line with me now from his home in south Florida. Brad, I know you've been reading through these stories. Let's talk about a couple standouts that you like. Let's start with a story that you picked. It's called "Indiana" by Jim Carnes of Montgomery, Alabama. Tell us about that story.

BRAD MELTZER: You know, what I love about the story - and I don't want to ruin the ending of it - I think a good story just doesn't have to have the details but it has the kind of world build. And it has to have that full picture, because it's easy to kind of, you know, throw a good phrase here or there or try and do something from your childhood here or there. And those are kind of the traps of writing about, you know, what happened back in the '60s or the '50s or the '40s or the '30s.

And what I think what Jim Carnes does in "Indiana" is he really world builds this time and this place in the middle of Indiana and just evokes a real place. And then what I love about it - I really encourage people to go look at the story itself - is where it builds toward, because I think the hardest part of the story is not just finding the beginning and the middle but finding a true ending.

RAZ: Could you read a bit of that story for us?

MELTZER: Sure. So this is "Indiana" by Jim Carnes.

(Reading) The summer of the red 88, we spent the night with Uncle Carl and Aunt Callie. After dinner, Carl hung a sheet over the bookcase and showed us a home movie of his trip to the Soviet Union as Indiana Corn King. The strange scenes flickered like a dream: Carl and Callie standing in the shining sea of wheat, endless rows of tractors, churches with puffy hats on top and a parade of older children wearing red neckerchiefs looking enthralled.

RAZ: Wow. That story, "Indiana," by Jim Carnes of Montgomery, Alabama, can be found in full at our website, npr.org/threeminutefiction. Brad, tell us about another story that stood out for you so far.

MELTZER: Well, you know, one of my other favorites that I really enjoyed that was just fun is, it's called "Diane and the Politician" by Tiffany Key. And what I love in this one is it's about, of all presidents, Gerald Ford. And so he writes about a woman who basically we don't know if she's lied or not lied but she used to know Gerald Ford. So here's a little piece of "Diane and the Politician."

(Reading) Now, Jerry needed help keeping his job. So, Steve, who's her husband, planned the biggest fundraiser in Flint. With the president's attendance confirmed, Diane realized that concession was her only option. She knew her husband could not resist the chance to tell Jerry of their mutual acquaintance. It was her fault for not uprooting the false idea from Steve's mind at the start. She had tried and failed a thousand times in the past weeks.

Gathering her skirt and courage, Diane went in search of her husband. Entering the ballroom, her heart plummeted to her heels. There stood Steve with his arm around the president's shoulders. Her face was scarlet as she approached the pair. Hello, Mrs. Branson, the president said, taking her hand. It's been too long. And it's the key moment of the whole scene. It really just brings it together when you see this grand lie being furthered even more by grand old Gerald Ford.

RAZ: Right, right. What's amazing, Brad, about this round - I don't think you know this - is this is the first time in nine rounds of Three-Minute Fiction that the stories that are judge-picked are not the same at all from what we've been putting up online. So that is a good sign.

MELTZER: No, that is - listen, I also think it speaks for the depth of what we have. I mean, all the ones I read through - and you can ask my wife - I just kept going, I like this one and I like this one and I like this one. There's one about a president who goes to the White House, and it's called "Dead of Night" by Matt Blades. And basically, he goes to the White House and basically is worried that, oh my gosh, you know, what's happened? They say the president's dead.

And they say: Well, you know, he's the big pollster. And they say: What happens when it gets out? And he says we've told no one. And he says why? Because it would cause chaos. And he says it's going to get out but he says, well, how long can they keep this up? And they decide that they're going to not tell anyone, that they're going to run the dead president and run him for, you know, and no one will ever know.

And it just gets funnier and funnier from there because it's just absurdity. And then there's one that are very, very personal, and, you know, about the president in a different way. There's one that's called about balance about a president who just loves to cycle. And he just goes round and round on this track and it's used as a metaphor for what the president does every day. But here's a spot where going round and round actually matters. And I just think the thoughtfulness that people brought to this is, to me, the best part of these stories I've read.

RAZ: And the stories, Brad, you're talking about are "Balanced" by Ken Robinson of Cleveland and also "Dead of Night" by Matt Blades from Brooklyn in, of course, New York.

All right. Brad, we're going to check back in with you in about two weeks when we announce the winner of Round Nine of Three-Minute Fiction. Until then, you can read the full versions of Brad's picks at our website, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction. And Three-Minute Fiction is all spelled out with no spaces. And we've put some of our picks up there as well. And, Brad, thanks so much. And we'll catch up with you in two weeks.

MELTZER: Looking forward to it, Guy. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.