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.
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“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.