On June 22, the Luminato Festival hopes to make book lovers of us all when it summons more than 60 writers to Trinity Bellwoods Park for A Literary Picnic. Featuring public readings as well as more intimate one-on-one author encounters, this Woodstock for bibliophiles takes as its inspiration the notion of “beginnings.” Below, some of the event’s participating writers tell Where Toronto about their favourite opening sentences.
on Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game
Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George.
I like first lines that have a sense of mystery and a sense that the book has already started and somehow you missed the very beginning. As if you were late for a movie and missed the start, but you’re there now, and things are already happening. It lends an immediacy to things. The ball is already rolling. Mystery and seduction, that’s what beginnings—whether literary or romantic—are about.
Don Gillmor is the author of non-fiction works including Canada: A People’s History and Praise for the Desire of Every Living Thing. His 2009 novel Kanata is now joined his brand new work of fiction, Mount Pleasant.
on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
Call me Ishmael.
I’ve never forgotten the first three words of Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s novel about a whaling ship’s hunt for an albino whale. As a novelist, my main character’s name is crucial. I need to get the name right, or my character won’t feel real to me, or the reader. Finding the right name can take months but when it arrives, like the ping of an email landing in my inbox, writing my novel starts to get a lot easier.
I don’t know how long it took Melville to arrive at Ishmael, the same name as a Biblical outcast, or come up with the idea of inviting the reader to call his hero by it. But this evocative opening is memorable for its brevity, and the way it establishes friendly relations with anybody who picks up Melville’s book. Immediately, we know that Ishmael is a man out of tune with his time, and the next few lines in the opening paragraph confirm it:
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on the shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily passing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knowing people’s hats of– then I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.
Susan Swan’s latest novel is The Western Light. It was nominated by the Ontario Library Association as one of the top 10 books of 2012 books.
PETER UNWINon Malcolm Lowry’s Lunar Caustic
There are too many marvellous openings to know even where to begin, but I have always had a soft spot for this one. Emerging from the author’s lifelong fascination with alcoholism, it is not as venerated as the stunning telescopic opening to Under the Volcano, but is written in the universal language of the human community, and combines some wit, the sea, and an almost excruciating foreshadowing of things to come.
A man leaves a dockside tavern in the early morning, the smell of sea in his nostrils, and a whiskey bottle in his pocket, gliding over the cobbles lightly as a ship leaving harbour.
Soon he is running into a storm and tacking from side to side, frantically trying to get back. Now he will go into any harbour at all.
He goes into another saloon.
From this he emerges cunningly repaired, but he is in difficulties once more. This time it is serious: he is nearly run over by a streetcar, he bangs his head on a wall, once he falls over an ash can where he has thrown a bottle. Passers-by stare at him curiously, some with anger, others with amusement, or even a strange avidity.
I have always responded to the combination of familiarity and foreignness that are contained on that opening page.
Peter Unwin is the author of numerous books. His latest, Life Without Death, is currently available and published by Cormorant books.
on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” (from The Just So Stories)
In the high and far-off times the elephant, oh, Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side. But he could not pick up things with it.
But there was one Elephant—a new Elephant—an Elephant’s Child—who was full of ’satiable curiosities.
My grandmother used to read this story over and over to her children, the neighbor’s children, her children’s children. It was the equivalent of her signature karaoke song. She came from a generation that read out loud as a form of entertainment. And she was wonderful, she performed all the characters—the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, Kola Kola Bird, the Crocodile, and the Elephant’s Child—beautifully. I still hear her voice along with Kipling’s, and it’s partly due to his genius at capturing the texture of oral storytelling. I also love how the emergence of this “new Elephant” forces the language to break into em-dash-induced leaps. You know right away this is a story about the transformative power of foolish, unbridled, insatiable curiosity.
Damian Rogers is the founder of the “live-action literary and arts journal” Pontiac Quarterly, and creative director for Poetry In Voice, a national poetry recitation contest for Canadian high school students. Her own poems have been published as the collection Paper Radio.
RICHARD SCRIMGER on three favourite beginnings
Some books open with a hesitant smile—they want to make friends but they are a bit shy. “You probably have lots of other things to do today,” these openings seem to say to me. Or, somewhat more positively, “Please keep reading. I do hope you find something you like.”
My favorite openings are the ones that grab me by the collar and shake me. “Hey, you!” they say. “C’mere! I have something you are going to love!”
Three of my favorite opening sentences are:
Iain Banks, The Crow Road:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
MT Anderson, Feed:
We went to the moon to have fun and the moon turned out to totally suck.
Miriam Toews, The Flying Troutmans:
Yeah, so things have fallen apart.
These openings are immediately engaging. The voices are strong and convincing, the potential for story is immense. You just know that Banks’ family is creepy and dysfunctional and funny. You totally believe in Anderson’s teenage boy of the future. And Toews’ narrator is already that strange combination of sad and hopeful that sets her off on her odyssey. In a way you can see these openings as examples of synecdoche—the part for the whole. Properly understood, they encapsulate and so foreshadow the whole book. And don’t they just make you want to read on!
Richard Scrimger writes a lot, reads even more, and talks even more than that. His latest book is Ink Me, published by Tundra. Next year he expects to publish a new work, Viminy Crowe’s Comic Book.
on JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
At the risk of making a popular choice, this was a breath of fresh air when I first read it in high school, and the first indication that literature could speak directly to me. Previously in our school English program, it had all been Dickens and Thomas Hardy—stuff from another time aimed at another audience, but right from this opening missive, we knew we were finally reading a book to which we could relate. This was the voice of a smart-aleck messed up teenager who could have been sitting right next to us. What a revelation.
Mark Dillon is a Toronto-based arts journalist and former editor of Playback magazine. His book Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys recently won a bronze medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
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