Some say that four-leaf clovers are lucky, but Forest Parker Billy Lombardo used talent, not luck, to win the Nelson Algren short story award at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago earlier this month.

Lombardo’s story, Clover, took the top prize.

“I was shocked and surprised,” Lombardo said. “It is terribly exciting.”

Lombardo has entered the contest six times, and this year was his first win.

Lombardo, an author and English-Literature teacher at the Latin School of Chicago, said that this was his first story set in a classroom. It follows Graham Koglin, a high-school English teacher.

Lombardo, who has been teaching for over 26 years, said he welcomed the idea to start a story within a school.

“This was my first opportunity to include some classroom anecdotes in my fiction,” Lombardo said. “There was one day where the teacher comes into the classroom at one point with a huge cowlick in his hair. He feels the kids staring at his hair and doesn’t have any idea what they’re staring at. That happened to me and that was the starting point for my story.”

Lombardo said he gets inspiration from everyday life.

“Sometimes it’s a line someone says, sometimes it’s a character or a gesture,” he explained. “I have been haunted by these little things, little experiences or events that happen. I had a reading at the Palos Hills Library and a woman there read some poetry, and her daughter is autistic. She mentioned something about some other child that had autism at her daughter’s school, so I borrowed a character trait from her. Sometimes I will work in other things that happen in the classroom or anywhere. I was teaching Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez when I was working on the story, so I worked in a passage from there.”

Lombardo also mentioned that he enjoys giving writing advice to his students.

“I give my students two pieces of advice – get feedback and read extensively,” he said.

“It is more important to read as a writer than write as a writer. Teachers say write every day, but it is almost impossible if you have a job, a family, a life, and hedges to trim. It is critical to keep on reading and to read as a writer. You have to ask yourself questions about writing like, why did this author break this rule of writing? Or, what’s happening here? Or, what’s the subtext? Or, is the narrator reliable? To neglect that stuff is to neglect one of the most vital tools a writer has – the ability to read as a writer.”

In the summer, Lombardo sponsors an international literary magazine for high school students called Polyphony H.S. This year, the magazine has 70 high-school age editors across the country, and submissions from 17 countries.

The author added that he is always coming up with new ideas.

“When I am trimming hedges or taking a run, I am constantly living with these characters in my head,” he said. “I am always thinking about what story is he not telling, what story is this character withholding, and I invariably come up with an answer to my questions.”

Forest Park, Lombardo’s home since 1990, is also a source of inspiration.

“Its diversity was one of the most interesting things to me about it,” Lombardo said.

“In my last couple of books, I have been moving into Forest Park for settings. The Ferrera Pan candy factory pops up in my latest novel.”

The novel, called The Day of the Palindrome, will be published in spring 2013 by Razorbill, a division of Penguin Books.

Lombardo said the reality of the Algren award – a big deal in the literary world – is still sinking in.

“I still can’t believe it,” he said.