A friend of mine is writing a memoir and she was telling me the other day about how important it is to get the opening line just right. Of course I know this, and I listened to her as she told me hers. I won’t ruin it for her and spill her secret here, since a couple book publishers already are interested in her story, but I will say it made me laugh.
And it got me thinking.
What would my opening line be?
One of my favorite opening lines to any book I’ve read came from a silly little story called “The Teacher’s Funeral,” written by (a Hoosier!) Richard Peck. It goes something like this:
“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.”
I remember when I read it it made me laugh out loud. When I heard Richard Peck speak at a children’s writers workshop, he talked about the opening line and how important it is. You know, to grab attention. Make people want to know what’s next. It made me laugh again remembering how much I enjoyed his first line. Made me respect him as a writer for caring so much. Made me want to write a killer first line to a book others would actually want to read.
So it brings me back to the question.
What’s my opening line?
Then I wondered if I loved all the opening lines to my most beloved books. You know, the ones I’ve slept with.
My favorite, of course, is Alice. But to be honest, the first line doesn’t grab me. It’s not terrible. Just isn’t my favorite, surprisingly.
So I’m looking at my bookshelf now, and I’ve pulled a couple worn faves from the shelf. Here’s what stands out:
“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.”
“Mysteries of Pittsburgh”
I love Michael Chabon. If you’ve seen or read Wonder Boys, you know of his dark, interesting work. I only mention this one cause it’s one of his most popular, but there are so many more great Chabon books. Anyway, he’s incredible and awesome and lovely and addictive and all other overused adjectives I won’t bore you with here. I would love to lick his face. And have him read to me in bed. I have slept with … his books.
“I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke.”
That one’s good for all the obvious reasons.
And another memorable one is also about death, which makes me wonder …
“Maman died today. Or yesterday, maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
I know that’s more than an opening sentence. But still. It grabs you. Makes you want to know more. Or at least it worked for me.
So what’s my opening line?
I gotta tell you, if you haven’t read “Bunny Bunny, Gilda Radner: A Sort of Love Story,” by Alan Zweibel, you don’t know what you’re missing. This book will make you laugh hysterically one minute and break out in an ugly cry the next. This book kills me emotionally.
And yet, I still pick it up from time to time. Now might be one of those times.
The book is written in conversation style mostly. A quick back and forth between Alan and Gilda. They become fast friends. Best friends. And they kinda sorta fall in love. They never get together, and you feel throughout their entire story that maybe they would’ve been great. They were perfect together in practically every way. At least on the page.
But here’s how it starts:
–– Can you help me be a parakeet?
–I think it could be funny if I stood on a big perch and squished up my face, like this …
— … but I need a writer to help me figure out what the parakeet should say. Could you help me?
So begins their beautiful and long-lasting friendship. It goes on and on, through hysterical conversations that paint this perfect picture of the two of them together.
Then, the conversation turns to this:
–I just found out that I don’t have Epstein-Barr virus.
–Hey, that’s great!
–I have cancer.
— … Gilda?
–I have ovarian cancer, Zweibel, and I need you to help me get through this part of my life.
— … I will.
–I promise. What should I do first?
–Make me laugh.
While that’s not the beginning of the book, obviously, it’s one of the bestest, most awesomest parts. It says so much in so few words.
All we all really want to do is laugh.
Have great friends.
We all want that one person who we know we can turn to in our darkest moments, as Gilda did with her best friend, Zweibel.
So what’s my opening line?
I hope that someday you’ll all read it.
And I hope you laugh.