Online Extra: A fiction writer on his latest dark humor

The Daily Pennsylvanian
December 1, 2006

Media Credit: Jin Lee

Mixing dark humor with what organizers called a "delightfully strange" plot, Richard Burgin entertained an audience of about 30 with a reading from his latest work Wednesday evening.

Burgin, a composer, professor at Saint Louis University and award-winning fiction writer, came to the Kelly Writers House to give the first-ever reading of the title work in his new collection of short stories, The Conference on Beautiful Moments.

He has earned five Pushcart Prizes - honoring the best work to come out of a small press - and 15 Pushcart Prize mentions.

Stanley, the protagonist of Burgin's story, is a journalist assigned to cover a meeting of "lunatics."

Stanley's first experience at the conference is sitting at a table while people share their encounters with beauty from the past year.

The focus quickly shifts to a woman, Madeline, who shares her story about finding heaven in a bathroom, with the rays of sun streaming in. When challenged to describe further, she replies that "words can only hint at it."

Stanley and Madeline become attracted to each other, which is increasingly common for Madeline.

"Ever since the heavenly experience, men have become more attracted to me," she said. "It must be the heaven dust."

The story quickly ends with Madeline warning Stanley that the organizers of the meeting are aware he is a journalist and that he must leave.

After the reading, Burgin described how interviewing magical-realist author Jorge Luis Borges for one of his past works changed the way he looks at the world.

"He influenced my view of the world more than my writing techniques," Burgin said. "Borges used the theme of infinity and the sense of the unreliability of life."

Penn Creative Writing lecturer Lynn Levin, who helped organize the event, said she was glad to have Burgin come to Penn because she is a fan of his work.

"I have long admired his stories," Levin said. "I find them fascinating and a little scary."

The audience enjoyed the comedy in Burgin's piece, and some could be heard laughing out loud throughout the reading.

College senior Charles Stayton said he particularly liked a part of Burgin's reading where he described his protagonist's personal thoughts about being attracted to an older woman.

Burgin "gives great insight into interpersonal contact," Stayton said.

College senior Sarah-Jane Parker said she agreed with Stayton and added that Burgin's sense of humor appealed to her.

"As a writer, I enjoy his dark comedy," Parker said.