Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Name of the Rose

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

The Eco Maker

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Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died on Saturday. The news shattered me, all the more because Eco had been slowly drifting away from the central role in my life that he had played for so long. But I was thinking of him just a few days ago, daydreaming, as I often do, about living on the road with nothing but what I could carry in a backpack. Foucault’s Pendulum, I decided, would be the one novel I would bring for my own pleasure, consumed a page or two at a time in hotel lobbies or on train station platforms. I’ve noted here before that just about everything I’ve published at novel length, notably The Icon Thief, has been a kind of dialogue with Foucault’s Pendulum, which rocked my world when I first read it more than twenty years ago, so that countless thankfully unfinished manuscripts from my teens bore the mark of its influence. The paperback copy I bought in my hometown all those years ago has accompanied me on every move ever since, and it’s been read so often—certainly more than a dozen times—that it has taken on some of the qualities of my own face. On its spine, it bears two deep parallel creases, about half an inch apart, like the lifelines on the palm of a lovingly worn workman’s glove: a testament to a lifetime’s faithful service. And although I’ve retreated from and returned to it countless times over the last two decades, every cycle brings me closer to its vision again, so that by now I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me.

But it wasn’t until I heard the news of Eco’s death that I began to reflect on what this really meant. Eco was an incredibly prolific writer and scholar, but for most fans, I have a feeling that he’ll be remembered best for two books. The Name of the Rose remains, rightly, the more famous and beloved, and the first to be mentioned in any obituary: William of Baskerville is still the most fully realized character Eco ever created, even if I insist on picturing him as Sean Connery, and for a lot of readers, Brother William became the guide to a labyrinthine library that some of us never escaped. He pointed me toward Borges, as he did with so many others, which is legacy enough for anyone. If I’m honest with myself, he also turned me onto Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, which I spent four years studying in college in part just so I could read that novel’s many untranslated passages. (I achieved that goal with mixed success: there was probably a period of six months or so where I could easily read those sections at sight—as if the meanings were appearing in the margin in invisible ink—but the words have long since faded again.) And Foucault’s Pendulum, his other lasting work, opened up a whole world of ideas, or, more accurately, the idea that seeking patterns in those ideas was the greatest game in the world. Eco warns us that it can also be a pathology, but he can only make his case by exposing us first to its delights, and I’ve spent most of my life walking the fine line that he traced.

Foucault's Pendulum

That remarkable ability to spin webs of ideas into a book that ordinary readers could love—a challenge that many writers have tackled since and none has done nearly as well—explains why Eco was such a problematic figure to so many other authors. There was Salman Rushdie, who appears to have glimpsed the similarity between Eco and himself, in a sort of uncanny valley, and famously trashed Foucault’s Pendulum as “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” And I’ve often quoted Tom Wolfe, who said, accurately enough: “Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” (Although when I look at that statement now, I can’t help but echo Tobias on Arrested Development: “There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Eco was a dangerous example for all the obvious reasons. He came to fiction in his fifties, after an entire career spent living in the world and thinking about ideas, which is very different from doing it in your twenties. His preternatural facility as a writer camouflaged the fact that his accomplishment in The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum was not only difficult, but all but irreproducible, even for him: I never managed to finish any of his later novels. These two books wouldn’t exist at all if they didn’t pull off the impossible feat of making us care about ideas as if they were people, but it’s such a freakish trick that you want to warn young writers to spend their time with authors who struggle honestly with creating real men and women.

I agree with all of this. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to free myself from Eco’s magic spell, even if it took me the better part of two novels to do so. But I’ve also come to realize that if Eco is a dead end, it’s one that’s still worth taking, if you’re one of the dozens of young writers for whose souls Wolfe was so concerned. To take an illustration that Eco, with his omnivorous embrace of popular culture, might have liked: if this is a cul-de-sac, it’s like the fake tunnel that Wile E. Coyote paints on the side of a wall, only to have the Road Runner race through it. There’s something tantalizingly real and moving about Eco’s artifice, and it strikes me now as just as valid as the ones created by all those painstaking noticers of human behavior. It’s a story of books, not of everyday worries, as he writes in The Name of the Rose, and it’s the story in which I’ve found myself, when I look honestly at my own life. It’s a dead end that feels more expansive, as time goes on, than any other alternative. Even if it isn’t for everyone, I’ve come to recognize that Eco was the point of origin from which I had to distance myself, only to find my steps curving back in its direction after I’d acquired some necessary experience that didn’t come from libraries. And I can only return to those words from Thomas à Kempis that Eco shared with us so long ago: In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro. I sought peace everywhere, and I found it only in a corner with a book. And its title was Foucault’s Pendulum.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2016 at 9:49 am

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

The adaptation game

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Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?

