The Iowa Short Fiction Award has been presented annually since 1969. In 1988 the University of Iowa Press instituted the John Simmons Short Fiction Award—named after the first director of the Press—to complement the ongoing award series. Both national competitions are juried through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Serious critical consideration is guaranteed by such final judges as Alison Lurie, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, James Salter, Kevin Brockmeier, and Ethan Canin.
Books by more recent award winners can be purchased from the University of Iowa Press.
Award Year 2000
Troublemakers is an often hilarious, sometimes frightening, occasionally off-the-wall collection of stories about men living on the edge. From the streets of Chicago's southwest side to the rural roads of Nebraska to the small towns of southern Illinois, these men tread a very fine line between right and wrong, love and hate, humor and horror.
Each story is a Pandora's box waiting to be opened: a high school boy with a new driver's license picks his brother up from jail; a UPS driver suspects his wife of having an affair but cannot find any tangible evidence of her indiscretion; an unemployed man's life begins to unravel after he discovers a dead man in a tree in his own backyard; two boys spend Halloween with an older thug; a young college teacher's patience is tested by both his annoying colleagues and the criminals who haunt his neighborhood. In story after story, McNally's troublemakers lead readers to a place no less thrilling or dangerous than the human heart itself.
Award Year 2000
In her award-winning collection, Elizabeth Oness travels a vast emotional terrain, from the loss of innocence to sexual betrayal to the helplessness of parents before their children. In “Momentum, ” a woman carries the burden of a dead friend's secret for years until she finally decides to reveal it, only to discover that other, darker secrets still lie in wait. “Rufus” follows the quandary of a young man who is forced to choose between the affection of his girlfriend and his compassion for a homeless man who has taken up residence in his car.
Articles of Faith is a collection of stories about silence and the complications that arise when a silence is kept too long or suddenly broken. As one narrator relates, “I knew that life was full of these things which matter so enormously and make us what we are—but remain unsaid because to voice them does not make them go away, and instead shakes everything around us apart.”
Award Year 1999
Everyone does it: women of fierce independence, men of thin character, rambling Deadheads, gay teenage girls, despondent Peace Corps volunteers, anorexic Broadway theatre dancers, the eager, the grieving, the uncommunicative. Even the confused do it. And they don't just fall in love with each other—they fall in love with certain moments and familiar places, with things as ephemeral as gestures and as evanescent as sunlight.
Quirky, real, idealistic, deluded, bohemian, and true, these are people who can—and often do—fall in love with a pair of ears, August afternoons, saucers of vitamins, New Age carpenters, and dead bumblebees. And if there's something they can teach us, it's how to conceive of alternative worlds and the terror and the exhilaration of venturing outside the confines of the lives we know and making our way into a dark, glittering unknown.
Award Year 1999
These eleven stories travel from snowbound Buffalo in the 1940s to present-day Boston, Providence, and San Francisco and across the domestic terrain of desire's unruly claims to the nuances of grief. In the title story, a young woman whose sister has been killed in a fire reckons with her parents' silent suffering and finds transcendence through film. In a series of stories set in post-World War II Buffalo and Manhattan, the members of a close-knit Jewish family are caught up in a maze of clandestine desires—none of which can be fulfilled. The collection's final series turns to one family's complex generational links: a college student confronted by her own assumptions about race and sexuality; a grandmother slipping into mental decline; a middle-aged mother juggling bewilderment, love, and grief.
Passion and heartbreak are often intertwined in these stories as Reisman reveals the ways in which women and men are inevitably shaped by their histories and the ways in which their bodies carry the legacy of loss.
Award Year 1998
Award Year 1998
Friendly Fire describes how we are sometimes brought down by those we love. Kathryn Chetkovich's stories detail the lives of women finding their way in a contemporary world where the traditional maps of love, family, and community are no longer particularly reliable.
Award Year 1997
Jim Henry's stories defy convention. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes. Although the plots vary—from a corpse returning to visit his family weeks after his burial, to the musings of a congressman grappling with the weight of history, to a wealthy family's elaborate plot to cheer their mysteriously wounded mother—all express a sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the absurd in the everyday. Henry's characters are for the most part misfits, outsiders looking in on a world whose seemingly natural order is turned upside down. In a throw-away culture obsessed with sex and drugs, money and God, they struggle to connect with what is real while trying to convince themselves that anything is. And yet in the midst of their existential searching there remains always Henry's quirky sense of humor. As one character says, “Anything is possible,” and in this collection anything and everything happens.
Award Year 1997
Lisa Lenzo's stories explore what happens when safe boundaries are crossed. Often impetuous or unintentional, these crossings-over are never taken with full knowledge—characters step or glide or slip into trouble, and occasionally they hold still as danger overtakes them. The result is the loss of lives, limbs, or simply the illusion of safety. Yet despite their trials, the characters in these stories come away with a sense of hope for what remains.
All of the characters in Within the Lighted City are Detroiters or former Detroiters, including a near-albino teenager, an angel, and the Zito family—Ralph and Rosie and their children, who first appear in the collection during the '67 riots. Their stories of confrontation, loss, love, humor, and joy are, in the words of Stuart Dybek, “unsentimental in their honesty and at the same time powerfully empathetic.” They are also beautifully told.
Award Year 1996
The award-winning stories in David Borofka's Hints of His Mortality focus on the male of the species, on bewildered, guilt-ridden, hypersensitive characters adrift in a sea of changing roles and expectations. Although they yearn for the ideal—whether physical or spiritual—and for that sense of divine connection suggested by Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, they usually end up settling for what seems the next best thing: sex or religion.
The amorous scrimmage between male and female in these taut, intense stories is a contest that leaves no one unmarked. The hapless ministers in Borofka's memorable collection find that their daily grind of professional piety leaves them with more questions than answers. The men and boys in Hints of His Mortality are always aware of their flaws, for Borofka's vital characters have the capacity to register the shadows of their every blemish. Like Ferguson of the title story, haunted for twenty years by his failures of conscience, each protagonist experiences the inexorable fallibility of his own nature, agonizes over his moral weakness, and longs for escape from this life in which “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting." Yet each is redeemed by his ongoing struggle for compassion and understanding.
Award Year 1996
All eight of Don Zancanella's wry, pristinely written stories have memorable settings in the historical or contemporary American West, ranging from love among abandoned missile silos to a tale of Laotian refugees in Wyoming to an account of a traveling chimpanzee show. Collectively they form a kind of alternative history of this too-often-stereotyped region.
Some of the stories take as their theme the coming of technology to the western wilderness—television, telephones, telescopes, missiles, even an imaginative account of a visit by inventor Thomas Edison to the Rocky Mountains. Others focus on small-town intolerance, calling into question the myth of individualism and heroic self-reliance set forth in Hollywood.
There is a vivid strain of the fantastic in these stories, a beguiling, offbeat quality that links them. However, despite some extraordinary events and quirky exteriors, most of the characters are typical of the kind of people one might meet in small towns anywhere—schoolteachers, career soldiers, Native American teenagers, telephone line workers, ranchers, cooks, wagon masters. Almost all of them have very mixed feelings about the time and place in which they find themselves. For them the West is not a promised land but a place they have to make the best of. It is these human copings that unite Zancanella's prize-winning collection.
Award Year 1995
Obsession, adultery, infidelity, unrequited love, suicide, betrayal, death—Tereze Glück's clear-sighted characters coolly assess their actions and reactions. When a man's wife dies suddenly, he feels liberated, and learning this stuns him. Taking a leap into personhood, a child watching her mother in the garden experiences empathy. A woman addicted to a lover realizes how she has squandered herself. A kiss in a taxicab sets two people on the road to inevitability. Scars, even small ones, reflect the power and mystery of the roads people take from one life into another. In the intense title story, suicide, long-distance love, and a cat's nine lives overshadow a woman's subterranean life.
