Friday, August 24, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: J. K. Rowling (1999)

In 1999, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, came to our small town for a book signing, and the event was as much like a normal book signing as, say, a hot dog eating contest or a prison riot.

Rowling was then on the front-end of her seven-part set of fantasy novels. She had written three of the books, with a fourth due out soon. But, among literary sensations, she was a bit of an oddity. Her audience consisted largely of adolescents, who were not typically responsible for bestsellers. And her books sold in quantities never before encountered. (A news report at the time calculated that her books had sold more copies than any book except the Christian bible—which actually seemed an unfair competition since the latter had something like a two-thousand-year head-start and, well, quotes from God.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Last Lines

Readers have long admired the first sentences of novels. But what about the last lines?

Most readers remember the first line of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”) How many recall the last line? (“It was the devious-cruising Rachel that, in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”)

Are last lines important? Are they memorable? Are they even supposed to be?

Many novels, even some good novels, seem to wind down at the end, until they just run out of sentences. The authors skillfully finish their stories, but the last lines lack any special power, mystery, or style.

For novelists, the danger of the last lines is unintentionally creating a trite, aphoristic ending that seems to wrap up the story, and in doing so, belies the novel’s own complex subtlety.

But isn’t it important to try to create an ending worthy of the rest of the book? After all, the last lines are the reader’s final impression of the novel.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: John Irving (1978)

I was in my late twenties then and working as a technical editor at a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One afternoon, the Vice President for Marketing stopped by my office and invited me to a party that night in honor of a new young writer, who had just published a much-anticipated novel. She couldn’t recall the writer’s name, but she remembered the book had a funny title. She knew that I was an aspiring novelist and thought I’d enjoy the occasion. She was attending the party with the Vice President of Business Development, but she was sure the party’s hostess wouldn’t mind a third. Before she left my doorway, she said, oh by the way, she and Business Development were having dinner before the party at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and they would be happy to treat me.