4:14 PM CST, January 18, 2013
An honor like the Nelson Algren Short Story Award can be a boon to a writer. It can give him or her the confidence to slog through rejections and trudge forward with literary endeavors. When we asked former Nelson Algren Award recipients what winning meant to them, validation for their work came up in almost every writer's answer.
“The Nelson Algren Award was the first real indication I had that my writing might mean something to strangers,” said Peter Trachtenberg, winner of the 1984 competition.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
“I suddenly felt like I was part of the national conversation, that my writing had merit,” Joe Meno, 2003 winner, remarked.
“It made me think of myself as an author,” said Emily Raboteau, winner of the 2001 competition.
Many past winners also talked of the Nelson Algren Award as a prize of distinction, discussing how the award opened doors and became a permanent line in their literary biography.
Founded in 1981 by Chicago magazine through the support of Brena and Lee A. Freeman, the award has been given to green writers who have gone on to leave their mark on the literary world. (Louise Erdrich and Stuart Dybek are just two on the long list of now-famous winners.) Since 1986, the Tribune has worked to maintain the award's mission of discovering powerful new voices and introducing our readers to stories that will help them see the world differently.
Ahead of Wednesday's Printers Row Short Story Night, we caught up with almost all of the 30 winners to see what they're doing now and how winning the Nelson Algren Short Story Award changed their craft, their careers and, in some cases, their lives. Here are edited transcripts of what they told us.
— Courtney Crowder
"The World's Greatest Fisherman," 1982
The story: The story became the first chapter of "Love Medicine," my first novel. I couldn't have imagined the response to the novel — but having the Nelson Algren prize certainly gave me the time and confidence to finish the next chapters.
What were you doing then: When I found out about the prize I was living on a farm in New Hampshire near the college I'd attended. I was nearly broke and driving a car with bald tires. My mother knitted my sweaters, and all else I bought at thrift stores. I had just married, so my diet had improved and I was eating full meals instead of oatmeal or tomato soup — my staples when hard up.
What are you up to now: I have continued to write, and I own a small bookstore called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. My latest novel is "The Round House" (which recently won the National Book Award).
What the award meant: The recognition dazzled me. Later, I became friends with Studs Terkel and Kay Boyle, the judges, toward whom I carry a lifelong gratitude. This prize made an immense difference in my life.
"The End of Travel," 1984
The story: "The End of Travel" tells the story of a father and a son who are unable to find a place of comfort in the world. The father, as a Russian Jew in the early 20th century, has been repeatedly forced to flee for his life. Even after decades in the United States, he remains fearful and insecure. The son has spent his entire life in one place and in relative privilege but moves restlessly from woman to woman, driven by a discontent that may be the psychic corollary of the historical forces that moved his father.
What were you doing then: I was a copywriter for Book-of-the-Month Club in New York City. I was also carrying the weight of a $100-a-day drug habit.
What are you up to now: I am now a working writer and an assistant professor in the creative writing program of the University of Pittsburgh. My most recent book is "Another Insane Devotion."
What the award meant: The Nelson Algren Award was the first real indication I had that my writing might mean something to strangers. It was a sign that all those hours of writing and revising had actually brought the story closer to some ideal of quality; they had made it a closer approximation of the stories I'd admired from the time I'd begun to read. I don't mean an imitation, though at the time I was still imitating writers from Chekhov to Grace Paley to Raymond Carver. The award was a sign I'd produced something that possessed some paler recension of the life that coursed through the writing I loved. It was also a summons to take writing seriously, and that probably gave me the impetus I needed to get clean a little more than a year later. So you could say that I owe the Nelson Algren Award more than my career; I owe it my life.
The story: "Blight" is set on Chicago's South Side in an inner-city neighborhood that has just been declared an "Official Blight Area." The story details the lives of four guys from that neighborhood who try to start a rock band.
What were you doing then: When I won the Algren Award I was teaching creative writing at Western Michigan University. My first book of poems, "Brass Knuckles," had appeared, as had my first collection of stories, "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods." "Blight" would go on to also win an O. Henry Prize and would later appear as a central story in my second book of fiction, "The Coast of Chicago."
