ASPEN - The conventional wisdom has it that writers, like violins, good wines and friendships, improve as they age. Two years ago, Ethan Canin, a novelist and writing instructor at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, told The Aspen Times that the loss of memory he experienced as a 50-year-old was made up for with other attributes that only come with age: "You get a better ability to make connections between people, behavior, events. And as a writer, you're not only drawing on your life experience, but everything you've read, too. Which can have a huge influence."
With this year's Winter Words series, the Aspen Writers' Foundation is hoping there is room for exceptions to the conventional wisdom. The series is weighted toward younger voices and lesser-known names, beginning with Friday's opening event, which spotlights Kevin Powers, a 32-year-old whose first novel, "The Yellow Birds," was published in September.
Sara Halterman, the programs associate for the Writers' Foundation, believes readers are wise to keep their ears attuned to younger writers. "You can be great at 25, or great at 50," the 30-year-old Halterman said. "It can depend on where you are at that point in your life. Inspiration, life experience play a part in what you write, and maybe at 25 you have that, and maybe at 50 you don't."
Halterman makes the case that the writers being featured in the 16th annual Winter Words series are worthy of attention. Among those scheduled to appear for readings and conversations are 27-year-old Tea Obreht, the Serbian-born writer whose first novel, 2011's "The Tiger's Wife," earned the Orange Prize; and Karen Russell, a 31-year-old whose debut novel "Swamplandia!" also from 2011, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Also in the series are Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Schappell who, while older than Powers, Obreht and Russell, are relatively new to readers. Strayed has earned much attention for her 2012 memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail," and "Blueprints for Building Better Girls," a story collection from last year, has raised Schappell's profile.
"Elissa has written a few books, but her voice is just now getting a lot of attention," Halterman said. "Same with Cheryl Strayed, who has an advice column, Dear Sugar, that is wildly popular, but 'Wild' is getting a lot of attention."
The series includes two veterans: Tobias Wolff, who will speak with Powers Friday, and Gretel Ehrlich, whose book, "In the Empire of Ice," was published in 2010, the same year she received the PEN Thoreau Award.
Halterman said bringing in newer talent can be a risk, as audiences generally want to see writers who have created a body of work they are familiar with. But she noted that the Writers' Foundation tends to attract both top-shelf writers, and readers who are savvy about new developments in literature.
"These are people who have been short-listed for awards, so people get a sense of the potential to be long-term writers. Kevin and Cheryl are becoming like household names," she said. "Literary buffs follow these things."