Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Entitled Interview with Susan Philpott

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Susan Philpott

Dark Territory (Simon & Schuster Canada) is a particularly apt title for the second instalment in Susan Philpott's Signy Shepherd series, as the titular heroine finds herself very much in the dark for much of the book. Her mentor is missing, and Lizzy, the woman Signy is meant to protect might be more dangerous than the pursuers Signy is trying to protect her from. Taut and tense, Dark Territory is a high octane thriller made all the more exciting by Susan's creative and inventive twists and turns.

We're talking to Susan as part of our The Entitled Interview, where we speak to authors about the process of titling their work, their favourite titles and just what function a title ought to serve.

Susan tells us about finding title inspiration in old railway terminology, her favourite book titles (we concur!) and what her tenure as a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo taught her about planning a perfect murder.

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Susan Philpott:

Dark Territory is the latest in my thriller series following the adventures of Signy Shepherd, a conductor on a modern Underground Railroad, known as the Line. The working title for the first draft, The Ties that Bind, was a lifeless cliché. As I worked through the final draft, I spent a long time trying to come up with a more evocative title. Finally, I hit on the idea of using train terminology. Modern train related definitions are dry and technical, so I researched old-fashioned railroad language. Dark Territory means "a section of tracks without functioning signal lights".


What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?


To grab the reader’s attention, set the tone and provide a hint about the style and content of the book.


What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)


Blown Red, the first in the Signy Shepherd series, is my favourite title, and also the most problematic. I love the sensory overload it projects, but wish it rolled off the tongue better.

Blown Red is an old railroad term describing that perilous moment when a train blows through a red light signal. I think it exemplifies Signy Shepherd’s impulsive nature, and her potentially destructive power.


What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


This is a hard one. I don’t think I can choose just one. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt is a brilliant play on words. De Witt’s latest novel, Under Major Domo Minor has a place of honour in my ‘to read’ pile for the same reason. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggars, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris, are right up there, as well.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


I briefly considered Cornfield Meet, railroad language for when two trains collide head-on, because I thought Signy and her arch-enemy might have clashed in this instalment. However, as the story evolved, I realized that their ultimate confrontation would have to wait for another day.

In my current book, Signy has lost her bearings. She finds herself alone on a difficult case, cut off from help, with the police closing in. To make matters worse, her mentor, suffering from PTSD, is missing. Dark Territory seemed an apt description for her dire circumstances.


What are you working on now?


I am taking a break from Signy Shepherd, in order to try something new. During my six-year tenure as a zoo-keeper at the Toronto Zoo, I could often be found contemplating the perfect murder. Exotic animals, cage doors left ajar, so many places to hide. Could there be a better setting for a murder mystery?

Deciding on a title for this new book will be an organic process, involving plenty of trial and error. The perfect mystery title should be evocative, visually arresting, and full of intrigue. I’ll know it when it happens.

Susan Philpott holds a master’s degree in both science and social work. She has worked as a university teaching assistant, zookeeper and mental health professional. The mother of three grown children, she lives in the wilds of Ontario with her husband and yellow lab.

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