What are you up to now: I'm still doing those very things. I've recently had my story, "Kate's World," published in the Tribune's Printers Row Fiction and have another coming out in Quarterly West. My imagination seems to be more comfortable with the short story than with longer forms like the novel.
What the award meant: Winning the Algren was a wonderful thing, since it's such a prestigious award and has been won in the past by writers I admired tremendously, such as Stuart Dybek, while even other writers I admired, such as Joy Williams, have been runners-up. Did it help my career? Since I already was a tenured member of the English department at Loyola, there were no dramatic changes, although it undoubtedly helped when I came up for promotion to full professor soon after. And it definitely raised my profile in the Chicago literary community. As I've often said, everyone should have the experience of and pleasure in winning a significant award!
"A Practice Life," 2000
The story: A young woman and her mother and aunt are tourists in Sedona, Ariz., a place of her mother's choosing after she watched a TV documentary about spiritual experiences people have there. The young woman is skeptical, at odds with her mother, in love and recently engaged to a man her mother dislikes. She's trying to break the news of her engagement to her mother, looking for an ally in her aunt, and hoping for a life that's not like her mother's.
What were you doing then: I was teaching a bunch of composition classes at Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. I was at the beach — Lake Erie! — for the day with a friend when the call came, and I received the message when I got back that evening. I was astounded, gleeful, speechless. The award facilitated my being appointed a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I would teach fiction writing.
What are you up to now: I'm teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, raising a young son and working hard to make time to finish this book (which incorporates "A Practice Life").
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award was a tremendous boost and felt a bit like winning the lottery. What was interesting, too, was that I'd revised the story and changed the ending completely since I'd entered the contest. When I won, they wanted the original ending. But I'd lost it. I had to resend them the story without an ending and leave it up to them to paste in the original final pages, which suddenly seemed to me to be the perfect ending after all. The story is now the title of a novel I'm in the process of revising. So the story was, as it turned out, the beginning of something much larger.
"Bernie and Me," 2001
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 semi-pornographic 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 are you up to now: I'm about to go on tour to promote my second book, "Searching for Zion." I am also finishing writing my third book and working as an associate professor in the English department at the City College of New York in Harlem.
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. I remember riding in the white stretch limo the Tribune sent to pick me up at O'Hare airport to take me to the award ceremony. I was drinking a vodka and tomato juice thinking, "If this is what it feels like to be a writer, then I'm SOLD." Of course, that's not what it feels like to be a writer at all, but it was the loveliest ride!
The story: "Midway" is about two brothers growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The narrator's younger brother, Junior, begins stealing baggage from Midway Airport, and the narrator, acting as Junior's guardian, must decide how to help him negotiate their past.