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.

 

Dao Strom

"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.

 

Robin Hemley

"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.