Friday, April 6, 2012

What's in a Title?

Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Under the Red, White, and Blue
Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover.

Okay, you probably know what these are. They're the various titles that were considered for 'The Great Gatsby' by F Scott Fitzgerald. And if today we knew that magnicient book as 'On the Road to West Egg', we'd probably laugh if we learned that the publisher had once considered calling it 'The Great Gatsby'.

This cover art was complete before Fitzgerald finished writing the novel. He loved the picture, and adapted some of his prose to make the cover more relevant. (He was probably afraid the publisher might reject it.)

Choosing a title is hard. Unless I get a flash of inspiration while writing, I usually leave the selection of a title till the very end of the writing process, which is why my book 'The Shiny Guys' was for many months known as 'Ward 44'. It's even on the contract. Editor Dmetri Kakmi liked the title because Chekhov wrote a peculiar short story called 'Ward Number Six', which he thought had a natty ring. But since most of the literary references in 'The Shiny Guys' are to Kafka and not Chekhov, it didn't really fit. I originally called the book 'Ward 44', because that was the number of the ward where I ended up in 1985 when I had my first serious encounter with clinical depression. The title helped me write the story, because whenever I opened the document on my computer, there were the words 'Ward 44' and I was mentally transported back to that unhappy time. But 'Ward 44' sounds self-important and far too serious. I really didn't want to write that kind of book. As the story developed with the appearance of shiny antennaed creatures in my narrator's peripheral vision, I was determined that these creatures would somehow find their way into the title. But in the book they are referred to as 'Nestorians' or 'giant cockroaches'; another tip of the hat to Kafka and his most famous short story, Metamorphosis, where a typical man called Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a cockroach. (Actually, I don't think Kafka ever refers to Samsa as a 'cockroach', but rather a bug that seems very like one.)

'Get your hands off me, you filthy cockroach, if indeed you are a cockroach..'

And 'The Nestorians' seems a lousy title for a book, since it's difficult to remember, though the more rabid of Doctor Who fans seem to have no difficulty recalling the names of all the aliens in the good doctors' adventures. When I last checked in on the Sci Fi channel he was battling a sort of giant Dutch alien chicken called an Ergon.

The terrifying Ergon, that lives in a crypt in Amsterdam. (If I have this wrong I'm quite sure the Whovians will put me in my place.)

Anyway, I think that most readers familiar with Kafka's work take it as read that Samsa has become a cockroach. The important thing is that Samsa has become a repellant creature and he has to deal with people's horrified reactions to him. A lot of teens seem to like this story, and I think I know why. In my teen years I certainly turned into a bit of a 'repellant creature' myself, at least for part of the time. I changed by the day, growing pimples, greasy hair, then ugly soft hair on my face. My body became long and gangly and I lost all coordination. My voice went squeaky. I was grotesque. I might as well have been a giant cockroach.

Me having a bad hair day in Year Nine.

The last line in 'The Shiny Guys 'is a direct reference to 'Metamorphosis', even though I don't mention the book anywhere in the story. It's a bit of foreknowledge that gives the ending an extra kick for the initiated. But you don't have to have read 'Metamorphosis' to gather what is meant by the last line. (There is quite a lot of mention of 'last lines' throughout the story, as Colin, my narrator, is reading a Kafka novel, 'The Castle', which doesn't actually have a last line - only a last half-line.  It seems Kafka lost interest, as he finished mid-sentence.)

 It's a terrible anticlimax, or I found it so after devoting hours to it, even if I was listening to a talking book version as I was travelling around Western Australia. I should probably have been reading Winton or Stow for local colour, but I was reading Kafka's 'The Castle' -  and from now on, I will always associate Western Australia with a bizarre landscape over which i must travel to arrive at a mysterious castle where I will finally learn exactly what is going on.

The coast of Western Australia. Eagle-eyed viewers may see a castle in the distance. Or not.

