Look­ing back with past win­ners of the Al­gren Award

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Courtney Crow­der

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.

Louise Er­drich

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.

Stuart Dy­bek

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.

Kim Ed­wards

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.

Emily Raboteau

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.

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