What are you up to now: I am currently the distinguished writer in residence at Northwestern University, where I teach writing workshops at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. This fall, I signed a contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux for two new collections of fiction that will be published either in late 2013 or early 2014.
What the award meant: I was still at an early stage of my career when "Blight" won the Nelson Algren Award, and that kind of confirmation for a younger writer is invaluable. The fact that the prize was named after a writer who wrote about the city I grew up in and whose work I admired gave it special meaning. I would later serve as a judge for the Algren Award and I was very aware of how important winning this prize would be to the writers whose entries I was reading. I have long regarded the Algren Award as the premiere story competition in the United States and always tell that to my students.
"The Sutton Pie Safe," 1986
The story: An Appalachian boy watches domestic drama unfold between his mother and father when an uninvited guest offers to purchase a piece of their family furniture.
What were you doing then: I got the call about the award on the day I arrived in Iowa City, Iowa, to begin my first year at the Writers' Workshop. It seemed providential: I was moving into a rented house when the call came.
What are you up to now: I'm a professor in the department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, teaching creative writing at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I am also a faculty member at the low-residency master's of fine arts in creative writing program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. I've published a novel and three collections of short fiction, the most recent of which is "Miracle Boy and Other Stories."
What the award meant: It was my first story sale and my first publication, as well as the first prize of any sort I'd won: A very big deal for me. It was magnificent validation. It was also one of the things that carried me through my time at Iowa, which was very hard. Fiction with a rural setting was not much approved of there at that time (mine, at least, was not), and my own stories received very little positive attention in workshops. I was able to hang onto that external approval when I felt beaten down. It helped keep me writing.
And it certainly was easier to write cover letters when sending my stories out, since I was able to claim the distinction of having won a major national short fiction prize. I can't say, of course, to what extent the award influenced acceptance of that early work, but my guess is that its effect was substantial and helped my writing career along nicely.
The story: "Madagascar" is told from the perspective of a son whose father is a Holocaust survivor and explores the lifelong effects the father's experience has on the son.
What were you doing then: My first child, Zach, was days away from being delivered when I got the call about winning the Algren Award. It seemed to go along with the birth, marking the occasion with a milestone in my young career as a writer and confirming that I was now really a father myself and my life from here on would be different from anything I imagined.
What are you up to now: I have just published my fifth book, a collection of stories, "Little Raw Souls." It focuses in part, as much of my work has, on fathers and their children. I'm professor of English at Colorado State University, fiction editor of Colorado Review and a faculty member in the low-residency Warren Wilson College master's of fine arts program. We have two children, Zach, 24, and Elena, 21.
What the award meant: I almost feel giddy answering this question: enormous change. The director of the University of Illinois Press was in the audience when I attended the Algren banquet and read from "Madagascar." He asked if I might have a collection of stories and, if so, would I submit it to him? I was just finishing a collection called "Lives of the Fathers." The press published it and that was my second book, which included "Madagascar." "Madagascar" itself went on to have further success: It won an O. Henry Award, was reprinted in "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards," has been anthologized in college textbooks and was recorded for National Public Radio's "Selected Shorts" series. I still get occasional mail about the story, 25 years since its publication. I wish all my stories were so lucky.
The story: It's about a father and his high school-aged son going on a road trip together. The father, who is divorced from the boy's mother, is a musician. He's charming, talented and given to poor choices. They head north, supposedly for an audition the father has in Canada. The boy is embarrassed when his father talks a band into letting them up onstage to sit in, a situation in which the boy is guaranteed to fail.
What were you doing then: I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, where I had recently earned a master's degree in writing. I had a part-time position working as an academic adviser for the University of Iowa and I lived in a small, noisy apartment alongside U.S. Highway 1 near the center of town. The day I learned I'd won the Algren prize, I had just finished playing basketball with a friend, another writer. We were at his house; I think I checked my answering machine and got the news. I went outside, stood on his lawn, and shouted "Yes!" a bunch of times, while doing a kind of air-punch thing.
What are you up to now: I am a professor at Towson University, in Baltimore where I teach fiction writing. My most recent book, "Hot Springs," came out in 2010 from Tin House Books.