There was a time in my life when I took it as an article of faith that if I wanted to see a movie based on a novel, I had to read the book first. When I was working as a film critic in college, this policy made sense—I wanted my reviews to seem reasonably informed—so I devoured the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary mere days before seeing their adaptations in theaters. Later, I tackled the original material out of a vague sense of guilt or obligation, as I did with Watchmen, a comparison that did Zack Snyder’s movie version no favors. In almost every instance, though, it meant that I watched the resulting film through a kind of double exposure, constantly comparing the events on screen with their equivalents, or lack thereof, on the page. It’s how I imagine fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games regard the adaptations of their own favorite properties, the quality of which is often judged by how faithfully they follow their sources. And it wasn’t until recently that I gave up on the idea of trying to read every book before seeing the movie, in part because I have less free time, but also because my attitudes toward the issue have changed, hopefully for the better.

In fact, I’d like to propose a general rule: the priority of one version of a story over another is a fact, not a value judgment. This apples to remakes and homages as much as to more straightforward adaptations. After enough time has passed, the various approaches that different artists take to the same underlying narrative cease to feel like points on a timeline, and more like elements of a shared constellation of ideas. I saw The Silence of the Lambs long before reading Thomas Harris’s original novels, later added Manhunter to the mix, and have been having a hell of a good time going back to the books with the cast of Hannibal in mind. I don’t know how I’d feel about these characters and stories if I’d read each book as it came out and watched the adaptations later, but I’d like to think that I’d have ended up in more or less the same place, with each element sustaining and enriching every other. The same is true of a movie like L.A. Confidential, which is less a faithful translation of the book into film than a rearrangement of the pieces that James Ellroy provided, an “alternate life,” as the author himself puts it, for the men and women he had imagined. Would I feel the same way if I’d read the book first? Maybe—but only if enough time had passed to allow me to regard the movie in its own right.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, I’ve come to think that out of all the ways of experiencing works of art with a common origin, the best option is to absorb them all, but to leave sufficient space between each encounter. I watched Infernal Affairs long before The Departed, but the earlier movie had faded almost entirely when I saw the remake, and now I find that I can switch back and forth between the two films in full appreciation of each one’s strengths. (The Departed is less a remake than an expansion of the tightly focused original: its bones are startlingly similar, but fleshed out with an hour’s worth of digressions and elaborations, all of which I love.) Occasionally, of course, the memory of one version is so strong that its alternate incarnations can’t compete, and this doesn’t always work to the benefit of the original. A few years ago, I tried to read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the first time, and I found that I just couldn’t finish it: Coppola’s movie is remarkably faithful, while elevating the material in almost every way, to the point where the novel itself seems oddly superfluous. This isn’t the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which I’m reading again now for maybe the tenth time with undiminished delight, but it’s a reminder of how unpredictable the relationship between the source and its adaptation can be.

And in retrospect, I’m grateful that I experienced certain works of art without any knowledge of the originals. I’ve enjoyed movies as different as The Name of the Rose and Lolita largely because I didn’t have a point of reference: the former because I didn’t know how much I was missing, the latter because I realized only later how much it owed to the book. And if you have the patience, it can be rewarding to delay the moment of comparison for as long as possible. I’ve loved Eyes Wide Shut ever since its initial release, fifteen years ago, when I saw it twice in a single day. A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and I was struck by the extent to which Kubrick’s movie is nearly a point-for-point adaptation. (The only real interpolation is the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, who looms in the memory like a significant figure, even though he only appears in a couple of scenes.) Kubrick was famously secretive about his movie’s plot, and having read the novel, I can see why: faithful or not, he wanted it to be seen free of expectations—although I have a hunch that the film might have been received a little more warmly if viewers had been given a chance to acclimate themselves to its origins. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Stories have to rise or fall on their own terms, and when it comes to evaluating how well a movie works, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

(Note: For the last two weeks, I’ve been counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

When a novel has been a part of your life for close to twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if those flaws seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you saw in it in the first place. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what seems, in retrospect, like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that one hopes would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” as Eco writes in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even greater level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted, like Eco, to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for the better part of two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In the final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the greatest of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2013 at 9:12 am

My ideal reader

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Portrait of the author as a young man

A few days ago, an interviewer asked me to describe what I saw as my target audience. In response, I fell back on the answer that writers tend to give in such situations: I said that I write the kinds of books I’d like to read. In both literary and popular fiction, I’m drawn to layered, fairly complicated books with a lot of detail and information, and these are inevitably the novels I’ve found myself writing as well. They’re emphatically books for grownups, with occasional adult situations—so it might seem strange, then, for me to confess that my ideal reader, if I’m being truly honest with myself, isn’t a grownup at all. In terms of which reader would give me the most satisfaction, I’d say that it’s a kid of twelve or so, a little too smart for the books at his or her grade level, who isn’t quite ready for adult fiction, but stumbles across my books by accident. It may seem unlikely, but it’s happened at least a few times. And whenever I hear about it, I get very happy.

