Writing the final pages of a novel is difficult enough, but then comes the final challenge. It’s the end of the end, the last stop on the line, the dazzling dismount: a damn good closing sentence.
I finished my novel while sitting in a movie theater, watching a documentary on light pollution. I’m not sure what it was about The City Dark that helped me get there. Maybe it was the documentary’s eerie central question — Is darkness becoming extinct? — or perhaps it was the church-like quiet of the theater. Maybe it was that, in my utter absorption, I’d for once stopped thinking about the novel. Whatever it was sent me scrambling for a pen and a receipt and then, when I couldn’t find either, repeating one line in my head like a mantra: I knew there was nobody watching me. I wasn’t sure that it was elegant, or even grammatically sound, but I did know it was just how my narrator — who spends the novel negotiating issues of privacy and voyeurism — would want the book to end. Grammatical or not, it was my last line, and I was sticking to it.
Read on to see how six authors found theirs.
1. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For my debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, I had no idea what the last lines would be and finding the ending was kind of like fencing by yourself in a giant gymnasium in the dark. I just kept writing and writing. Where was it? It had to be around there somewhere. There couldn’t NOT be an ending. I parried and thrusted and eventually I found an opponent in the darkness and somehow the damn thing got written, but it was not graceful. It was an awkward and sweaty process. Clearly there had to be a better way.
John Irving, of whom I am an ardent and really inappropriately effusive fan, claims to start with his last scene first and then write the whole novel toward it. How elegant, I thought. What a beautiful way to work. So that is what I attempted with my second novel, which Knopf recently bought and which will come out, you know, eventually. So I wrote the final scene of the book first, and then I started at the beginning and I wrote toward it. This is not as easy as it seems! The book, like a sewing machine going too fast, kept veering off in unexpected directions, taking huge looping digressions. And yet, what was there to do but follow where the characters led me? When I write, I tend to write a lot and then discard a lot, and so I patiently followed my characters and eventually, low and behold, they wound up right where I had started, at the ending I had chosen for them in the beginning. I added one extra scene-let, more of a coda really, and then that was it, but mainly because it felt somehow incorrect to end a novel on an airplane. You have to land, right? You just have to. So I let them land, and then that was it: the trip was over.
In the end, I am not sure one strategy is actually more effective than the other, and both cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. In the first case, you are terrified there is no ending and your characters will just continue on like Schrödinger’s cat, half alive and half dead, with nothing at all resolved. But in the second case, you doubt constantly that the ending you initially chose was the right one. What if you are forcing your characters into actions and behaviors that no longer make sense for them? What if their destiny is no longer their destiny and you are just like a bad matchmaker trying to force through an arranged marriage out of pride? So far as I can tell, there is no best option, and in fact part of how you know you have finished a novel and that the ending you have found is the ending you were meant to find, is that the entire process is awkward and sweaty and appalling and at the end of it you vow never to do it that way again.
2. Meg Wolitzer, author of Belzhar
My character’s name is Jam, and she’s been sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, because she cannot get over the tragic loss of her boyfriend. It’s revealed early on that this boy once gave Jam a jar of his favorite kind of jam. Throughout the
book, she says she will never open the jar; doing so would be letting go of her love for this boy and everything they had together. I will get to the last line, but to give it context I first have to mention what comes right before it. The very end of the book reads:
‘This stuff is supposed to be pretty good,’ I say, and then, trying to look casual, I grasp the lid of the jar and give it a turn. It makes a surprisingly sharp pop, as if it were releasing not just air, but something else that’s been dying to get out for a long time.
Then I sit cross-legged on my bed, leaning against the study buddy, facing DJ, and with a slightly bent knife stolen from the dining hall, I spread some of the dark red jam on a couple of crackers—one for her, and one for me. When I put mine in my mouth, the sweet taste startles me. I let it linger.
I let it linger. I was excited to write that very last line; it felt right, coming after the description of opening the jar, which is a big deal for the narrator. The last line serves as a kind of coda, a way to hold on to what’s just happened — to give not only Jam a chance to see that her action matters, but that its effect will have some staying power. This, of course, is what all writers want their readers to experience; we hope that, somehow –– at least for a little while –– the words will linger.
3. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
I struggled a lot with the final chapter of Nathaniel P., last line included. I worried about being too heavy-handed, inflecting the ending with too much of my own point-of-view. Although I definitely favor a certain reading, I tried to refrain from any overt signaling of what I think because I wanted to remain true to the book’s character, Nathaniel. The last line reads:
He’d no more remember the pain — or the pleasure — of this moment than he would remember, once he moved into the new apartment, the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at down, after he’d been up all night working.
I wanted the line to be ambiguous in its meaning, to convey a feeling that is acute and earnest but can nonetheless be interpreted as the fleeting nostalgia of the moment — something that can be forgotten without consequence — or something more important, the kind of deeper truth that can be inconvenient and unsettling and which we might prefer to bury under the chaos of day-to-day life. I think such ambiguousness is true to life: as we go through our lives, we rarely know how to read what we feel, how much weight to put on this or that passing mood. I wanted the novel’s presentation of psychological and moral life to be as complicated and prone to shape-shifting as our actual private lives.
The line also contains a nod to another book, but this is so subtle — practically imaginary — that it’s for myself rather than because I expect anyone else to see it. For me, the reference to the smell of morning from a window recollects a scene in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The charming, handsome Arthur Donnithorne has spent the night worrying about a romance he started in spite of his better judgment; he resolves to end the relationship before it goes too far. But when he wakes up the following morning, to a lovely day, and breathes in the fresh morning air from his window, his late-night anxiety seems overwrought. He puts aside as melodramatic the resolutions he made. In the course of the novel, it turns out he was right to be worried; it was the cheerfulness and bustle of day that was misleading. I think this scene is incredibly perceptive about how people, myself included, actually behave, and I liked the idea of calling back to it, ever so subtly.
4. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits
I wrote many, many drafts of this novel and each had a different ending, and a different final sentence. Some were mean and cutting, some were attempts at hopefulness, some were vague in a way I hoped a reader would make sense of (since I certainly couldn’t), and all of them were overthought. I was trying so desperately to control the readers’ experience of that final moment that I forgot about the characters and the story. Somehow, with final lines, it’s so often impossible to separate from them my own feelings about the work as a whole, so that I find myself trying to cram as much meaning as possible into a single sentence, trying, I suppose, to redeem the project from all the ways it has fallen short of what I’d hoped it would be.
So how did I find a final sentence I was satisfied with? The short answer is that I ran out of time. We were supposed to leave on our honeymoon the following day. It was summertime, August, and we were visiting my parents in northern New York. Everyone in my family was outside in the sunshine and I could hear them through the open windows laughing and chatting, occasionally someone diving into the pool, and everything inside me wanted to be out there with them. But the novel was a year overdue, and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to leave on this trip knowing that the cloud of this book — and all its subsequent distractions — would follow us onto our honeymoon. So I sat at the desk in that bedroom writing and rewriting the final paragraph by hand. I wrote it and scratched it out and rewrote it, added arrows and clauses, read it aloud to myself again and again, trying to listen for the right feeling. Finally, as the afternoon sun began to change, I knew everyone would soon be headed back inside, so I said to hell with it. I typed it into the manuscript and emailed it to my editor. Then I went outside, announced that I had finished, and went swimming.
5. Michelle Huneven, author of Off Course, Blame, Jamesland and Round Rock
In three of my four novels, I knew well before I was halfway done what the last line was going to be. In fact, I wrote to those last lines. I had to see my way clear to them. They pulled me through. In my fourth novel, Off Course, I didn’t know the last line and I overwrote the ending by 20 or 30 pages. (Sometimes a book just ends, no matter how hard you try to tack on something else). Only after cutting those pages and packing what I could use from them into the preceding chapters did I locate my last line in a serviceable, finalizing bit of exposition. Who knew?
My favorite last line comes from my second novel, Jamesland.