What the award meant: Winning the Algren Award meant an enormous amount to me. The prize money was extremely helpful. I remember shopping for a suit so I'd have something to wear to the ceremony. The prize gave me something big for my résumé, which was still pretty thin back then, and it probably helped make me more competitive when I began applying for teaching positions. I'd already been thinking about ways to expand the story, and winning gave me more confidence. I sold that novel, "Bluestown," a few years later to St. Martin's Press.
"Sky Juice," 1990
The story: When a woman's brother is killed in a motorbike accident, she is forced into prostitution and eventually sold as a mail order bride. The story grew out of the years I had spent traveling in Southeast Asia and witnessing some of the devastating effects of poverty. "Sky juice" is a Malaysian term for rain.
What were you doing then: I was living and teaching in Odawara, Japan, when I was summoned from a faculty meeting for the call from the Tribune.
What are you up to now: "Sky Juice" was included in my story collection, "The Secrets of a Fire King," published by Norton in 1997 and reissued by Penguin in 2007. My first novel, "The Memory Keeper's Daughter," was critically acclaimed and became a best-seller. My second novel, "The Lake of Dreams," was also an international best-seller and received good reviews. I was a tenured associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky until I left to write full time. I am now working on a new novel and collection of interrelated stories. I live with my husband and daughters in Lexington, Ky.
What the award meant: I'd been writing quietly, but steadily, since my graduation from the Iowa Writers' Workshop a few years earlier. Teaching English as a second language abroad allowed me to support myself and travel. It gave me both the excitement of new countries and new perspectives and the freedom to take risks in my writing and discover my voice. Yet in those pre-Internet days, it was hard to submit stories, so I was writing without much feedback. Winning the Nelson Algren award was a tremendous affirmation of the work I'd been doing and it gave me confidence to continue. There were many literary luminaries at the awards dinner in Chicago, and I was so honored.
A. Manette Ansay
"Read This and Tell Me What It Says," 1992
The story: "Read This and Tell Me What It Says" is the story of a high school girl growing up in a rural Wisconsin town and her troubled, charismatic brother. I was big on trains at the time, for whatever reason, and the train here plays an important role.
What were you doing then: When I got the call about the Nelson Algren Award, I was a graduate student at Cornell University, living in Ithaca, N.Y. I used the money to go to the dentist and take my two cats to the vet. What was left I used for books (lots of books) and a desk. I'd been writing on an old table propped on concrete blocks.
What are you up to now: I am professor of English at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., where I teach in the master's of fine arts program. I have published eight books, including the short story collection, "Read This and Tell Me What It Says," in which my Nelson Algren prize story functions as an anchor.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award no doubt helped my career in countless ways, but the immediate benefit to me was the validation of knowing my writing had (who knew?) financial worth. I had been paid by literary journals, up to that point, in contributor's copies. Don't get me wrong: This was lovely, but to appear in the Tribune, to be honored at a banquet, to receive such a check — these moments were my first taste of real possibility. And the timing, for me, could not have been better.
"Up Over Boulder Hill," 1995
The story: A 12-year-old girl is torn between her stern and pragmatic farm-tending father and the enigmatic charm of the young drifter who is living in a trailer on their property. At the time I wrote the story, I had just discovered Sam Shepard and was a fan of Flannery O'Connor.
What were you doing then: I was on my way to my first year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I was 22. It was summer and I was back at my parents' house in California getting ready to take a three-day Greyhound bus ride cross-country to Iowa.
What are you up to now: I'm still writing and creating. I also teach, mostly younger students. I have published two books of fiction, "Grass Roof, Tin Roof" and "The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys," and have been toiling away for a number of years on a third. I'm getting ready to release an album of linked songs that has a companion literary component, a chapbook of prose fragments, lyrics, images and text art. It explores themes having to do with the inheritance/disinheritance of Vietnam, drawing from personal as well as collective and mythic experience. It's called "We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People."
What the award meant: It punctuated the very beginning of my Iowa learning experience, and I took it then — and still see it now — as an affirming sign. I think it helped my career in tangible ways early on — as a laudable credential on a young writer's résumé — but even more so in intangible ways. It's been a long road since, with perhaps as many if not more disappointments as there've been moments of encouragement. When I look back on that period of my writing life ... it helps me to remember what it can feel like when all the pieces fall into place. It is a milestone in my past that helps to affirm my path as a writer.