Glück's wry and rueful stories chronicle her characters' struggles to tell the truth regardless of where that might lead them. Insistent, stubbornly spirited voices inform these tales; Glück's characters dig in their heels and announce, for good or ill, “This is who I am.” In the end their moral integrity forces them to come face to face with themselves. At the intersection where these insightful stories take place, what is in one's heart and what one reveals to the world converge. Each story is a resonant act of self-discovery for both writer and reader.
Award Year 1995
With all the drama and complexity of a symphony, Listening to Mozart traces forty years in the life of flutist James Baxter. Many of the stories in this collection—actually a novel in stories—center on or revolve around James' relationship with Anna, a potter and artist. Each story is a separate movement, yet they combine to create a deeply textured whole work. The stories chronicle James' inward journey, as well as his life and loves, with a voice repeatedly transformed through the years.
“Bach Suite”serves as a prologue and deals with the split in consciousness that often accompanies musical performance. The story imitates the musical form it describes and tunes the reader's ear to the innermost thoughts of a musician. Each succeeding story introduces another episode in James' life—his music school days in Philadelphia with his first love, Zoë, his stint in the U.S. Marine Band during the Vietnam War when he meets Anna, his adventures with his friend Franklin, his experiences with the mysterious Dalawa, a trip with Anna to Toronto to immerse themselves in the culture and music of South India. James' friendships, affairs, experiences, and occasional angst resound in each story.
In all the stories, in all his relationships, James finds himself experiencing his life in much the way he experiences music. There is a moment for which he is waiting, yet for which he is never fully prepared, a moment which passes inexorably. Sometimes, in the rare musical experience, he is able to penetrate that moment and allow time to fall away. These moments are the signposts of his life, like the movements of the Bach suite, but unbidden, and they give him his only perspective and vision.
Award Year 1993
In Ann Harleman's remarkable debut collection, men and women of extraordinary passions look for and sometimes find the hidden heart of ordinary life. Testing themselves and each other, they search for ways to connect. "Understanding," says the troubled voyeur-narrator of "Imaginary Colors," "is the booby prize"; these characters go for experience. Reckless explorers of inner space, they try the limits of their lives.
A gravely ill woman seeks forgiveness from her grown-up daughters for an adulterous past which she does not really regret. A boy watches anxiously—and enviously—while his brother flaunts an interracial love affair in front of their dangerous father. In strike-torn Warsaw during the rise of Solidarity, an American professor and his Polish housekeeper reach toward each other from their respective cages of loneliness. A girl's determined pursuit of her first sexual experience brings her more, and less, than she bargained for.
Harleman combines a clear eye with a generous heart, revealing her characters-misguided, selfish, loving, brave—through a compassionate, often humorous probing of their inner and outer worlds. In "It Was Humdrum" a system analyst hires a detective to find the mother who left him as an infant, while his young wife leaves him daily for afternoon trysts with her Puerto Rican lover. A woman assaulted by a teenage gang escapes physically unharmed but forever changed. The past overtakes a woman who has married for love, not of her husband, but of his small daughter. A greeting card poet pursued by stereotyped images of happiness flees from the woman he loves and the brother he never knew he had.
The supple language of these twelve stories—wise, funny, delighting in the sensuous—makes us feel the beauty and terror of a fully lived life. Harleman's characters, whether they succeed or fail, show us the way to a deeper exploration of our own lives.
Award Year 1993
These nine superbly crafted stories, set primarily in Pittsburgh's Italian American neighborhoods, concentrate on families, on the poignant nature of father-daughter relationships, and on the fate of those who are refugees from their physical or spiritual communities. “Love is born only out of wreckage,” Manfredi's characters declare bravely. Her vigorous families are both the wrecking crews and the architects of the human foundation.
In “The Projectionist,” a displaced Sicilian is forced to confront the family he lost in war-torn Italy at the same time that his current family is disintegrating; his disillusionment with the American dream overwhelms him when his oldest daughter exchanges Old World values for the hippie-inspired climate of permissiveness. Ten-year-old Elena, in “Bocci,” takes the teachings of her strict Catholic upbringing to the extreme, and it is her devoutness that is cruelly used against her when violence compels her to reject becoming “a nun or a saint.” The father in “Tall Pittsburgh” sends his daughter to charm school at Sears, then enters her in a beauty pageant for tall women. Distraught in spite of her second-place win, he begins to relive his grief over the death of his beautiful wife.
