Famous last words

Ron Charles has written an intriguing article for the Washington Post on famous last lines in fiction. Intriguing in that the lines summarize the emotional volume of the work. They leave you with a sense of satisfaction, a reward for reading to the end.

Charles leads with an example from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the restless Huck foreshadows people as disparate as Jack Kerouac and Cole Porter (you remember 1934’s “Don’t Fence Me In”):

I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Haven’t we all. Which is why I’d like to add a few memorable lines to the list.

From Philip Kerr’s novel The Pale Criminal, in which former Berlin police officer Bernie Gunther takes on the ugly and ironic job of solving crime in Nazi Germany. In the final scene, Gunther watches workers rake and burn leaves in the Botanical Gardens, “the acrid gray smoke hanging in the air like the last breath of lost souls.”

But always there were more, and more still, so that the burning middens seemed never to grow any smaller, and as I stood and watched the glowing embers of the first, and breathed the hot gas of deciduous death, it seemed to me that I could taste the very end of things.

Anna Quindlen also writes about endings in Miller’s Valley—of the drowning of a community and its culture, the loss of the narrator’s family farm and her brother Tommy—but comes to a different conclusion:

I never go over that way, to the recreation area. Never have, in all these years, even when the kids wanted to water-ski or swim. I let them go with someone else. I don’t even drive by there. But every couple of years I have a dream. I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences and a chimney and a silo and sometimes I sense that Tommy’s there, too, and the corn can, and my father’s workbench, and a little tan vanity case floating slowly by. But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air. I still need to breathe.

While it cannot compare with Twain or Quindlen or Kerr, a final line from the first in the CW McCoy series of crime novels, Peak Season, carries its own emotional punch. CW has run to Florida to escape her violent past. Here she shares birthday cake and the mission to protect her grandfather with friend and mentor Walter Bishop:

Taking a deep breath I said, “You know what I’d like?”

“Another cupcake?”

“What I came here for . . . peace and quiet.” I pecked him on the cheek. “No more drama. From now on, I’m selling real estate and taking care of Pap.”

He gave me a cracked smile. “We’ll see.”

Isn’t what why we read to the end of anything?

What’s your closer?

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

Author Anna Schmidt on why she writes

“There is only one reason to write,” says Sarasota author Anna Schmidt. “That is because you can’t not write.”

Anna, known to her friends as Jo, has written for therapy, but for most of her career, she’s written for publication. She is the author of several series of inspiration and romance, including ones set during World War II (All God’s Children), in Sarasota’s Pinecraft Mennonite community (A Sister’s Forgiveness) and in the Southwest (The Lawman).

She shared her experience this week with members of Sarasota Fiction Writers.

Her advice for emerging authors?

  • Build a track record in your genre and develop a following
  • Don’t chase trends (unless your agent and editor tell you to)
  • During dry spells, attend events and conferences outside your area of expertise (for Jo, that’s mystery and suspense)
  • Join book clubs and writers’ groups
  • Read outside your genre.

She ended the program by giving away copies of her latest book. Surprised by her generosity, the moderator asked why. With a sly smile she said, “The publisher sent me forty copies. What else am I going to do with them?”

The Big Dig

Author Ann Hood came to Sarasota, Florida on Tuesday with a message for readers: It’s OK to feel.

Hood, the author of twelve novels including The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer, was in town to promote her latest, The Book That Matters Most, a work that involves one of Hood’s favorite groups—book clubs.

That was how she conducted her talk and signing at Bookstore 1 in Sarasota, a group of more than fifty people seated around her, enclosed by shelves of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Growing up, she said, “I wanted to live in a book.” Books provided relief from conflict. She wrote her first short story at the age of eight, after a reprimand from her grandmother. That, Hood said, was the beginning of her literary career.

But it was the tragedy in her life that has forced her to dig deep for meaning, and that process, something akin to an archaeology expedition, gave her writing a purpose.

“When I wanted to escape, I could pick up a book. But when I wanted to understand something, I could write a story.”

 

Exploring the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller venues—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international venues—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As the sun becomes a distant memory in North America, the summer series offers armchair travelers a glimpse of the often superheated habitat of their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

NPR Crime in City Byzantine monument

Steaming up summer with romance novels

The heat is on this summer as National Public Radio takes on one of the steamier segments of the publishing industry.

Jennifer Crusie Bet MeNPR Books is focusing on romance novels. And their recommendations are not so-called “bodice rippers” or historical romances—they’re contemporary stories that straddle the categories of fiction.

The works blend the genres of romance and mystery or romance and humor to create contemporary novels that can appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those raised on Barbara Cartland or Janet Dailey. (Who hasn’t read at least one of the books in the Calder series? OK, don’t answer that.)

The NPR project features a more contemporary group of works like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Something About You by Julie James, a murder mystery involving an attorney and an FBI agent.

No mention of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. How would you categorize them, as romantic suspense?

You can listen to the series on the NPR website.

The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?