Posts Tagged ‘Watership Down’

Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an “Ego Trip” (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used “Logic,” you had to pay up. (A “Logic” violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was “Off the Subject.” That one’s self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined — most notably, food. Any mention of when we’d be taking a food break or what we’d be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at Amazon.com said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I’ve personally met him — he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he’s a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it. . . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

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The Terrible Power of Story

June 23, 2008

There is something we don’t normally think about as writers: the fact that we hold lightning bolts in our hands. This Heaven’s-fire can light up the sky, dazzle, electrify, and inspire; but it can also lay waste and devastate. Consider: since the dawn of time, we humans have hungered for stories. We crouched around the fires, intent upon the words of the old one, who evoked for us places and people and deeds . . . wonders and terrors that we had not touched or tasted ourselves, but of which we partook through the magic of language and imagination.

We escape into stories. They transport us from our workaday lives to places where everything is more focused, usually more intense. The hardships and the triumphs are greater than ours. The colors are brighter, the passions are stronger, the resolutions more satisfying and meaningful. In stories, life makes much better sense. The wicked are punished. Virtue and perseverance are generally rewarded. Dreams come true — or if they do not, there is dignity and nobility in their not-coming-true.

Listen to anyone who loves a great book: “I felt I was there,” s/he says. “I want to go there.” “I want to live there.” “I didn’t want it to end.” Why are series books so popular from age to age? — because we never want it to end. We don’t want to come back from those places we love. We don’t want to say goodbye to those people.

This offering of an escape, a refuge, is a great service to readers. Sometimes it’s greater than we could possibly imagine. I was absolutely floored when a person — now a close friend — told me the story of how my book Dragonfly saved her life. That sounds like a ridiculously grandiose claim for me to make, and it would be, but for two reasons: 1.) it’s true, and 2.) the credit doesn’t belong to me. Dragonfly is not an “inspirational” book. It doesn’t have any “message” of encouragement, and the part that encouraged my friend isn’t a particularly encouraging part — in fact, it’s the book’s most tragic moment. But this person read it at precisely the time in life that she needed to read it. All the events of her life worked together — and yes, I believe that certainly God worked — through the medium or filter of this book, this scene — and this person was inspired to keep on living. She took one path instead of the other at a very, very dire crossroads in the darkest stretch of life. And she got to a place that was much better. Again, I had nothing to do with it. But God, working through her life’s circumstances and through something I left lying around out there in the world (the book) . . . saved a life. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, we never know. When the stories leave us, they have a life of their own. They’re like children in that sense. They’re made from parts of us — they have our blood in them — but they pass beyond our reach and our knowledge. They encounter people we never will. Tennyson wrote in The Princess: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever.”

All good and fine, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? On the first day of class, I usually tell my writing students, “If you want to change the world, you’re studying the right thing.” But there is a grim side to it all.

Writing transports us into other worlds . . . wonderful, enchanting worlds. But think of the old stories in which people make forays into the realm of Faery. “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand-in-hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Or in another poem, Goethe’s, the Elf-King comes and snatches away the child, and the child’s father is left holding a corpse. Faery is an alluring place, but humans who enter it do not come back — or if they do, so much time has passed in their own world that everyone they knew and loved is either very old or long dead.

There is a cost to visiting elfland. The song of the Sirens lures sailors to their deaths. And are not these wonderful and well-loved books Faery to us? Take note of this next sentence, because it’s the gist of this lengthy exposition — it’s the one-line summary of this posting:

I have been as tormented by stories as by anything “real” in life.

Perhaps . . . no, probably . . . no, definitely — moreso. The joy of a story that gets into our hearts is a savage joy. A cruel joy. It’s devastating, and we have no defense against it.

First example: Watership Down. In fifth grade, I remember crying and crying when I finished reading it. The world for me had changed, not entirely in a good way. I had loved the book so much, and now it was over, and I knew that I might re-read it later in life, but that I’d never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. And I knew that, although I’d carry the book around in my heart forever, I couldn’t live inside the book. I’d have to go to school, grow up, work, etc. — those perfect moments of traveling with Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, et al. were not where the bulk of my life would lie.

That’s the reality: beauty — true and perfect beauty — makes us miserable. We encounter it, but it’s like the food in those all-you-can eat buffet restaurants: we can’t take it with us. And we have to leave; we always have to leave.

Second example: The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough published the book in 1977. In 1983 it was made into the TV miniseries, which made history for being second only to Roots in popularity. I first experienced it as the miniseries, which captivated me so much that I read the book. I was in high school. The story sent me into the wildest delight and worst agony I’d ever known. I was head-over-heels in love with Meggie Cleary. Not Rachel Ward who played her, but the character, Meggie. I wanted to live on Drogheda in the Australian Outback. I wanted to raise sheep. The story, along with the Mel Gibson / Sissy Spacek film The River, affected the way I thought — I saw rural, agricultural life as sacred, pure, and to be desired above all else. These stories affected the way I dressed. I had some hand-me-down clothes from my uncle, who was a farmer. I insisted on wearing these gray and khaki-colored, oversized shirts, pants, and floppy fedora hats even when I went away to college in the Chicago area. Stories — fiction — had given me an ideal. Or perhaps they had helped me to realize my innate ideals; I was a country boy, so country life was my birthright.