That said, I’d never try to write a book geared specifically toward children. (Well, “never” is a big word, and I can’t rule anything out for the future, but it isn’t currently on my radar.) Rather, I’d like my novels to be read by kids for whom they’re not entirely appropriate. In my own case, my life was shaped forever by the first adult novels I read: I burned through most of the approved books in my grade school classroom in short order, and moved on to Orwell, King, and Eco. These books were considerably above my own reading level, but I’m glad that nobody warned me away from them. That’s why I’m simultaneously envious and somewhat concerned for kids today, who have entire bookstore sections devoted to young adult literature, which are pitched a little too directly at their interests and age group. These books fill an important need. But I’m still glad that my own limited options forced me to move more or less directly from The Headless Cupid to The Name of the Rose.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

In short, I was telling the truth when I said that I write for myself, but it’s really for a version of me that was at its best when I was ten or eleven years old. For most of grade school and middle school, I read voraciously and soaked up information like a sponge: as I recently told my wife, I sometimes suspect that most of what I know was acquired between the ages of eight and thirteen. I read a lot of junk, of course, but also novels that stayed with me. And I read them at a time when I was likely to take them for granted. Looking back at the works of art I enjoyed the most, it’s striking how long it took me to realize how deeply strange Foucault’s Pendulum or Blue Velvet really were. And although there’s a downside to skipping over the intermediate stages—you end up with a somewhat skewed picture of the possibilities of art as a whole—there’s no denying that I owe a lot of the person I eventually became to reading books and watching movies that no responsible adult would have recommended to me at the time.

Not coincidentally, this was also the moment when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Becoming a novelist is really a way of extending my childhood, when I wanted to know something about everything and made up stories about the world without even trying. You can’t always write with a child’s eye, of course, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things since then about craft. But the example is still one that haunts me, and many of the choices I’ve made in the following decades were with eye to what that kid would have wanted. I try to write stories that I think he would like—which, again, doesn’t mean writing for his age level—and I do my best to shape my life, to the extent that I can, into something that lives up to his expectations. I haven’t always been true to him, and there have been years on end when he would have been surprised, and possibly disappointed, by how I was spending my time. But he’s still the best guide I have to what I want to be when I grow up.

Written by nevalalee

March 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

Finding the perfect title

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There are two kinds of titles—two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name for something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along; it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page.

—Martin Amis, London Fields

If you’re tearing out your hair trying to find the perfect title for a novel or short story, take comfort: you’re not alone. Hemingway considered dozens of potential titles after finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, narrowly rejecting The Undiscovered Country, much to Nicholas Meyer’s relief. Umberto Eco wanted to call his most famous novel Adso of Melk or The Abbey of the Crime. Martin Amis claims to have weighed the titles Millennium, The Murderee, and Time’s Arrow, the last of which he later repurposed, before finally deciding on London Fields. Similarly, Cameron Crowe almost called his ’70s rock movie Vanilla Sky, tried unsuccessfully to convince the studio to let him go with Untitled, and finally settled on Almost Famous—which is proof that the process doesn’t always work as it should.

When you’re searching for a title, the obvious first step, which I’ve often neglected myself, is to ask what the novel is trying to tell you. At its best, a title is a sly expression of the novel’s theme, but indirect, and open to more than one interpretation, which is something you can’t accomplish without looking hard at the story itself. Last week, when I was asked to come up with a new title for my second novel (which had already been called Midrash, Merkabah, and House of Passages), it took me days of frantic brainstorming before I asked myself one simple question: what is the story about? In my case, the novel—while naturally covering a lot of other ground—is primarily about the problem of living in a world in which God has fallen silent. From there, I was led into the theme of spiritual exile, and at that point, the perfect title was just around the corner.

At the time, though, I didn’t know this. Instead, I pushed ahead with my earlier strategy: casting about wildly in all directions. I was mildly obsessed with the multiple meanings of the word passage, which could evoke a section in a book, a way through a house or mountain range, or a ritual moment in one’s life. For a long time, then, my titles were variations on The Secret Passage or The Silent Passage. I went through the entire thesaurus, looking for potential adjectives, and wrote down interesting words from the books on my shelves, from lists of great thrillers, even from the IMDb top 250. Some of the results, which I jotted down in no particular order, can be seen on this page. But it wasn’t until I let go of the precious word passage, and allowed myself to look at other possibilities, that I was able to break out of my rut.

Looking back, I can see that I went about the process all wrong, and next time, I hope to do better. Still, if you’re as desperate as I was, these seem like three decent steps to follow:

  1. Go carefully through your novel, either in print or in your head, and pick out a handful of words and phrases that seem expressive of the story’s primary theme.
  2. Cast your net wide, looking at every source you can find—books of quotations, poetry, the titles of other books or movies—looking for words that strike you as meaningful, resonant, or simply interesting. Don’t overthink it too much: just write everything down. For a novel, it isn’t too much to spend an entire day on this stage.
  3. Finally, relax, look at the lists you’ve developed, and see what happens. Don’t force it. Sooner or later, some combination of words, or even a single word, will seem just right—but only if you’ve abandoned your preconceptions about what your title should be.

In my own case, this was exactly what happened. Keeping the concept of exile in mind, I went haphazardly through my other lists until I saw, near the top of the page, the word city. Within a few seconds, I knew that I had my title—even if it took a day or two and several emails with my editor before the change was official. Whether it’s the best title for this novel, or even a good title, I can’t say. And a great title doesn’t always mean a good book, or vice versa. But for all the hard work and frustration it took to get here, I’m very glad that this novel will be called City of Exiles.

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