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.


Stuart Dybek

"Blight," 1985

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.


Pinckney Benedict

"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.


Steven Schwartz