RALEIGH — Most Sundays, Rhonda Strickland fuses glass into art in her home while she listens to her favorite NPR program, "All Things Considered."
On Feb. 28, she heard a familiar voice on the show. Her former George Mason University professor, Alan Cheuse, a writer and "All Things Considered" book critic, was doing one last push for the show's Three-Minute Fiction contest, in which contestants were invited to look at a photo on the show's Web site and write a story of about 350 words to describe it. Cheuse would choose the best story and read it on air.
Thing was, there were only three hours left until the contest's deadline.
Strickland, a retired English teacher who taught at Wake Technical Community College and has written short stories on and off, put down her art and went to the computer to see the photo taken from outside a coffee shop or restaurant. It was of a newspaper on a table.
The photo moved her, Strickland said. She felt lonely, like an outsider. Then she remembered a newspaper article she had read three years ago while visiting her brother in Tucson, Ariz., about the underground life of teen train-hoppers.
"It just came to me," she said, adding that her main character, Ben, 15, was fashioned after one of the teens in the article. In her fictionalized tale, Ben and his girlfriend, Sarah, train-hop from Arizona to New York, where they end up looking for food in trash bins outside the coffee shop.
Strickland finished the story in two hours, she said, and sent it in, with the title "Please Read."
On Friday, the show's producer called to say that out of more than 3,000 entries, "Please Read" was the winner.
It stood out, Cheuse said on the show Sunday, because Strickland made the scene the destination for her characters while most other writers used it to start their stories.
The story also met the goal Cheuse set forth at the start of the contest: "It predicates a life," he said. "You can just feel the life boiling up out of these lines."
Cheuse taught Strickland in a writing class more than 20 years ago during her creative writing graduate program. Cheuse said on the show he remembered her, but not her writing.
Strickland wins a copy of Cheuse' book "To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming," and a signed printout of his story "A Little Death."
"It's very flattering, especially just winning a contest, but then that it's NPR is very exciting," Strickland said Monday. "So many people heard it, and I'm getting calls from people I haven't talked to in a long time."
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