March 12, 2013

Charlotte woman wins NPR short-fiction contest

Charlotte writer Lisa Rubenson’s gem of a short story, “Sorry for Your Loss,” made its debut Saturday evening on National Public Radio. “Hi, it’s me – Christine,” it began. “I can’t believe you still have this number.”

The piece beat out more than 4,000 entries to win NPR’s latest Three-Minute Fiction contest. NPR reporter Tamara Keith read the story on Saturday’s “Weekend All Things Considered” program.

Not a bad way for a writer to get noticed.

The Three-Minute Fiction contest periodically gives listeners a writing prompt and challenges them to construct an extremely short story – no more than 600 words. The latest prompt: Submit a story in the form of a voice mail message.

When she heard the prompt, Rubenson, who works as a freelance writer and writes fiction in her spare time, considered all the rambling messages that she has left, then decided to give it a go.

She thought about the awkwardness of reconnecting with someone who knew you at a much younger age, when you were both different people. She also contemplated how people often don’t say things that need to be said and blurt things best left unsaid.

In her story, a woman named Christine keeps recording, then erasing and re-recording, a phone message to a long-ago boyfriend named Nick. Her ostensible goal is to convey condolences following the death of his mother. But all sorts of personal history keeps leaking into her messages.

“I was kind of curious about a story that might tell itself accidentally,” Rubenson says.

NPR enlisted graduate writing students as first-round contest judges. They passed favorites to novelist Mona Simpson, whose works include “My Hollywood” and “Anywhere But Here.” Simpson chose Rubenson’s story as the winner, calling it funny, yet “strikingly yearning.”

Rubenson, 46, credits several UNC Charlotte English professors, especially Aaron Gwyn and Tony Jackson, for teaching her about writing. Rubenson completed an English degree at UNCC in 2002. She had studied at the University of Maryland years earlier, but left before she graduated to take a job.

She also earned a master’s in literature from UNCC, juggling classes while she and her husband were raising their daughters, now 11 and 13.

Her Three-Minute Fiction story will be published in the Paris Review, quite a coup for an aspiring writer. Until now, Rubenson’s only published fiction was a story in a local literary journal.

Her NPR contest win has given her much-needed encouragement, she says, as she works on several short stories. “This was the green light I needed to move forward.”

Fittingly, Rubenson learned she won the contest from an NPR producer’s voice mail message. She has no plans to erase it.

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