Jamesland begins with 30-something Alice Black waking up in the middle of the night to find that a deer has come into her house. She chases it out and goes back to bed, but in the morning, she can’t tell if the deer was a dream or a fact. Either way, she’s sufficiently disturbed to discuss the event with various people, including a minister who suggests that Alice look into what deer might mean to her. In her own inadvertent way, Alice does look into this. She learns, for example, that in Buddhism, the deer is a symbol for listening; in Persian carpets, the deer is a symbol of worldly cravings; in the Psalms, the deer thirsts for water like the soul thirsts for God, etc. You might say that deer become a vehicle for meaning in Alice’s life. Although she never pins down what, specifically, deer “mean to her,” her whole life changes as she pursues the question.
One thing that happens is, she takes up with Pete, a chef who, at the end of the novel, has just opened a new restaurant. On a cool, winters day before the dinner shift starts, he’s walking up through Griffith Park to meet Alice, and he sees a deer leaping over bushes on the hillside.
Now, whenever I’ve come across deer in the wild, I am always awed; I think they’re beautiful, graceful, wildness incarnate. But some people see something else.
Pete, watching the deer, pats his pockets for a pen or pencil to jot down a note. But he hasn’t got a pencil. So here is the book’s last line: “He’d just have to remember, then, to put venison on the menu.”
6. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas
I’m not one to approach the craft of writing with any sort of metaphysical bent. Those who speak of themselves as detached vessels through which prose flows can find me in the corner, rolling my damn eyes. However, there are a few aspects of the writing process I regard with a reverent wonder approaching the realm of soothsaying. None more so than last lines. I write the following with the typing equivalent of a straight face: before I know who the characters are, before I even know what the story is about, I hear its title and last line. I hear the last line, and then I write toward it. Not all the time, but usually.
This doesn’t mean I’m trapped. Knowing the airy location at which the story terminates does not mean I have any idea where the story will take me, or who I might invent as I journey. I don’t even know what the last line will mean to the characters. If an X marks the spot of where the story ends, the map still has no lines or countries, and the X could be a trap door leading to another dimension.
It’s really that simple.
Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow.
I vacillated between two possible last lines for my novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. The difference between the two was the decision of who I wanted to end the story on — the young jazz singing protagonist, who we’ve struggled with for 280 pages, or a heretofore minor character. The former would leave the reader in an enclosed space, the room in which the little girl is rehearsing. The latter would end in an expansive place, literally and figuratively, leaving the door open for (what turned out to be) spirited interpretation. It would be impossible for me to convey the importance of the last line without you reading the novel, but I can say this: I knew the last word would be “tomorrow.” For a novel that takes place over the course of one day, that for the most part eschews flashbacks in order to keep all momentum pointed forward, it was important that the last word acknowledged the idea of a next day.
First lines are a challenge for me. They feel like work. If you want to know how to write a first line, I’d ask Kevin Wilson or Amy Hempel or Charles Baxter. If first lines belong to the story and its launch, last lines belong to the story’s effect. The last line launches the reader into what he or she will end up thinking about the story. Maybe that’s why they must feel delivered, and my job is to keep myself open in the way most conducive to hear them. I know, I know. Roll your eyes. I don’t blame you one bit.
I’d most likely never admit any of this had I never heard Amy Hempel say at a reading that she normally hears her last lines first, too. That, along with so many other things she has said about writing, validated the most internal of internal inclinations I’ve grown up feeling about the craft.
So if this all sounds like hooey to you, please take it up with her.
See Also: The Art of the Final Sentence
Image Credit: Geograph.
It has been a fucking great year for books about women. Not just books written by women, or books with strong female characters, but books that are truly about women — books that treat womanhood as a topic as worthy of literary exploration as manhood or war or true love or any other aspect of the human condition. In so many wonderful books I read this year, women are the subject, both in the sense of topic and in the grammatical sense — the one doing the things, rather than the object being acted upon. We’ve been talking a lot about unlikable characters and “relatability,” but perhaps all these unlikeable, unrelatable women are a logical extension of a set of works where they are not relegated to sidekicks, set pieces, or romantic interests. How could they possibly only make good decisions for 400 pages?
