Friday, August 26, 2011

In praise of the strange

John Burnham Schwartz talks fiction

Express Staff Writer

Photo by Barbi Reed, courtesy of Sun Valley Writers’ Conference Writer John Burnham Schwartz speaks Monday at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

The odd details supplied by fiction writers are the surest means of connecting storyteller and listener, said novelist John Burnham Schwartz during an address at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference on Monday.

A man walking to his execution steps sideways to avoid a mud puddle. Another, awaiting the bullets from a firing squad, adjusts his blindfold to make it more comfortable.

"Why?" asked Schwartz.

He examined the mysterious power of small details in stories.

"Even the smallest thing has something inside it that is unknown," he said, quoting Flaubert.

Burnham delivered a talk titled "Why Fiction Matters: A Talk for People Who Love Literature" at the Sun Valley Inn's Limelight Room on Monday. He said the storyteller's job is to "make the listener imagine," rather than believe, and that the best way to do this is with peculiar details.

"By the sly and profound embrace of strangeness," he said, a writer can create an intimate, rather than proximate knowledge of the characters in a story.

"Strangeness is one thing in fiction that cannot be faked," he said.

Schwartz quoted from Tolstoy, Chekov and Kafka, as well as Alice Monroe, Tim O'Brien and characters from Schwartz' latest novel, "Northwest Corner," to elucidate the process of writing fiction.

He analyzed his own writing, and the writing of others, to show the use of symbols and metaphors in developing characters, and producing moods and emotions in literature.

"Literature is the news that stays news," he said, quoting Hailey-born poet Ezra Pound. "I don't like stories that deliver the news, but stories that make the news."

Schwartz said literature exists to "illuminate and assuage our otherness" and to provide solace and prepare us for change.

Sticking to the facts won't get us there, he said, but, quoting E.M. Forster, asserted that providing something "beyond the evidence" will.

"We each bring our own history to every story. The listener completes the story," he said.

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