Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Stories Come to Us

Our stories come to us in a variety of ways, none of which are in any way predictable ahead of time.

Stories seem to sneak up on us. They lurk in the darkness, waiting, or they tease us with a thread fluttering in the wind, or they crawl into our laps when we’re not looking.

The arrival of a story is always a surprise, always a mystery, and we have to stay alert, vigilant, always looking for a sign, lest we miss it.

Sometimes it will arrive in the form of a setting–just an empty landscape–or the faintest traces of a plot, a shimmering sense of what might happen.

It can arrive fully blown or in scraps.

It can come in the voice of a talkative narrator itching to have you sit down and listen or in the voice of a reluctant narrator who refuses to say a word.

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas came to John Boyne as a simple but compelling image that he couldn’t turn away from.

Here’s how he describes it in the afterward to his book:
“In April 2004 an image came into my mind of two boys sitting on either side of a fence. I knew they had been taken away from their homes and friends and brought, separately, to a terrible place. Neither of them knew what they were doing there, but I did, and it was the story of these two boys, whom I named Bruno and Shmuel, that I wanted to tell.”
All he had to work with was that image: two boys sitting on either side of a fence.

And the underlying knowledge that they were sitting in a terrible place, far from their homes and their friends.

Out of that image Boyne manages to re-create the horror of the Holocaust in prose that, like the horrible event itself, hints at the evil to come without ever revealing the true nature of what’s happening in that terrible place.

Boyne took on the challenging task of writing about the Holocaust knowing full well the challenges facing any novelist grappling with the subject. He writes:
“The issue of writing about the Holocaust is, of course, a contentious matter, and any novelist who explores it had better be sure about his or her intentions before setting out. It’s presumptuous to assume that from today’s perspective one can truly understand the horrors of the concentration camps, although it’s the responsibility of the writer to uncover as much emotional truth within that desperate landscape as he possibly can.”
Notice what he says about uncovering emotional truth. It’s the responsibility of the writer to uncover as much emotional truth... as he possibly can.

No matter how your stories come to you, or what they may be about, it’s your responsibility to the reader (and to yourself as a writer) to seek out and uncover as much emotional truth as possible.

Boyne’s too honest and self-aware to delude himself into thinking he could approach the subject that he’d chosen (or which had chosen him) from an adult perspective. “Throughout the writing and rewriting of the novel," he writes, "I believed that the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him.”

His decision to approach the story from this angle is what gives the story it’s emotional power and depth, and he never wavers from this path.

In the end, he says, he hopes the voices of the two children who he first saw sitting on either side of a fence–Bruno and Shmuel–continue to resonate with readers.

“Their lost voices must continue to be heard; their untold stories must continue to be recounted. For they represent the ones who didn’t live to tell their stories themselves.”

They continue to resonate with this reader. If you’ve read the book, let us know if they resonate still with you.

For more information on John Boyne and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, visit:

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