"The 19th Jew," 1996
The story: "The 19th Jew" is about a well-established novelist from New York named Edith Margareten who is lured to teach at Notre Dame when she's offered a high-paying prestigious job. When she's asked to be on a special hiring committee to bring a minority writer to campus, she throws herself into the search, hoping she'll be joined by a worshipful acolyte, but instead, her own small-minded and insecure actions show her megalomania.
What were you doing then: I was living in Bellingham, Wash., Ironically, the previous evening, I'd told a friend I didn't think I'd write stories anymore because no one wanted to read stories.
What are you up to now: I direct the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, and I'm working on my 11th book, a novel. My third collection of short stories, "Reply All," was just published last year.
What the award meant: Winning was a great boost, of course, but I did indeed turn to writing more nonfiction after 1996. I still love the form of the short story and consider it one of my strengths as a writer. On a more personal level, the story was a bit of a revenge story. A couple of years earlier, I had been a candidate at Notre Dame to direct the creative writing program there. I was offered the job ... but then the dean turned back my candidacy. ... So I wrote "The 19th Jew," which doesn't directly relate my experience but has some fun at Notre Dame's expense. I was of course thrilled when it won the Nelson Algren Award and I knew that it would be published in the Chicago Tribune. Obviously, a lot of people at Notre Dame would see it, and they did. ... But it's still fun for me to think of what I was able to make out of what might have seemed otherwise a setback.
"Lessons My Hair Has Taught Me," 1997
The story: It's about Tommy Adler, a prematurely bald sportscaster whose hairpiece has ruined his personal life as much as it has aided his career. His obsession with being "outed" has distanced him from everyone in his life, including an anorexic sister.
What were you doing then: I was living in San Francisco, having moved there after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I was working at the only bookstore in the city that would hire me, the now defunct B. Dalton chain store. Between shifts I was supposed to be writing a novel, but instead spent my time honing my Sega Genesis Hockey skills.
What are you up to now: After garnering some screenwriting credits on a handful of independent films, I returned to advertising, where the constant rejection at least came with a steadier paycheck. I am a creative director at John McNeil Studio in Berkeley, Calif., where I write fiction of a different genre.
What the award meant: The Algren Award is the clear highlight of my short-lived literary career. To have my story selected from such a large pool of outstanding entries, without the politics you sometimes hear about in other literary competitions, is an honor in which I still take great pride. I will never forget the terror of being the only reader at the reception featuring the likes of Charles Frazier and James McManus — nor the thrill of having these same heroes of mine laugh at the parts I intended to be funny.
There's no question that the award has helped my career. There is some truth to the cliche that a half-finished novel hides in every creative director's desk, so having an award like the Algren on my bio has opened doors.
The story: "Ping-Pong" is narrated by a disappointed baby boomer who is trying to understand her parents' generation. Her parents were both in the army in World War II, stationed at a chateau outside Paris, and her father used to play Ping-Pong with Gertrude Stein. Her parents' lives always seemed like a romantic story in a book compared to her own dull life, but she comes to learn that her life has a story, too.
What were you doing then: In 1998, I was directing the creative writing program at Indiana University. I had almost no time to write, and I hadn't published a book of stories in 10 years. "Ping-Pong" was the most difficult story I've ever written, and I still think of it as my "breakthrough" story.
What are you up to now: I'm now a full-time writer. I'm working on a book of stories set in Venice, Italy. I've published my Venice stories recently in the Antioch Review and the New England Review.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award was a life-changing experience for me. It's the most prestigious short story award out there, and after winning, I began to devote more time to short fiction. In 2002, I won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame Press for "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," a book of stories in which "Ping-Pong" is the first story. I later won the Michigan Literary Award for another book of short stories, "Cities in the Sea." The Nelson Algren Award definitely helped my career because it encouraged me to write more stories.
David Michael Kaplan
The story: It's about a man after a painful separation from his wife, which has resulted in his becoming, in his words, "like ice." He's hired a young woman carpenter, Lidian, to build a deck for him. He's fascinated by her — her skill, her wit, her directness — and in the conversations they have, he gradually opens up to her about his confusions, while she in turn tells him about her past as a former divinity student who lost her faith.