As I wrote about Emily Gould’s Friendship in July: “This book is entirely about the inner lives and creative ambitions and life decisions of women. The men are there but they are so peripheral in the face of friendship and identity and figuring out your own choices as to turn invisible by the end of the story.”
My favorite novels this year genuinely made me think in ways I never had before about my very femaleness, which I promise you, I already think about an awful lot.
The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe might be the most under-appreciated book of the year, but I’m doing my part to never shut up about it. It’s a debut novel about a lifelong friendship that asks the most brutal questions about family, disability, abortion, responsibility, and what, if anything, we are owed or deserve. It asks us to inhabit the lived experience of people we are tempted to judge from afar, and it is somehow both deeply unsettling and a nonstop joy to read.
Another masterpiece of judgement is the forthcoming After Birth by Elisa Albert, which completely upended my understanding of natural birth advocates, the breastfeeding mafia, and the medical establishment. This work of fiction made feel wide open to the real-life possibility that everything I think I know about my body and my health is internalized patriarchal oppression. And yet? Another totally delightful reading experience.
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman is a few years old, and I came to it through the brilliant Katie Coyle’s review, which I reread at least monthly. Again it recast how I thought about my body, this time as a vessel for abuse, as an atom of the contiguous renewable resource that is American women, considered by so many men to be as much their birthright as the land, the water, the air, the livestock. Hoffman weaves threads of environmentalism, economic change, and social conservatism into a thriller where the unthinkable is inevitable, and the most extreme retribution makes an eerie perfect sense.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a story about marriage, fidelity, parenthood, accomplishment, and art, as told through scientists and philosophers, failed space travel, and poetry. It is an expansive work about life as we know it reduced so flawlessly to a sparse 177 pages that it’s hard to believe it didn’t take home every major literary prize there is. It might truly be perfect. Read it out loud to someone you love.
There are so many more I wish I could recommend here. I loved mysteries like The Secret Place and Everything I Never Told You, and even the middle grade poetry memoir Brown Girl Dreaming through this same lens. Everywhere I turned, there were female geniuses writing stories that helped me think in new ways about being a woman in the world. And I’m grateful.
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Because Ruth Curry and I are always looking for the next Emily Books pick, and are now reading unpublished manuscripts as well as published books in preparation for our plan to begin publishing a very select number of Emily Books originals, this Year in Reading was INTENSE for me. I probably read more books in 2014 than I did even in the extremely uneventful summer between 6th and 7th grade, when I read literally every book in the YA section of the White Oak public library, plus almost all the books on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Second Sex that summer because I was hoping there might be sex in it. Also The Prince, Our Bodies Ourselves, and several presidential biographies. In retrospect my parents should have sent me to summer camp.
Instead of a laundry list of the seriously hundreds of books I read this year, I thought I’d focus here on just a handful that made me excited about books again in a way I haven’t felt in years — both reading and writing them. These were books that I unequivocally loved, books that I’m certain will stay with me in the years to come.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: I first heard Mira Jacob on my friend Jaime’s podcast, The Catapult, reading a scene where narrator Amina has a tense conversation with her mom, who has a hilarious, idiosyncratic take on English usage and is just in general a maddening, overbearing/lovable mom character to add to the pantheon of all-time great mom characters. “No wonder that dirty man shot himself — all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses,” is her take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Jacob performed the dialogue like an actress and I was immediately hooked. The book traces a deep, painful, years-long family tragedy, but Jacob balances humor and heartache deftly, and Amina is wry and sad and totally real.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: God, this book. This BOOK! Since I devoured four Sarah Waters books in a row this year, I feel qualified to judge that this book represents a new level of excellence for Waters. Since her other books are all amazing too, that’s really saying something. I had kind of expected this book to blow up Goldfinch-style; it’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book. I think it’s perfect.
After Birth by Elisa Albert: This book is kind of the opposite in terms of appeal-universality — I can imagine a reasonable person hating it. But I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one (this one doesn’t actually get published til February). It’s about a malcontented woman who has a baby and moves to upstate New York, where she falls in intense friend-love with a charismatic fellow new mother. Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading.