Many of Manfredi's vital, luminous characters are outsiders, dispossessed by their inability to bridge the gap between the self and others, forced to deal with loss through death and lapse of faith, yet always managing to survive despite their place on the bewildering margins. Manfredi reveals an affirmation, finally, that hope is a permanent possession of every human spirit.
Award Year 1994
Susan Onthank Mates
Many of Mates' characters have experienced some sort of cultural dislocation. In "Theng," refugees from Cambodia living in Providence, Rhode Island, struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of despair and the bittersweet memories of their former home. In "Shambalileh," a Persian woman, unable to have children with her American husband, is forced to reexamine her status both as wife and foreigner. Unifying these incredibly diverse stories is the brave honesty with which the characters confront the tenuousness of their situations. For the most part, they share the tenacity of the women in "Shambalileh," who "with great caution...began to imagine the rest of her life."
The central characters in several stories are doctors, whose candid explorations of the vast moral implications of medical practice make of their lives a sort of psychic battleground between good and evil. In "The Good Doctor," a doctor torn between her dedication to medicine and her own requirements as a human being—what many of us might call her weaknesses--arrives at an intriguing conclusion. An intern in "Ambulance" risks her own well-being to save the life of a victim of gang violence.
The twelve stories in this collection are powerful and durable. The debate between good and evil is so intense that the daily experiences of Mates' characters, transformed and reorganized, become psychic quests. Mates takes us back to the fundamental question that is the fountainhead of all serious fiction: how should we live?
Award Year 1994
Rod Val Moore
The stories in this prize-winning volume are set in fictional towns, along highways, and in industries on either edge of the Mexico-California border. The author uses memory and imagination to transform these scenes into a defamiliarized frontera, a region of subtle misplacements and cultural contretemps. In these engaging and extremely human stories, gringos move south and Mexicans move north in a search for growth and difference but find that the border is much more fluid, much harder to definitively cross, than they imagined.
For instance, in “Grimshaw's Mexico,” Officer Grimshaw chauffeurs his family south of the border to buy medicine and is taken aback when his little boy appears to learn Spanish in an afternoon. Years later, back in Mexico, his son grown and gone away to live his life, a con artist gives Grimshaw his last chance to so “something foreign and unforgivable.” “Igloo among Palms,” the title story, tells of a dry-ice deliveryman on a lonely road and the somewhat ghostly hitchhiker he picks up and then loses track of late one summer night. The hitchhiker resurfaces, along with a fast-food waitress, in a date palm garden, and there they must find a way to sort out their respective lives.
These stories are deeply entertaining, full of surprises and unexpected turns that ultimately lead the reader to the narrative's fascinating resolution.
Award Year 1993
Lex Williford's seriously eccentric characters find that traveling down life's highway leads to the breakdown lane as quickly as it leads to the fast lane. Their quirky philosophy can best be summed up by Bucklin Rudd, who just lost his business and his wife after losing the last bit of his good sense: “Nothing like working half your life for something just to find out you think you're pretty damn sure you don't want it.” The ten stories in Macauley's Thumb—set variously in Texas, Old and New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, and Illinois—explore the complicated lives of disenchanted characters who find ways to express their grief at the losses they face under impossible circumstances, losses so large and so small that no one—not even Smiling Joe's insurance—can cover them.
A husband and wife, unable to speak to each other without arguing, face the dissolution of their marriage when they smuggle his mother's body out of Mexico. Two boys, confronting abandonment by their father, go to the Texas State Fair and stumble upon a way to get their mother out of bed. Thomas “Hoot” Ponder and his nephew find common ground in whiskey and storytelling amid the comedy surrounding death and dying. A chiropractor who loves science fiction movies struggles with his sexual fantasies about one of his patients, a Wal-Mart cashier who can't stop talking about her pain. In the powerful title story, Cal Macauley—driven mad by his wife's horrible death—faces mourning, regret, and the inevitability of forgetting by striking out against himself and the rattlesnakes on his mountain.