I bring this up now because recently I’ve been revisiting the film version of The Thorn Birds on DVD, and it’s amazing how it’s all come back to me in its grandeur, wonder, and searing pain. I’m in high school again. It’s astonishing how these scenes are etched into my mind and heart — it’s like I’ve never been away, and yet all these years have gone by in the interim. I’m still in love with Meggie Cleary. I still want to put on a fedora and go herd sheep. My friend S.F. will remember me saying back in college that I wanted the theme music of The Thorn Birds to be played at my wedding and my funeral. I still want that.

Oh, the power of these stories! And they do, as I said earlier, have their own life. I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, and she said she didn’t like the film version of The Thorn Birds at all — she said she didn’t like anything about it. Rachel Ward has said that she didn’t enjoy filming it at all, even though she met her husband during the making of it. So the woman who created the story and the woman who gave Meggie a face both disliked this film version that enchanted me. The story cut through — it has its life. It is what it is, and it’s bigger than the sum of everyone who brought it to us, including the author herself.

Incidentally, Rachel Ward is about 50 now. She’s an attractive 50-year-old, but that face that was Meggie in 1983 exists now only in pixels and perhaps on celluloid somewhere. But it does still exist there, and it’s as powerful today as it was then. I challenge any man to look at that face, to hear that soft voice with its accent, and not be thoroughly miserable.

And the book goes on — and all the great books go on, changing the world in each new generation, making a difference in the life of every unsuspecting reader who stumbles upon them. “What’s this about?” I asked my dad, picking up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Oh, it’s a long, involved story about a ring,” he said. “Everyone wants the ring.” “Hmm,” I said — and the rest is history.

So get out there, writer, and fulfill your sacred task. Save lives, but know that you will also break hearts. But . . . I guess we readers want that, don’t we? It’s like that legend that gives The Thorn Birds its title: the bird that, all its life, seeks a long, sharp thorn; and finding it, the bird impales itself on the thorn and dies. But dying, it sings a song of unimaginable beauty . . . “and all the world stills to listen. And God in His Heaven smiles.”

Famous Last Words

June 14, 2008

For me, the single most interesting part of a book is the very last sentence or two. The end of any unit of writing — be it a phrase, a sentence, a chapter, or an entire book — is said to be the “power position.” It’s what the reader is left with, the last word echoing in the reader’s ears as s/he walks away. I absolutely love last lines. I love to study them, to savor them, to collect them in my memory.

Much, much, much is said in discussions of writing technique about first lines and first chapters. We’ve heard again and again how we must grab the reader by the throat; we must yank the reader into our fictional world from page one. That’s all too true, and getting truer by the minute in the world of modern publishing. Gone are the leisurely eras when the public had an attention span for the printed word.

But in my experience, first lines are not that big a deal. I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read of which the first sentence was what sucked me in. Sometimes it’s the book’s cover (Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night and a lot of the Lovecraft covers when I was a kid); sometimes it’s the back cover’s blurb; sometimes it’s something I’ve heard or read about the book or some combination thereof. (I first picked up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly because of the covers [illustrations by Tolkien himself], partly because of their perennial prominence in the small bookstore my parents owned, and partly because of what my dad told me about the stories — although he told me Tolkien was German; I think he had this “ring” story mixed up with the one Wagner wrote his opera about. But that’s fine –whatever he said, it got me to read the books, although Dad hadn’t read them himself.) But anyway, first sentences rarely do anything to lure me in. They can’t lessen the weight of the enormous number of sentences that are coming after, numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, that must all be read if I’m ever to get through the book.

The pressure on a first sentence is too great, isn’t it? Some are memorable, to be sure: “Call me Ishmael.” “I am a cat.” “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, . . . .” “The night Max wore his wolf suit, . . . .” But a first sentence has nothing to build on. It might introduce a character, but we don’t know that character yet. It might introduce a place, but it’s not familiar yet. It might show us some action, but we’re not going to figure out what’s happening until we’ve read further. If they’re done right, first sentences become transparent, right? Their purpose is to make us get past them. They’re doorways.

But last sentences . . . last sentences are the inscriptions cut in marble. They’re what all the book has been leading us toward. Final sentences aren’t transparent. They’re the prima donnas. They’re the spoils of war, the souvenirs, the battle scars. They wuv us very much and cling to our leg as we go out to the car.

We’ve all got our favorites, right? Who can forget the way Watership Down ends? . . . or The Lord of the Rings, so humble and homely after all the grand adventures in far, perilous lands? . . . or The Great Gatsby? I think the last few sentences of A River Runs Through It are brilliant, but the author goes one sentence too far; if that very last sentence were lopped off, the ending would redouble in power. And there’s Charlotte’s Web, which not only makes us cry, but manages to salute writers everywhere.

I won’t ask anyone to pick one favorite last line — it’s likely impossible to choose just one. I’m going to offer an example here, because I think it does its job so well. (It’s not my #1 favorite; it’s just one I respect a great deal.) Then I’ll open this up to anyone who cares to quote other concluding lines. I’m anxious to hear which are the ones that resonate with you, that echo on through the decades of your life, compelling and unforgettable, perhaps taking on new shades of meaning as you gain experience.

The only rule is this: please don’t quote something that will spoil a plot for anyone. Let’s not have anything like, “And so, though none of us would have guessed it in a million years, the murderer was really his brother Hal.” And yes, you’re not limited to one single sentence. Sometimes we need the last two or even three. My example uses two. And multiple submissions are okay if you really can’t decide among your four favorites.

Okay, here’s my example to prime the pump:

“But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” — Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha