Each year, we honor the best poem and short story published in Ploughshares with the Cohen Awards, which are wholly sponsored by our longtime patrons Denise and Mel Cohen. Finalists are nominated by staff editors, and the winners—each of whom receives a cash prize of $600—are selected by our advisory editors. The 2009 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 2008, Volume 34, go to Steven Schwartz for his story “Bless Everybody” in Fall 2008, edited by James Alan McPherson.
Steven Schwartz was born in 1950 in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town along the Delaware River, and grew up just outside Chester, near Swarthmore College. “I used to walk around the campus and wonder what it would be like to go to college there,” he says. His father owned a furniture store for many years, and his mother was a bookkeeper before becoming a homemaker. Though drawn to writing and books, Schwartz’s main aspiration while growing up was to become a psychologist. “Even as a child,” he says, “I would ask friends: “How does that make you feel?” and actually be interested in their responses. My brother, Louis, older than me by three years, was destined to be the writer in the family. He had an enormous library at the anomalous age of thirteen, everything from science fiction to D. H. Lawrence”s collected works to copies of distinguished literary journals. I would dip into these materials, many of the novels first editions my brother collected, equally unusual for someone his age. Sometimes, just to have the words on my tongue, I”d mouth a particularly lyrical passage as if lip-synching the writer’s work. My brother took another route, becoming a literary and film critic. I, meanwhile, never forgot his grand library—I can still see the order of the books—dreaming of one day having a place on its shelves.”
Schwartz went to high school in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and then “had a checkered career as an undergraduate,” attending several schools before eventually graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in psychology. During his last semester there, however, he “got up the gumption” to enroll in a creative writing class. “It changed everything,” he says, “including my plans to go to graduate school in psychology. I was hooked by the endlessly associative possibilities of the imagination through language, which I’d not found in my other subjects. In graduate school at the University of Arizona, I felt for the first time that discussing craft was the way I’d always wanted to talk about literature; it was redolent of my “tasting” those great sentences on my tongue as a child.”
Schwartz has since published four books, including the novels Therapy and A Good Doctor’s Son, and has won the Nelson Algren Award, two O. Henry Awards, the Colorado Book Award for Fiction, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Cleanth Brooks Prize in Nonfiction from The Southern Review, as well as a fellowship from the NEA. Recent stories and essays have been published in Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Colorado State University and in the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program, and is currently at work writing two novels simultaneously. “When I get stuck on one,” he says, “I switch to the other. Of course, the method fails when I get stuck on both. Then it”s just the familiar blank page, an old friend at this point.”
About “Bless Everybody,” Steven Schwartz writes: “We used to own land near the Wyoming-Colorado border and, out of the blue, a man called and asked if he, his wife, and young son could stay there. Never mind that they’d already “squatted” there for a couple of days. They were from Utah and his wife was pregnant with their second child. As in the story, he said they’d been “led” to the place. In person, the man bore an unnerving resemblance to Garrison Keillor and had ample charisma of his own until his narcissism betrayed him. Complications ensued, though not the particular menacing ones in the story, but the event stayed with me. And, as with many stories, the trigger comes years later. In Ojai, California, I saw a bumper sticker that said Bless Everybody: No Exceptions. An incident or anecdote does not a story make, however, and something has to occur to personalize the events so that they become urgent, and yet purposeful and universal enough to have meaning beyond themselves. In “Bless Everybody,” I think I was fascinated by investigating a character needing to determine the extent and quality of goodness in himself, given the difficulty of trying to make that assessment. With my children almost grown, my teaching in its latter years, my parents dead, I was ruminating at some unconscious level about what sort of husband, parent, teacher, son, and man I”ve been in the world. The narrator in “Bless Everybody” experiences at the story’s end a moment of hard-won renewal; I think of such possibilities as a kind of secular grace, often arising from the most peculiar and unexpected of circumstances. Stories have their seasons, and “Bless Everybody” is not a story I think I would—or could—have written as a young man.”