A Story of Titling a Novel: A Theory of Small Earthquakes

The writer Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You) interviewed writer, Meredith Maran, about her debut novel.  The novel has a wonderful title: A Theory of Small Earthquakes, and Caroline asked her about how she named her story.  Her answer gives us a clue into the writing process:

I loved the title. Can you talk about it?
Oy, the title.
Over the eons it took to bring this book from concept to publication (see “impatience,” above), the novel had at least five working titles, ranging from the original “The Surrogate” to “Boy Girl Boy Girl,” which came in a close second to the final. The phrase “A Theory of Small Earthquakes” came to me in a flash, and I loved it, but there were so many factors to consider, and such a big job the title had to do. My dad was a true MadMan, and I grew up naming products at the dinner table, so the marketing concerns were paramount.
I’m a great believer in the meme of “The Little Engine That Could.” I’m also more of a realist than an optimist. So I knew my novel faced the danger of, shall we say,  marketplace resistance (i.e., poor sales). Hey, it’s a first novel, set in Berkeley, about a child being raised by two women who used to be lovers—and are still, in many ways, lovers—and a man, whom one of the women is married to, who might or might not be the child’s biological father. (See “acceptance of gay people,” above.) Not as easy a sell as, say, a novel about one of Hemingway’s wives, or a novel by Jodi Picoult.
Also, the title had to position the book somewhere along the dread spectrum of “literary” versus “commercial” fiction. I’m doing my next nonfiction book (“Why We Write,” out from Penguin in 2013) specifically to demonstrate what harmful bullshit that dichotomy is. I hate it, and the way it limits readers and writers. But it exists. And I knew that My Little Novel That Could needed all the help it could get to make it up the mountain of commercial viability. So the title had to help sell the book to those who enjoy good writing as well as those who enjoy a twisty, turny, plot-driven story.
I worried that “A Theory of Small Earthquakes” was too “arty,” too “literary.” I worried that people would think it was another nonfiction book by Meredith Maran, who had decided to give Mary Roach a run for her money by becoming a science writer. I worried (did I mention that I’m extremely superstitious?) that giving my novel that title would cause actual earthquakes (which it seems to have done, but at least they were small earthquakes). On the upside, as I said, I loved the phrase. And the earthquake metaphor was so fitting for a book set in the Bay Area, about a woman who hopes that if she discloses enough “small lies,” the big lie upon which she’s built a family won’t blow up in her face.
Here’s a little insider info. After we agreed to give the book that title, my brilliant, adored and adoring editor had me put more earthquake content into the book. Craft-wise, the most challenging writing I’ve ever done was to describe an earthquake on the page in such a way that a reader who’s never lived through one would actually know what it feels like.
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2 responses to “A Story of Titling a Novel: A Theory of Small Earthquakes

  1. Thanks for the great write up. Much appreciated and I share your admiration for Caroline Leavitt. One quick correction: my last name is Maran, not Mann. Don’t want anyone to go looking for me and find someone else!

    Again, thanks from Meredith Maran.

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