Inarticulate until overwhelmed by trouble, then wise beyond belief, Lex Williford's characters achieve a dignified fatalism combined with a generous dose of fast-paced humor.
Award Year 1992
In the thirteen stories of My Body to You, thirteen women or girls pilot their own bodies through a shifting universe of lovers old and young, parents devoted and destructive, sisters of different sexes, children and adults living in the mysterious world of autism. All these characters share keen powers of observations and a heightened sensuality. In a wild variety of settings, they struggle to control—or dare to abandon themselves to—their intensely private passions.
A woman in love with a gay man she calls Sister Kin attempts to escape the bonds of her own body. An eighteen-year-old virgin enters into a passionate affair with an older man who turns out to be a virgin of a different sort. A special education teacher in a school for aggressive teenagers finds herself attracted to another teacher, also female. An intelligent outcast girl bonds with her mindlessly seductive mother to form “one person.”
Searle reveals other characters through inventive and often comic feats of narrative daring. A girl grows into womanhood during a single family dinner that spans twenty years. A middle-aged wife, once dubbed “The First Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” watches her former selves parade before her family in a lively evening of home movies. Two women—one recently divorced, the other a group home resident in love with The Who—join forces as they figure out “What to Do in an Emergency.” An old woman experiences both physical breakdown and spiritual breakdown in a supermarket's vegetable department. A young woman is drawn into the emotional and sexual life of an autistic boy obsessed with the number 8.
Each of these stories is written in a language that strives to match the intensity of Searle's characters; each gives the reader an exceptionally intimate portrait of a unique female and the central, sensual mystery of her body.
Award Year 1992
Even the tamest characters in Imaginary Men test the rules to see where they can be broken and where they hold true. In Enid Shomer's world, endless misunderstandings sprout from goodwill, women and men burn with a desire that forces them to create themselves as they evolve, people grasp their relatedness to others only fleetingly, goodness is as great a mystery as evil.
For the unappreciated Harry Goldring, tormented by his unshakable label of family mensch, wildness is expressed first in panic attacks, then in daydreams. At the other end of Shomer's highly colored spectrum is killer Elvis Thornberry, a “man you wouldn't notice unless he held a gun to your head or saved your life.” Balancing these more troubled characters are Shomer's many improbable lovers and friends: Lavell, who sees something of herself in the untrainable hunting dog owned by her younger lover; Diane, who takes back her unfaithful husband only after inventing a lie that puts her on an equal footing; Leila Pinkerton and Fontane Walker, who were "as close to friendship as they could get, given that Leila was white, Fontane was black, and they lived in a world full of people who claimed to know what that meant."
In all of Shomer's powerful stories, family is the mold we break out of as well as the lap we seek comfort in; family myths create mysterious emblems of freedom. Listening to her resonant voice, we witness the wild, raw moments when people lose control, when the wildness—submerged or not—that they both avoid and rush toward bleeds through.
Award Year 1991
Punctuated with weirdly comic moments, the stories in The Ant Generator reflect Harris's view of the world as a slightly strange place with shifting, dubious boundaries. Men and women encounter the commonplace improbabilities of modern life: a woman who works in an archaeological museum dreams of order but experiences random violence, a bored schoolteacher gets into the Book of World Records by standing on one foot.
In the various interactions of mind and matter in Harris's affecting stories, people try to force their experience into simple shapes, against natural and social opposition, with comic or tragic results. Sometimes their determination to command their own meaning is redemptive and creative; at other times they confront the luminous mystery and unforgiving character of the natural world or the anger of the dispossessed. Harris sensitively creates individuals who respond to the ordinary in extraordinary ways, characters who think in dreams and visions and who, like the author, employ rare gifts.
