Love Affairs Begin With Opening Lines

(Thank you to Karen Pickell, Editor for The Georgia Authority, for reprinting this blog post in the March 2012 Georgia Writers Association newsletter.)

I’m a sucker for opening lines of books.  Take me to a book store, and I’ll flip open one after another, books that are complete strangers to me, simply to read the first words from the author’s pen.  If I’m intrigued, I’ll take the book home with me, take it to bed, and hope it doesn’t let me down. 

Some authors hook me by writing about the land, the soil.

“My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line.” Southern author Rick Bragg in All Over but the Shoutin.

“My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clearcuts, and fields.” Janisse Ray made the land appear to me as stanzas of poetry in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.

Other authors make me laugh and I know I'm in for a good southern read.

“Aunt Catfish didn’t look right in her casket.” Niles Reddick in Lead Me Home.

And those that take me by surprise.  Tell me more.  Tell me more.

“Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Sena Jeter Naslund in Ahab’s Wife.

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote that first line in The Shadow of the Wind.  The book kept me reading all night.  I could not put it down. It was a whirlwind love affair between that book and this 50-something year old woman.

The first line of my most recent short story Sleeping on Paul's Mattress is, “From my crouching position under the house, I watch a hearse back into the yard and stop right short of the front porch.” 

Some writings go straight to the comatose places in my mind, stirring up old memories, as Jeff Newberry often does in his poetry.

In Cleaning Fish, a poem, he writes, “My father scrapes the mullet with a butter knife.” 

And in another poem, My Father, Fishing, Jeff writes, “Dawn knives through cypress & pine, casts slatted shadows over Depot Creek.” 

I can picture it.  Fishing.  I nearly taste it as though I’ve been there before, maybe fishing with my own father at a pond in southern Georgia, maybe at Whiddon Mill Pond on the Whiddon Mill Road where my grandfather ran a grocery store owned by the Ross family. The water is deep and I’m scared, but my father is nearby. Jeff's words pulls up memories stashed and long forgotten in the corners of my mind.

“Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking.” Barbara Robinette Moss yanked me into her memoir Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter and dragged me through the book in one day.  I read it twice.

First lines are first impressions to me.  If I have to read the first page twice to get the gist of it or if my mind drifts while reading the first paragraph, I’m not taking it to bed with me. I’m presently reading, True History of the Kelly Gang, a novel.  It begins like this: “I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”  Whoa!  The author of that book is Peter Carey.

I wonder if you recognize the following without searching on google?

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

“The dark man fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

“It was the day my Grandmother exploded.”

“My mother and father should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.”

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”

“After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954.”

Tonight, I'm reading something by Bret Lott.