Monday, November 15, 2010

A book by any other name would smell as sweet

After our son was born, we didn’t name him straight away. Our family and friends found this outlandish. But they humoured us, preparing a banner for our homecoming from the hospital that read, “Welcome home, boy.” Two weeks later, however, this epithet had worn thin.

Why did we wait so long to name our baby? Well, my husband and I wanted to find out who he was. We wanted to make sure that the lifelong name we would brand him with would actually match his personality. To make this task a bit easier, I forbade any name listed in the top 100 most popular names for boys.

I like unique names. My own name is probably not even in the top 10,000 most popular names for girls. It’s unusual and – in many languages – as hard to pronounce as it is to spell. My own grandfather always insisted on spelling it H-E-D-Y, as in Hedy Lamarr (and if you know who this is, you were probably born around the time tin foil was invented). But, no, I wasn’t named after this gorgeous Austrian actress. Much more auspiciously, I was named after Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the heroine who kills her lover and then herself. That’s always a good conversation starter.

The long-winded naming process for our son in no way resembles the process I followed for naming my memoir. For nine long, skin-stretching, hip-displacing months, I had no idea what kind of person my fetus was going to turn out to be – although the frequent judo kicks and double backflips should have been enough of a hint. But before my book was born, I labored on it in great detail. I read books on how to structure plot and flesh out characters. I took meticulous notes, drew diagrams. I twisted the truth just enough to make reality slot neatly into the framework of a classically-narrated novel. And even before I was out of the first trimester of writing, I had already named my book The Third Person.

But maybe I didn’t know my book as well as I thought I did because later I retracted its title. This despite the fact that according to an automated title-rater I found on the Internet, The Third Person is in fact much more likely to be a bestseller than the book under its current name, Lost in the Spanish Quarter. But I am not attached to this title either. I will bite anyone who tries to get me to remove a scene or a character from my manuscript, including Carminiello the dirty-talking redheaded Clorox seller who is just about as fundamental to the plot as pesto is to a ham sandwich. But the title? I can easily let it go.

I know I shouldn’t be so lackadaisical about naming my book because it could literally make or break the whole deal. Great book titles draw us in. Let’s be honest: who hasn’t at one point bought a book based on the title alone? Not all of us have time to leisurely read though The New York Review of Books for the latest recommended publications. Or to browse through Borders pouring through the book jackets. Or to read books.

What’s in a name? A name is a word, otherwise known as that highly-sophisticated metaphor that distinguishes us from the Neanderthals. The ability to name is the key to human supremacy on earth. A name does not just describe people, things and concepts: it allows us to shape our very reality. Without names, we are nothing but algae-feeding amoebas who float around aimlessly drinking water by osmosis and who don’t even know they’re called amoebas.

By extension, it’s clear that a great book – like a great kid – deserves a great name. A title with oomph. With intrigue. With originality. And yet a practical one which also gives the potential reader a clue about the plot or setting. In this sense, Super Sad True Love Story would suit my memoir quite nicely. But apparently this title has already been taken. Darnit.

Fortunately, I’ve come up with a few alternatives, which I think you’ll agree are serious contenders:

Disoriented in a Hispanic Neighborhood
See Naples and Cry
The Spanish Quarter: a mostly truthful account of an American living somewhere other than Tuscany or Rome
A Journey into the Ghetto of My Heart
She and He and His Mamma: an unforgettable love story
Now the Whole World Will Know What You Did to Me
Exodus Ex Labyrinth
Neapolitans are from Naples, Americans are from America
Napoli Ends With “I”
What Italian University Students Really Do In Their Spare Time
Epic Failures and Epicenters
A Sentimental Treatise on the Seismic and Subcultural Activity of The Italian Mezzogiorno
You Emailed Me, So Here’s My 467-Page Reply
Love Under the Shadow of a Big Fat Brooding Volcano
Of Hurled Washing Machines, Deflated Lungs and Stuffed Peppers
Is That An Earthquake Or Am I in Love?
Eat Love Pay Dearly
Vesuvian Rhapsody
A Manual of Love For People With a Long Attention Span
Fond Memories of Carminiello the Shopkeeper and a Few Other Minor Characters
The Mother-in-law: a historical study of a time-honored rite of passage
A Tale of One City
A Tale of Two People
I Can’t Believe He Left Me For a Toyota Corolla

Voting and submissions end at midnight on Sunday, November 21st.


  1. I think you should go with the 6th one ;P

  2. oh there are lots I find appealing, I think they are very very clever. I especially like, " Eat Love Pay Dearly." and "Napoli ends with I" "you emailed me, so here's my 467 page reply."

    Heddi you have to be the most persistent person I have ever met. You're like the energiser bunny, you just never give up. It's a great quality to have. I hope your tenacity rewards you with a publisher.

  3. Thanks, Mary Anna. It's nice to hear someone call me 'persistent' and - the greatest of all compliments - 'like the energizer bunny'. Because most of the time I feel quite tired and over-stretched, and still it seems like I'm not achieving much of the many things on my to-do list! So thank you. heddi.

  4. Oh, my gosh, your list of titles cracked me up! I think that I would want to read a lot of them...!! Thanks for the link - I totally look forward to perusing more of your posts!

  5. Thanks, Gretchen, that's the best compliment!