Looking back with past winners of the Algren Award
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.
Founded in 1981 by Chicago magazine through the support of Brena and Lee A. Freeman, the award has been given to many writers who have gone on to leave their mark on the literary world. Since taking over the contest in 1986, the Chicago 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.
We checked in with five past winners to see how winning the Nelson Algren Short Story Award affected them. Here are edited transcripts of what they told us.
Author of “The Round House,” winner of the 2012 National Book Award
The story: “The
World’s Greatest Fisherman.” 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 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.
Author most recently of “Paper Lantern” and “Ecstatic Cahoots”
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 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.
Author of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter”
The story: “Sky Juice.” 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 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.
Author of “Searching for Zion”
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 semipornographic 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 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.
Jeremy T. Wilson
Author of “Adult Teeth”
The story: “Everything Is Going to Be Okay.” 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. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing at the time, but after the call I think I was dancing.
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.