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All in the Title

Speaking at the Writers’ and Artists’ Conference, author Esther Freud told how her first novel, A Home for Us, suffered rejection after rejection…until, one day, a friend suggested changing the name of the title. Esther was dubious. The name proposed was the punchline of a childhood joke: it meant nothing to anyone outside her immediate family. However, the title was changed, acceptance followed, and Hideous Kinky was born.

I fully understand Esther’s reluctance. My original title for Half-truths and White Lies was Venn Diagrams, which, to me, described the complexity of human relationships. In my book, Tom Fellows suggests a diagram of overlapping circles as an alternative for the traditional family tree. Unfortunately, it was pointed out, the phrase was coined relatively recently and would have no meaning for those over the age of fifty. The enforced title change – although I could see good reason for it – evoked strange emotions. I owned the material, but had no connection with the title. For a while, I felt remote from the end product. One of my great pleasures in reading is to come to a full understanding of the title, Cider House Rules by John Irving, being a prime example. We learn that the rules of the cider house are published each harvest, even though none of its nomadic workers can actually read. We are talking about the written and unwritten rules of life.

Had Esther’s remarkable presentation of a child’s-eye view of adults’ behaviour alone been sufficient to convince a publisher, it seems difficult to imagine that A Home for Us would have been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, made into a film starring Kate Winslet, or earned Esther the accolade of being named one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Writers. Perhaps, without the title change, it might not have seen the light of day; a writing career might have been snuffed out for lack of encouragement.

As with the novel itself, the relevance of the final title is unexpected and delightful: one celebratory example of a child’s love of the sound of words.