In the fall, when Knopf Canada sent me two possible cover designs for my book, I began asking friends which factor was more likely to make them pick up a novel by a writer they'd never heard of: the title or the cover.
More than three months have passed since these conversations, so I can’t remember a thing anyone said, but the question came to me again today as I looked through the list of books I've read this year.
Books I Read Simply Because of Their Titles:
· This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky
· Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
· How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (brilliantly funny, highly recommended)
Books I Read Despite Their Titles:
· Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
· Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
· The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Books That Fit into Both Categories:
· The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
Of course the title is extremely important, but it seems to be one of the hardest things to get to. Apparently (i.e. according to Wikipedia), it took F. Scott Fitzgerald some time to settle on The Great Gatsby. Earlier titles included Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (just awful), Trimalchio in West Egg (even worse), and The High-Bouncing Lover (!?). And although he was finally persuaded to accept The Great Gatsby, he wasn’t crazy about it.
My first title for Beyond the Sky and the Earth was Bhutan Mist, which is also the name of a “Scotch” produced in Bhutan (by the Army Welfare Project, which tells you why “Scotch” is in quotation marks). My editor dismissed my working title on the grounds of "it doesn't work" and "sounds like a perfume."
“Your title is probably in the book," she said, so I went back to the manuscript to look for it. I then proposed the literal translation of the Dzongkha phrase for “thank you very much”: No Sky, No Earth, Thank You. That, too, was rejected with breathtaking alacrity, but it did lead to the title that stuck.
The original title for my novel was Who You Are to Us. Very Alice Munro-ish, I thought, but my agent gave me a look that said, “You are not Alice Munro.” For several months, as I struggled with revisions, I referred to it as That Motherf***ing Motherhood Novel.
And then my friend Dan suggested I turn to music for inspiration. He gave me a stack of CDs that matched the era I was writing about and specifically suggested Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Good-bye.” Hurray! I had a title!
Luckily, titles cannot be copyrighted. Even more luckily, the agency representing the Cole Porter Trust gave me permission to quote the lyrics in the book.