Award Year 1991
Sondra Spatt Olsen
Heroines in Sondra Spatt Olsen's compelling stories often find themselves in bad situations: a wife with an irresponsible husband, an older woman who wants to leave her younger lover, a suburban housewife who wants sex with her doctor, a teacher who falls in love with her student, a young girl haunted by her mother's judgments, a demanding career woman unsettled by her boyfriend's success, a young woman who finds that her friends, when drunk, are potential murderers. But just as Chekhov gives us pleasure from moments of pain, Olsen illuminates the universal humor and pathos of bad situations.
Olsen brings bright wit, fresh empathy, and a generous dose of psychological insight to themes of abandonment and humiliation—her fiction offers a sort of transcendence from pain. These haunting, unsparing stories are not afraid to confront life's traps and pitfalls, but they do so with a celebration of the courage that rises amid the confusion all of us face.
Award Year 1989
Starkey Flythe Jr.
In these riveting stories, the individual is thrown into the larger, insensitive space of war, religion, or so-called progress, where persistence or survival must be supported on the smaller and sometimes socially inappropriate measure of personal beliefs and desires.
In the title story, the woman discovers success, conviviality, and spiritual pleasure in a church family only to find her own, smaller family is falling apart. In "Walking, Walking," an old woman sees the ghost of her son and wonders why in life he could not do right and why now, in death, he can't rest. The deception of the modern world, of progress and real estate values, enables her to triumph over the schemes of an undertaker and lead her son to rest. Ugly strength overwhelms intelligence and hope in "The Ice Fisher," as a woman defies her husband to enroll her son in the protection and opportunity of a choir school.
In all the stories, enlightened selfishness takes on heroic quality—these people defy and resist, determine and persist, regardless of the cost.
Award Year 1990
These stories are delicate seismographic meditations on disaster and its aftershocks. The characters are survivors, digging their way out of the past, shaken but hopeful. Despite all their tragic losses, there is a pervasive sense of humor, hope, and forgiveness: abandonment leads ultimately to reunion, grief to solace. This is contemporary America—a jigsaw puzzle of fragmented families constantly picking up the pieces and fitting themselves together in new ways to form unforgettable pictures.
Award Year 1989
With a full range of narrative techniques, the fourteen stories in this volume explore the arcs people trace as they make their way in the world. Miles Wilson's compelling narrative presents characters at crucial moments in their trajectories, when the nature and outcome of their lives can be illuminated. Though built out of the texture of ordinary life, these stories concentrate their focus where the luminous intersects the commonplace.
Many of the stories are set in the American West, which often rises out of the background, virtually assuming the role of another character. In "Outsider," a fable of the artist and society is played out as a metaphysical western. "Wyoming" portrays a college professor, his career hanging by a thread, who meets an uncanny woman on a strange journey through a Wyoming blizzard. And in "Fire Season," a U.S. Forest Service firefighter undergoes an apocalyptic Santa Ana fire that takes him to the bewildering margins of the human and natural worlds.
Award Year 1988
In the sparsely settled hills of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, winter's toughness is matched only by the animosity and affection of its inhabitants for each other and for the land that unnerves them. In The Long White, Michigan writer Sharon Dilworth evokes a place dominated by two great lakes whose power and ferocity influence the lives of every inhabitant. The particularities of place and character come together with the clarity and exactitude of a fresh snowfall that both veils and illuminates a landscape.
Memorable in this collection is Dilworth 's uncommon portrayal of the long-standing prejudice between the Finnish and Indian settlers in the Upper Peninsula as well as the unsettling rhythm of small-town life for members of each group. Dilworth also extends her storytelling to a southern island where a transplanted northerner intends to spend the rest of his life and to places common everywhere in America: an out-of-the way restaurant where a woman runs into her exhusband's new wife, a plane trip where a businessman talks to an Irish immigrant holding a box of photos of her deceased father, and a 4th of July picnic where a woman confronts her fear and her loneliness.
Read singly these stories give the reader a snowflake's precise and individual pleasure; read together they fall upon our consciousness like a long-awaited and welcome gift.