Adam by Ariel Schrag: Ariel Schrag is one of the most talented human beings alive. Not only did she create comics that evoke high school perfectly while still in high school, she’s a screenwriter and teacher and now, the author of one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Adam is the weird, touching story of a high school senior who spends a summer with his cool older sister in NYC and uses the opportunity to try on a new identity. Schrag’s writing is sharp and stylish but also effortlessly graceful; you almost don’t notice how great her sentences are because they flow straight into your brain, situating themselves there like some better, funnier version of your own thoughts.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: I am lucky enough to know Brian a little and so after I finished this book I wrote him an email saying that I loved everything about it except was he sure about the title? At the time I felt strongly that it should have been called Opportunities For Heroism In Everyday Life, which is the title of a book by the namesake protagonist. Now I realize that I was very wrong. This book is about Florence Gordon; it couldn’t and shouldn’t pretend it’s about anything else for one second. Florence would want it that way! She’s a very forceful character: a heroic feminist activist-author who’s beloved by many readers and acolytes, but somewhat feared and even hated by her intimates and her family, whose lives have been shaped/deformed in response to her uncompromising personality. The book is about the relationship her granddaughter doggedly forges with her, a description that makes it seem like the book might be sentimental. It’s not; Florence would never allow it to be. But you will still cry. (So much!!)
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink: This funny, profane, deeply weird book defies description. The author has been writing for years but, aside from a zine, never before for publication. When an email correspondence with Jonathan Franzen turned into a friendly rivalry, she set out to prove that she can write better than he can. Can she? Well, he thinks so and to be honest I do too. (And I love J. Franz. I am a known Franz-stan.)
Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: Reasons to live: food, beautiful fall days, cats, being in the ocean and being lifted up by a perfect wave, and reading a new writer for the first time whose voice is different from any you’ve heard before and who you want to keep hearing forever.
The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe: This novel got great reviews, came our around the same time as my novel Friendship, and is also about female best friends. If the author hadn’t contacted me out of the blue via Facebook and offered to send it to me, I would have been too jealous to read it. Luckily, she did! It’s very different from Friendship — Rufi’s voice is nothing like mine, and her book’s scope is broader, in every way — but has a similar unsparing attitude, stripping away familiar pieties about love and goodness until all that’s left is the truth.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m a Sittenfeld superfan and her latest book delighted me just as much as all her others have, maybe more so in some ways. She pulls off a trick in it that, in less masterful hands, often goes awry: she creates a world just like our own but with one crucial supernatural difference (here, it’s that one of a pair of twins is psychic). I read this back to back with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At The Wedding, another book about very dissimilar twins, and I recommend this! You can feel like you took a mini-seminar in twin lit, and they’re both fantastic books.
Notice by Heather Lewis: The hardest to read book I’ve ever read. Lewis was a phenomenal talent who died young and whose work never got the recognition it deserved. We republished this out of print book as an Emily Books ebook that includes corrections from the original manuscript, courtesy of Lewis’s literary executor Ann Rower, and a new Introduction by Dale Peck. It’s about a woman who enters an abusive relationship with an older couple whose daughter has died. I had to trap myself underground with it and ride the subway til I got to the last page, but I’m so glad I did. Ruth and I are incredibly proud that we were able to bring this book back to life.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich: Ulinich’s brilliance and wryness are up against their most formidable opponent yet: online dating. Her heroine, Lena Finkle, finds herself single in her mid-30s with two teenage kids and embarks on the kind of romantic odyssey many people get out of the way in their early-20s, when Finkle was tethered to her then-babies. She eventually falls, hard, for a total cad, and the book documents what it’s like to be in love with someone terrible with painful realness.
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Out this week: The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique; Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann; High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire; The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai; Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch; A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor; The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga; Don’t Try to Find Me by Holly Brown; The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe; Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco; Road Ends by Mary Lawson; and our own Edan Lepucki’s California (which you may have seen on Colbert). For more, go read our Great Second-half 2014 Book Preview.