"Lessons My Hair Has Taught Me," 1997
The story: It's about Tommy Adler, a prematurely bald sportscaster whose hairpiece has ruined his personal life as much as it has aided his career. His obsession with being "outed" has distanced him from everyone in his life, including an anorexic sister.
What were you doing then: I was living in San Francisco, having moved there after graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I was working at the only bookstore in the city that would hire me, the now defunct B. Dalton chain store. Between shifts I was supposed to be writing a novel, but instead spent my time honing my Sega Genesis Hockey skills.
What are you up to now: After garnering some screenwriting credits on a handful of independent films, I returned to advertising, where the constant rejection at least came with a steadier paycheck. I am a creative director at John McNeil Studio in Berkeley, Calif., where I write fiction of a different genre.
What the award meant: The Algren Award is the clear highlight of my short-lived literary career. To have my story selected from such a large pool of outstanding entries, without the politics you sometimes hear about in other literary competitions, is an honor in which I still take great pride. I will never forget the terror of being the only reader at the reception featuring the likes of Charles Frazier and James McManus — nor the thrill of having these same heroes of mine laugh at the parts I intended to be funny.
There's no question that the award has helped my career. There is some truth to the cliche that a half-finished novel hides in every creative director's desk, so having an award like the Algren on my bio has opened doors.
The story: "Ping-Pong" is narrated by a disappointed baby boomer who is trying to understand her parents' generation. Her parents were both in the army in World War II, stationed at a chateau outside Paris, and her father used to play Ping-Pong with Gertrude Stein. Her parents' lives always seemed like a romantic story in a book compared to her own dull life, but she comes to learn that her life has a story, too.
What were you doing then: In 1998, I was directing the creative writing program at Indiana University. I had almost no time to write, and I hadn't published a book of stories in 10 years. "Ping-Pong" was the most difficult story I've ever written, and I still think of it as my "breakthrough" story.
What are you up to now: I'm now a full-time writer. I'm working on a book of stories set in Venice, Italy. I've published my Venice stories recently in the Antioch Review and the New England Review.
What the award meant: Winning the Nelson Algren Award was a life-changing experience for me. It's the most prestigious short story award out there, and after winning, I began to devote more time to short fiction. In 2002, I won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame Press for "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," a book of stories in which "Ping-Pong" is the first story. I later won the Michigan Literary Award for another book of short stories, "Cities in the Sea." The Nelson Algren Award definitely helped my career because it encouraged me to write more stories.
David Michael Kaplan
The story: It's about a man after a painful separation from his wife, which has resulted in his becoming, in his words, "like ice." He's hired a young woman carpenter, Lidian, to build a deck for him. He's fascinated by her — her skill, her wit, her directness — and in the conversations they have, he gradually opens up to her about his confusions, while she in turn tells him about her past as a former divinity student who lost her faith.
What were you doing then: When I received the news about the Algren Award I was sitting at my desk writing a story. More generally, I was doing what I still do, teaching fiction writing and directing our creative writing program as a professor in the English department at Loyola University Chicago.