It wasn't supposed to be a particularly special night for Brenda Peynado, but it turned into one.
"I was actually on my way to a movie, and I got an email from (Chicago Tribune literary editor-at-large) Elizabeth Taylor saying, 'Hey, about the Nelson Algren Award, I'd like to talk to you about your story.'" Peynado said in a phone interview from Cincinnati.
"It was vague enough that I was like, 'Oh my God, oh my God. What does this mean?' My heart was racing, we were about to go into the movie, and Elizabeth Taylor and I kept missing each other's phone calls."
Later that night, after the movie, they connected. Taylor told her the good news: Peynado's story, "The Great Escape," had won the 2015 Nelson Algren Short Story Award.
"The Nelson Algren Award is one of those holy grails of short story writing," Peynado said, "and I'm incredulous that I am joining these amazing winners from past and future years."
The Algren award, bestowed annually by the Chicago Tribune since 1981, honors great short fiction.
"Fiction is like radar, guiding the way toward empathy and insight," Taylor said, "and fiction writers are on the front lines of our emotional and intellectual lives."
The Algren award has been given to many authors who have gone on to become literary giants: Louise Erdrich, Stuart Dybek, Kim Edwards, to name a few.
"We are very pleased to present Brenda Peynado with the Nelson Algren Award, and we hope this recognition further enhances her already flourishing writing career," Tribune Editor Gerould Kern said. "The Chicago Tribune has long nurtured a great literary tradition, and it is exciting for us to continue to champion that future by honoring such creative work."
Peynado describes herself as a lifelong book nerd. Her father, who attended MIT for electrical engineering, tried to interest her in science at a young age, but it never stuck — that is, until she started at Wellesley College and, trying to dodge a math credit, took a computer science course.
"I ended up loving — absolutely loving — computer science because it was in a lot of ways like writing. I mean, coding is coding, but the theory of computer science is a lot of philosophy and creating your own world," Peynado said. "I feel like it's really close, the way I think about the two things.
"I think that the way science has influenced my writing is just a way of thinking about the world thematically. I know other writers think most importantly about plot, and I do think about plot, but when I first start a story, I think, 'What's this story about, and how is it going to look at the world?'"
After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in computer science, Peynado worked as an IT auditor at IBM. The job included a lot of travel, and during that time, she was constantly taking notes. Writing, it seemed, was always something that lingered in her mind, an impulse that she couldn't help but follow.
A couple of years into Peynado's job at IBM, her mother was diagnosed with cancer (she's in remission now). Peynado took a leave of absence to go home and help, and during that six-month period, she began looking into getting a master's of fine arts in fiction. She applied to programs near her parents' home and was accepted to
Since then, she's been published in numerous prestigious publications, including The Threepenny Review and Pleiades. In 2013, she went to the Dominican Republic on a Fulbright scholarship to research her upcoming novel on the 1965 civil war in that country.
This year, her story "The History of Happiness," originally published in the Cimarron Review, was chosen for the O. Henry Prize Stories for 2015. She's currently pursuing her Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
Michael Griffith, a professor in that program, said he responded to Peynado's work immediately.
"She writes inventive, playful, often high-concept fiction, but without any whiff of the dryness or inaccessibility that 'experimental' work is sometimes accused of," he said. "Brenda's work has a fierceness, an assurance, a near-moral conviction about it. One can't fail to see that she has something to say — her work exudes urgency from every pore — and that she's finding a fresh, strange, impressive way of saying it."
Peynado's story, "The Great Escape," will appear Sunday in the Tribune's Printers Row Journal, a premium literary supplement. In addition, she received a prize of $3,500.
This year's finalists, who will receive $1,000 each, are Dominic Russ-Combs for "The Tow"; Joshua Idaszak for "In a New Country"; John Matthew Fox for "The Descent of Punch the Frog"; and Anne Valente for "A Call to Memory."
Runners-up, who will receive $500 each, are Scott Gloden for "Tennessee"; Maxim Loskutoff for "Ways to Kill a Tree"; K Brattin for "To Dismantle a Cake"; and Brandon French for "Ragged Point." Their stories will also appear in future Printers Row Journals.