 As for the title of my last book, I wanted it to be playful and creepy, which kind of sums up the book itself . I thought of 'The Shiny Guys', which could either be malevolent creatures or even decent, handsome ones. (Although 'shiny' characters in novels do tend to be horrible. Just look at Edward Cullen. ) Penguin didn't like the title at first. I rewrote the book so that the term 'Shiny Guys' was used more often, and I justified the title that way. The book had another title that I liked. It was 'Good night, Mental-case,' which is how Colin bids sweet dreams to his best friend and fellow patiuent Mango. But that title was vetoed early on, as we didn't want to offend mental-cases.

Titles can be buggers to think up. The members of the Monty Python troupe recall how frustrating it was to come up with a title for their brilliantly crazy TV show. They went through several alternatives:
Owl Stretching Time
Gwen Dibley's flying Circus
Sex and Violence
Whither Canada?
(Some of these titles became individual episode titles in the first series.)

In the end the show became much bigger than the title and it's hard to think of it being called anything else but 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'. I feel sorry for people who found out about Monty Python via their movies, which are pretty patchy, to be honest. The team's best work was undoubtedly the first three series they did of their TV show. The second series especially had the best sketches and  animations by Terry Gilliam, which tied the whole show together. But I'll blog about Monty Python another time. This is supposed to be a blog about titles. And it's quite relevant to me at the moment because I've written a musical tribute to the life of Australian cookery celebrity, Margaret Fulton. It's going to be staged later this year so it needs a title. But no one can agree on what to call it. Margaret disliked my first idea, which was 'Margaret Fulton: Communist'. Margaret was indeed a communist and quite committed, but then communism under Stalin rather rapidly lost its gloss and people were disinclined to identify themselves as 'red'. I love the fact that Margaret Fulton, who is to many an image of conservative suburban cosiness, was also attending communist meetings and reading about Marxism. 'Margaret Fulton: Communist' is a surprising title that grabs the attention, which is what I was trying to do. It was also accurate, but Margaret preferred a title a little less inflammatory. And so, we devised a list. It has been sent to Margaret (who does not use email) in the hope that one of them grabs her attention. The first dozen or so are all her suggestions. I'll keep you posted on this. My preferred title for the moment is 'Margaret Fulton: Warrior Princess'. We'll see how we go with that one. But here are the present contenders:

Margaret Fulton Through a Looking Glass
Margaret Fulton, Don't Sing at the Table
MF - An artichoke is only a thistle
MF - Not to be dismissed
MF - Out of the Kitchen
MF - With a light touch
MF- With warmth and humour
MF - Not Really Intimidating
MF - The Secret Ingredient
MF - Revolutionary
MF - Capable of Cooking a good Dish
MF - Commands Respect
MF - Self Respect Works Miracles
MF - Shares Her Life
MF - Commands Respect
MF - Revolutionary
 MF - Braveheart
MF - Warrior Princess
Make Your own MF,
MF - Two inches larger than life.(The cardboard cutouts)
Margaret Fulton Knocked Me Over
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner - The Margaret Fulton Musical
Margaret Fulton in the Red Corner

Margaret Fulton not being a communist.

Thus we come to the end of another post. There is no book puffery that I can append, as is the wont of most Facebook authors, so I'll close by mentioning that transcendentally talented Craig Smith has completed the design and illustration of my new book, Heather Fell In the Water, a cautionary tale about the need for kids to take swimming lessons. It’s the easiest title I've ever dreamt up, as the story features my little sister, Heather, who had this extraordinary habit of falling in water, no matter where we went. Even in places where there wasn't very much water at all she would somehow find some and fall in it. Hence, the family car was always equipped with a change of clothing for Heather. Craig's work is typically beautiful but I really can't show you any of it just yet. I can show you the new cover of the recent Sister Madge hardback reissue. If anything, the 'Heather' pictures are even better.

And if you'd like to hear Tracy Harvey give a performance of my book , The Night Before Mother's Day, accompanied by Judy Horacek illustrations,  go here.

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