Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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There is a scene in Julie & Julia (based on the book of the same name) where Julia Child is considering variations of a title for what would become a seminal cookbook. Her editor, Judith Jones, takes the task very seriously. Child, at least as she’s portrayed by Meryl Streep, doesn’t seem terribly concerned, as if to say, “It’s only a title.” Jones knew better, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking would grace the cover of Childs’s classic through countless printings.

We are cautioned not to judge books by their covers but what about titles? Clearly they count for something and are far more than a label one would find on a can of soup. They are more than just an easy shorthand, more than a road sign to let us know what to expect as we turn a page as we would a turn in the road. A good title is more than a declaration. It is an invitation that uses a minimal amount of words for maximum impact. Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is a wonderful title, a nod to the culture of village life in Pakistan and Afghanistan in his chronicle of building rural schools. The title of his follow-up book is more on the nose – Stones into Schools – and, for my money, less effective.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of titles as the book-in-progress that I’m shaping slowly begins to finds its footing. It’s an account of taking piano lessons at fifty, and an obvious choice would be Piano Lessons, with the double-meaning the title suggests. Which is the primary reason it doesn’t appeal: it’s a bit too obvious for my tastes (and also happens to be the name of an August Wilson play). Piano Notes was an early contender but soon crossed off. It, too, is an existing title and is a play on words that I’m trying to avoid. Ultimately, the book will be more than a straightforward account and will include reflections on the piano as a means of transformation. Not all transformation need be cataclysmic to have an impact, though I’m planning to devote a few chapters linking pianos with profound change in the lives of those for whom a piano is more than a piece of furniture that makes the occasional sounds. A Life-Changing Instrument? I was raised to be wary of hyperbole and restaurants with dark lighting.

I’m wondering if I can avoid the word ‘piano’ all together. It seems that when considering a non-fiction title, one can go in two directions: spell it out (Julia Child’s My Life in France is a current best-seller) or opt for something more indirect but, arguably, more insightful (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking). It’s not always the case of the latter trumping the former. There’s an immediacy to a direct title that can wield its own power. Currently, I’m reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a disturbing portrait of the torturous journey animals endure on the way to our plates. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood encapsulates the notorious crime he dissects.

For the most part, I find the more ambiguous titles more alluring. There is something foreboding in Rebecca Godfrey’s Under the Bridge, a shadowy hint of the world she explores in which 14-year old Reena Virk was swarmed and killed by her peers (playwright Joan Macleod mines similar territory in The Shape of a Girl, a title rich with meaning without being overwrought). Predictably, almost inevitably, John English’s biography of Pierre Elliot Trudeau is called Just Watch Me. That it is predictable doesn’t make it less apt. It’s hard to imagine a better-fitting title, all the more so because Trudeau immortalized the phrase himself.

My working title for the book-in-progress is simply Piano Project, a name with which to label folders and files until further notice. The search for the right title continues. I have faith it will surface, a handful of words – and sometimes as few as one – that are truly essential.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page