What were you doing then: When I received the news about the Algren Award I was sitting at my desk writing a story. More generally, I was doing what I still do, teaching fiction writing and directing our creative writing program as a professor in the English department at Loyola University Chicago.
What are you up to now: I'm still doing those very things. I've recently had my story, "Kate's World," published in the Tribune's Printers Row Fiction and have another coming out in Quarterly West. My imagination seems to be more comfortable with the short story than with longer forms like the novel.
What the award meant: Winning the Algren was a wonderful thing, since it's such a prestigious award and has been won in the past by writers I admired tremendously, such as Stuart Dybek, while even other writers I admired, such as Joy Williams, have been runners-up. Did it help my career? Since I already was a tenured member of the English department at Loyola, there were no dramatic changes, although it undoubtedly helped when I came up for promotion to full professor soon after. And it definitely raised my profile in the Chicago literary community. As I've often said, everyone should have the experience of and pleasure in winning a significant award!
"A Practice Life," 2000
The story: A young woman and her mother and aunt are tourists in Sedona, Ariz., a place of her mother's choosing after she watched a TV documentary about spiritual experiences people have there. The young woman is skeptical, at odds with her mother, in love and recently engaged to a man her mother dislikes. She's trying to break the news of her engagement to her mother, looking for an ally in her aunt, and hoping for a life that's not like her mother's.
What were you doing then: I was teaching a bunch of composition classes at Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. I was at the beach — Lake Erie! — for the day with a friend when the call came, and I received the message when I got back that evening. I was astounded, gleeful, speechless. The award facilitated my being appointed a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I would teach fiction writing.
What are you up to now: I'm teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, raising a young son and working hard to make time to finish this book (which incorporates "A Practice Life").
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award was a tremendous boost and felt a bit like winning the lottery. What was interesting, too, was that I'd revised the story and changed the ending completely since I'd entered the contest. When I won, they wanted the original ending. But I'd lost it. I had to resend them the story without an ending and leave it up to them to paste in the original final pages, which suddenly seemed to me to be the perfect ending after all. The story is now the title of a novel I'm in the process of revising. So the story was, as it turned out, the beginning of something much larger.
"Bernie and Me," 2001
The story: "Bernie and Me" is a story about a girl reeling in the wake of her big brother's death and reflecting on his life.
What were you doing then: At the time I won the award, I was a recent graduate working three jobs to pay back prodigious college loans. I did secretarial work at an Episcopal church, taught poetry in the pediatric oncology ward at a hospital and recorded semi-pornographic audiotapes for men suffering from impotence. I was so broke I couldn't afford to buy a $1 bottle of water when I was thirsty. Five thousand dollars was an outrageous sum of money.
What are you up to now: I'm about to go on tour to promote my second book, "Searching for Zion." I am also finishing writing my third book and working as an associate professor in the English department at the City College of New York in Harlem.
What the award meant: I credit the Nelson Algren Award with launching my career. It won the interest of my literary agent and gave me the confidence to expand my short story into what became my first novel, "The Professor's Daughter." Most important, it made me think of myself as an author. I remember riding in the white stretch limo the Tribune sent to pick me up at O'Hare airport to take me to the award ceremony. I was drinking a vodka and tomato juice thinking, "If this is what it feels like to be a writer, then I'm SOLD." Of course, that's not what it feels like to be a writer at all, but it was the loveliest ride!
The story: "Midway" is about two brothers growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The narrator's younger brother, Junior, begins stealing baggage from Midway Airport, and the narrator, acting as Junior's guardian, must decide how to help him negotiate their past.
What were you doing then: I was living here in Chicago. I had just started writing fiction seriously. I had published two largely unnoticed novels and had begun teaching full time as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago.
What are you up to now: Since 2003, I've published four well-received novels and two short story collections. I've won the Great Lakes Book Award, the Society of Midland Authors Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize and I was finalist for the 2008 Story Prize. I'm currently an associate professor applying for full professorship at Columbia College Chicago. I have two children.
What the award meant: Winning the Algren award was a pivotal moment for my writing. I had published two books to little attention and felt like, at the age of 28, my writing career was over before it began. When I found out I had won the Algren, I suddenly felt like I was part of the national conversation, that my writing had merit, that my effort was validated. I still think of that event as one of the great coups of my career.
