“Call me Ishmael.”
This short sentence is probably the most famous of famous first lines of English language novels. And, maybe how you would expect a post entitled “On First Paragraphs” to begin.
No surprises there. And that’s the problem. The first sentence, the first paragraph of any piece of writing—even a blog—should contain some kind of surprise. At least something fresh, something you weren’t expecting to hear.
We humans are like the magpie that hoards shiny objects for its nest; we accumulate things. We are collectors, hunters and gatherers, keepers of stuff. And for us writers, within every object around our house, in our pockets or bags, in our attics and basements and storage units, and in every collectibles shop and antique store is the genesis of a story.
Several years ago I had a moving sale. Out in the yard and along the driveway, I lined up stacks and piles and furniture and treasures and what apparently some people thought was trash… all that stuff we collect when we live in one place for a while.
As people asked me about things at the sale, I found myself telling story after story.
How I came to have the poster of “42nd Street,” a musical I saw in Paris with my daughter one Christmas season a decade ago and what a time it was for us in cold, gray beautiful Paris. How I had come upon the blue glass bowl when we were dissecting my mother’s house, and that it came from my grandmother’s house before that and how I remembered the smell of ripening peaches in that blue bowl, and how my mother canned peaches and made peach cobbler and how delicious her cobbler was and that once I tried to make a cobbler and the crust was so hard my friend Pinetree Bill nearly choked on a piece he couldn’t quite get down.
One of the best things about friendships with other writers is getting to celebrate their successes. My dear friend and a terrific novelist, Gwendolen Gross recently published another novel (her fifth!) and I’ve been wearing my party hat ever since. I’m delighted that she agreed to do a Q&A session for my blog.
When She Was Gone is a novel about what happens in a community when a young college-bound girl disappears. It’s told in multiple points of view, with the addresses of the neighbors as chapter headings, which makes the community a characters as well as the various individuals–the girl’s mother, her neighbors, her ex-boyfriend and a curious eleven-year-old boy.
JR: First, I want to say how much I love this novel. The first chapter draws the reader in with beautifully crafted details and revelation after revelation of the characters and the situation. Where did the idea for the book come from?
Gwendolen Gross: Thank you! I had hoped, from the very beginning, to write about the hole that someone leaves when they disappear, rather than writing about the disappearance itself, exactly. I also am fascinated by the idea that we all look out of our windows at the street, but we have our lives, our secrets, our slightly different perspective and very different narrative that goes with the view. Character often dictates point of view for me–I decide how close I need to be, and how much fish-eye lens I need to see the character the way I want to see. Writing is all about those lenses, and it’s amazing how you can explore the same subject given different points of view. Often in my workshop, I’ll have students write a paragraph in first person (if I want it to be really complex, I’m make them write about a liar), and then the same paragraph but in third person, or even second, changing lenses.