Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On book titles and insecurities

Jennifer Egan visited Carlisle a few weeks ago, and read the first chapter of her Pulitzer-winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was thrilled she came to town. I don't know how Dickinson manages to book such amazing authors as her and Margaret Atwood, among others. And to make the events free to the public (exactly what I can afford!).

Afterward, during the brief Q&A session (extremely regimented, actually - only five questions allowed), someone asked how she came up with the title. Great question. It's not exactly a grabber of a title, except for its oddness.

Ms. Egan expained she had come up with the title before the story. Each story that she began, she wondered, is this, finally, A Visit From the Goon Squad? At some point while writing it, a line of dialogue made her realize that her WIP was, indeed, the long awaited A Visit From the Goon Squad.

After publication, the story didn't sell well at first. She kicked herself for giving the book that title. But then, of course, it was nominated for a Pulitzer, boosting sales, and then awarded the Pulitzer, and the rest is bestseller history.

It surprised me that Ms. Egan suffered from such insecurities, being such an established author. Another surprise was the basis for the story - sparked from a real-life incident in which a woman left her purse, with wallet in full view, on the sink in a public rest room while she used the toilet. Crazy, but true. But I found it reassuring that a well-known author did this, as I've done it myself and felt like I'm pilfering, or my muse hasn't quite done her job well enough.

Funny story, though - Ms. Egan told how her own wallet had been stolen more times than she could recall, and had received a call from the credit card representative soon after her card was stolen. Ms. Egan shared more information with the woman only to learn that she was, in fact, the thief herself.

I purchased a copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad after the reading, and the student used one of those handheld credit card machines, sliding the imprinter over the carbon slip again and again. The numbers grew illegible, but I didn't argue. The next day, a woman called to ask me for my credit card number, and I was tempted to ask whether she was really an employee of Dickinson College, or someone who collected credit card numbers for her own gain. But as I'd left my  phone number with the girl, I gave her the number again. I'll be watching my account statements, though. :)


Fairday Morrow said...

What a fantastic post! It is nice to know that no matter how much one has accomplished in the writing world- there are still insecurities in everyone. It is nice to know we are not alone. I was curious about the title of the book and it was interesting to find out where the title came from!

Cate Masters said...

Thanks much! Yes, it is a strange title. One of the characters said something like, "Time is a goon" and at the end, Ms. Egan seals it with a similar line of dialogue, so it does fit the story, actually.
I love that Dickinson has made such amazing authors available. I didn't speak to Ms. Egan, but I did get a book signed by Ms. Atwood and Ian McEwan. Never thought I'd rub elbows with greatness. :)

George R. Appelt Jr. said...

I always have trouble finding a title for my stories. Interesting to hear how others come up with their ideas. All my fiction has pieces of real events mixed in. I think as writers that's what we do.

Cate Masters said...

Glad to know I'm not the only one. :)