"Punnett Squares," 2004
The story: It's about an adopted Asian-American teenager who has come to doubt the story he's been told about his birth and subsequent adoption by a white family in rural southwest Michigan. The story takes place over the course of a summer as the boy detassels corn, lifts weights for football and pines after a girl, while rumors swirl about a five-legged calf and a missing woman.
What were you doing then: I was a doctoral student in English and creative writing at the University of Missouri. Just a few weeks before, I'd learned that my collection of stories, "Ordination," had been selected for the Ohio State University Prize for Short Fiction. It was a period in my life when being a writer suddenly became real — or at least as real as it ever becomes.
What are you up to now: I'm an associate professor of creative writing at Sam Houston State University, where I serve as director of the master's of fine arts program in creative writing.
What the award meant: The prize became the kind of honor that not only opens doors in the immediate aftermath, but that becomes a part of your permanent bio. You don't really say that of every story prize out there. It was particularly rewarding because I was aware Stuart Dybek and Pinckney Benedict had both been previous winners. I grew up just south of Kalamazoo, Mich., where Dybek taught at Western Michigan University for many years, and I'd been introduced to his work while I was an undergraduate at Hope College. It was also at Hope that I'd taken a pair of fiction workshops from Benedict, and he'd been not only an early influence, but someone who encouraged me to write. So to be able to say that I, too, had won the Nelson Algren Award? Well, that seemed like quite the nice thing to be able to say.
"Jerry Morgenthayer, Orem, Utah," 2006
The story: "Jerry Morgenthayer, Orem, Utah" is a story about a teenage girl who runs away from home after a threat of sexual abuse from her mother's boyfriend. While hitchhiking to the West Coast, she is raped by a truck driver. This leaves her with an existential dilemma: Because she's underage, going to the police means being sent back to the awful situation she left behind. All of her considerable resilience, intelligence and guile is applied to the decision she makes at the end of the story.
What were you doing then: My wife and I were just about to leave for a fundraiser for an environmental news magazine where I was once an intern. Oddly enough, the hostess was Annick Smith, whose father was a well-known Chicago photographer and a great friend of Nelson Algren. It was certainly fun bragging about the award in that company.
What are you up to now: I published a literary mystery, "The Last Mountains," with a small press in 2011. It's not yet clear whether there will be a sequel. Apart from writing, I continue to work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker in Missoula, Mont.
What the award meant: The award was a great affirmation for me, and the prize money helped give me time to write. I can't say there were any specific doors opened by the award, which surprised me a bit, but it's been a great credential.
Heather E. Goodman
"His Dog," 2007-08
The story: "His Dog" is the story of a couple running a hand-me-down general store and dog kennel in rural Ontario. When the couple realizes one of the dogs is being beaten, the wife challenges the husband to stand up for the dog and the couple's future.
What were you doing then: I was living in Minneapolis with my fiance, Paul, and pooch, Zane. I was in the middle of a fantastic yearlong mentorship at The Loft Literary Center and had just started my own tutoring, teaching and editing business.
What are you up to now: Paul, Zane and I now live in Pennsylvania, where I'm originally from, and I've developed my business here. I've just completed my novel and am seeking representation for it and my short story collection.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren award meant I could put a new roof on our home. It's a metaphor I'm happy to beat to death. When rejections roll in, the Algren award provides shelter, reminds me I have written a good story, shoves me to crack the code again and again. Without the Algren, I'd be more willing to give up.
"The Grand Tour," 2009
The story: It is set in Saudi Arabia and follows a mysterious Texan named Gus who was a pilot in WWII and who has stayed in the country for many years with a Bedouin couple named Rafa and Hamid.
What were you doing then: I was living in Provincetown, Mass., and awaiting the release of my first book, "Triple Time." That collection included "The Grand Tour," which was the only story in the book that had not been previously published! The story had in fact been turned down by many literary journals, sometimes for length and sometimes because of its wandering nature. So believe me, the news was a wonderful, wonderful surprise.
What are you up to now: I am a visiting professor of creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. I'm also working on a novel, "The Dailies."
