On a Saturday afternoon that dripped with sticky June heat, author Ben Hoffman and his groomsmen readied for his impending nuptials in Chicago's West Loop by basking in his hotel suite's air conditioning and a few moments of tranquility, a respite from the wedding day frenzy. With just about four hours to go before the ceremony, the Harrisburg, Pa., native got a call from an unknown number with a Chicago area code.
Immediately, Hoffman's mind went to calamity, he said. It was the caterer calling to say he'd lost their order, or the florist unable to deliver the flowers, or a relative stranded on Interstate 94 with a flat tire.
Instead, the call was from the Chicago Tribune, and it was the opposite of cataclysmic news: Hoffman's story "This Will All Be Over Soon" had won the 2014 Nelson Algren Short Story Award.
"There are not too many times that you could say that winning the Nelson Algren Award is the second-best thing that happened to you that day," Hoffman, 30, said with a laugh. "It was a great day. I will remember it for a while."
The Algren Award, a literary prize honoring short fiction given annually by the Tribune, caps a recent spate of good news for Hoffman. Aside from his wedding and honeymoon in Spain and Portugal, from which he had returned two days earlier, Hoffman was awarded a yearlong fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing (he'll start in the fall), and his first chapbook, "Together, Apart," was published in March.
Additionally, his stories have won or been finalists for awards from short story magazine Zoetrope: All-Story and literary journal Crazyhorse, and have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Tin House (online) and Fugue.
Hoffman's award-winning story will be published Aug. 3 in the Tribune's Printers Row Journal.
A graduate of Tufts University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Hoffman focused his attention on writing just five years ago when he began applying to graduate schools, though he said he's always been a daydreamer and a voracious reader.
"I'm jealous of those people who knew from age 5 that they wanted to be a writer or a doctor or anything, because I always felt like I had a lot of interests," he said. "I've always been an imaginative and perceptive person. I am happy watching things and taking in the details. I'm always thinking about the what-if."
Founded in 1981 by Chicago magazine and administered by the Tribune since 1986, the Nelson Algren Awards have traditionally gone to green writers, some of whom became literary luminaries. Louise Erdrich, Stuart Dybek and Kim Edwards are a few of the now-famous authors who won before leaving their marks on the book world.
"Chicago has a rich and enduring literary legacy, and the Nelson Algren Awards support this tradition and encourage a new generation of storytellers," Tribune Editor Gerould Kern said. "These awards, along with Printers Row Journal, our literary festival and author series, affirm the Tribune's commitment to literature, reading and ideas."
Hoffman's grand-prize-winning piece, which follows an unnamed husband dealing with the kidnapping of his wife, was selected from about 2,400 entries, nearly double the number of stories submitted last year. After four rounds of judging, authors Roxana Robinson, Peter Orner and Yiyun Li picked Hoffman, who will receive a $3,500 cash prize, as well as four finalists and four runners-up.
This year's finalists, who will receive $1,000 each, are D.E. Lee for "Love Like the Sky," Dominic Smith for "Burns & Falls," Sandra Hunter for "Jewels We Took With Us" and Micah Dean Hicks for "The Book of Locusts." Runners-up, who will receive $500 each, are Collete Sartor for "Once Removed," Rachel Yoder for "On Innocence," Michael Devens for "The Lives of Creatures Underwater" and G. Bernhard Smith for "The Immortal Mrs. Trubridge."
"These stories seem to capture the full spectrum of human emotion," Tribune Literary Editor at Large Elizabeth Taylor said of this year's honorees, "and they were not only highly accomplished and polished works of fiction but were also full of heart."
The slightly absurdist "This Will All Be Over Soon" follows a man whose neighbor kidnapped his wife, Julie, 11 months earlier, leaving him to parent his young daughter, Lucy, alone. Told in first person through the father, the story takes on a magical quality when Lucy seems to begin communicating telepathically with her mother, leaving readers to find truth amid the mysteries and irrationalities in the story's world.
Overcome by frustration with bored SWAT team members who play cards instead of strategizing, the man attempts to rescue Julie, to heartbreaking effect.
"I am interested in writing about people or families struggling to feel safe and do right by each other in a world that often doesn't feel safe or seems like it's hard to feel safe in," Hoffman said. "I am definitely interested in magical realism, as well as the intersection of humor and trauma."
Hoffman's "confident and surprising" tone struck contest judge Robinson: "What makes (this piece) so impressive is the smooth, accomplished writing, which gives you the sense that you are actually living this story," she wrote in an email. "I like the way it feels like a story you are in, not one you are learning about. And this suggests that the heart of the story itself - which is one of abandonment, anguish, desolation - is something we can't understand, any more than we can exactly understand the mysteries of the human heart."
Rebecca King, founding editor of Origami Zoo Press and editor of Hoffman's chapbook, said she was attracted to Hoffman's ability to make offbeat scenarios and flawed characters feel whole and authentic.
"He has the ability to put the reader in a world that can be slightly strange ... and really tap into the humanity there and make it feel real and complete and never forced," she said.
"I think (Hoffman) is a good example of a writer whose deepest strength, beyond intelligence, is a kind of empathy, a way of seeing the world from inside his character's psyches," said Rebecca Lee, an author and one of Hoffman's graduate-school professors at UNC-Wilmington. "I think his work is really important. It feels like he's writing about things that really matter, and he's using narrative as genuine investigation, but it's also really just plain interesting to read."
As Hoffman and his wife ready to move to Madison, Wis., for his fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Hoffman is completing a collection of stories and beginning a novel.
Although "This Will All Be Over Soon" is set in a mystical world, kidnappings are, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence in the real world. Now that he's married, Hoffman said he would like to think he wouldn't wait 11 months to act like his narrator.
"I can be someone who's sometimes passive or takes too long to make a decision," Hoffman said. "I think that I would have this fantasy, as I think the narrator does, of playing some sort of hero or having some sort of violent triumph. ... If in my world the SWAT guys were playing cards and drinking lemonade, I would certainly be putting a bit more pressure on the SWAT team."