What the award meant: Winning the award was thrilling because the Algren prize is such a wonderful tradition and I'd followed it for many years — and many times, the winning stories seemed to go against the grain of whatever might have been trendy at the time. It was also an honor to write a piece of fiction that was validated by journalists. I do a lot of research as a writer, and "The Grand Tour" was partly inspired by a news article about divorced women living on their own in Riyadh.
I should also add that winning the award for what had been viewed as a meandering or unwieldy story — yet one whose direction I felt oddly secure about during the writing — was gratifying for my writerly instincts. As writers we often don't know why we're following certain creative instincts like that, but we do need to remember to continue that pursuit and trust the process.
"My Thoughts While Cooling Down on the Hotel Veranda," 2010
The story: While isolating himself on a Las Vegas veranda during his honeymoon, Edward remembers a summer of his youth spent in California, visiting the grieving family of his deceased pen pal — a boy killed by bees, or perhaps something worse. In considering this final chapter of his parents' failed marriage, he seeks some perspective on his own days-old nuptials.
What were you doing then: I received the news of winning the Algren Award in December of 2010. That morning my mom was at my apartment taking care of my then 1-year-old daughter so I could get some writing done, a valuable respite from my role as stay-at-home father. I came out of my office to find my mom with this look on her face. She'd just taken a rather cryptic message from Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor. When I look back on it now, the timing was especially crucial for me. I hadn't been able to write as much as I'd have liked in the preceding months, but having this huge piece of good news come when it did sustained me for a while afterward.
What are you up to now: I've been teaching fiction writing at Loyola University Chicago for the last two years. This spring, I'll be teaching a short story workshop at the University of Chicago. When I'm not in class or being a dad, I write. I have a novel and a short story collection in the works.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award meant a great deal to me. As a young "writer" recently out of grad school it legitimized my choice to pursue a life in the arts. After the Algren Award, I stopped putting quotes around my career choice.
The story: "Clover" is a story about a lonely teacher, the power of words and the value of human connection.
What were you doing then: My son was playing in the high school state championship baseball tournament, and I had just returned from his game when I got the call.
What are you up to now: I'm in the exact middle of a sabbatical from my job teaching at the Latin School of Chicago. I'm the writer-in-residence at Roosevelt University. I just finished the first draft of a novel and am revising an earlier novel.
What the award meant: I still can't believe I won the Algren award. I immediately thought of the first writing class I took at DePaul University. Anne Calcagno was the teacher and she had us read the award winners from 1999. We read David Michael Kaplan's "Bamboo" and Kevin Brockmeier's "Apples" (which was an Algren Award finalist in 1999). Those stories stunned me. I wanted to do to readers what those stories had done to me.
Winning the Algren award put me on a list with writers I have long admired. I still feel like a bit of an impostor to be on that list. It makes me want to work harder at studying the craft and growing as a writer in order to deserve it.
Jeremy T. Wilson
"Everything Is Going to Be Okay," 2012
The story: A mysterious visit from his sister causes Doug and his wife, Maria, to confront the anxiety surrounding their impending parenthood.
What were you doing then: Specifically, I was in my office at home when I got a call from Elizabeth Taylor telling me I'd won. I don't remember exactly what I was doing at the time, but after the call I think I was dancing. More generally, I was doing the same things I'm doing now: writing and teaching.
What are you up to now: I'm a tutor and writing teacher for several Chicago organizations, including 826CHI, After School Matters and Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award was a tremendous honor and inspiration. Writing can be filled with a lot of rejection and self doubt, so I think more than anything, winning this award helped boost my confidence. It's probably still too early to assess how the award has helped my career, but it's certainly given me enough of a charge to power through the more difficult spells.
→B.H. Friedman: "Duplex," 1983
→Patricia MacInnes: "Angle of Incidence," 1987
→Thomas Barbash: "Howling at the Moon," 1991
→Melissa Bank: "Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace," 1993
→Cammie McGovern: "Jenny," 1994
→June Unjoo Yang: "Laundry," 2002
→Kevin Moffett: "Space," 2005
Join past Algren Award winners in kicking off the 2013 contest with an evening focusing on the process of creative writing. Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor will talk with David Michael Kaplan, Billy Lombardo, Joe Meno and Jeremy T. Wilson. Their work, along with that of other Algren Award winners, has appeared in Printers Row Fiction. 7 p.m., Wednesday, Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave.; $15.