Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Of Titles and Covers

I was warned: In the Devil's Territory is a terrible title for your book. People will think you've written a potboiler, a supernatural thriller, the Exorcist exiled in hell. The designer will give you an M. Night Shyamalan book cover, or maybe one of those Otto Dix paintings like "Sailor and Girl," the one they chose for Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, or "Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas," or "Triumph of Death" -- some post-World War I nightmare of crawling through wrecked houses, of Lustmord, of trenchfooted men crawling through fields tainted with mustard gas.

The people who told me these things told me these things because I asked, and I asked because I trusted their advice, their smarts, their instincts about books and book publishing. And certainly they were right in some ways. My book is full of horrors, but they aren't supernatural horrors. They are humanly scaled: the woman suffering from dementia who believes the man giving her a bath is the cousin she watched murder his brother in a Kentucky tobacco field when she was a child; the husband who believes his ill and pregnant wife will die before Christmas and take their unborn child with her; the Cold War hero who flees East Berlin, three times swimming back and forth across the Spree River with her elderly relatives on her back so she can make her way to West Palm Beach, Florida, and ruin the lives of fifth grade boys.

But I did like the edge of the title, the way that it juxtaposes the all-too-human choices the characters make against the possibility of evil. Many of the characters are from an enclave of evangelical Christians in West Palm Beach, Florida, and would be familiar with the New Testament story that served as the imaginative starting point for Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, in which the devil tempts Christ by offering him dominion over the earth, the territory that was the devil's own.

I originally used the title for the book's concluding story, the one about the Cold War hero, the teacher, whose early act of goodness did not assure that the rest of her life would not be lived out in pettiness. That story spans five decades and two continents, and occupies at least three points of view, two of which are progressive as the characters age, and one of which is in first person and might well be the reconstructor of everyone else's. It is built more like a novel than a short story -- it has a complex structure, there are lots of characters, and the thematic concerns of the story lie largely in the spaces between the concurrent stories. It seemed right, then, to choose a title that spoke to the story's thematic concerns rather than a title lifted from a setting or a character or a bit of metaphorically resonant language from somewhere within the story.

I had been re-reading Flannery O'Connor's "Mystery and Manners," and although my work does not share her theological predispositions, I do admire the fierceness of her work, and the clear-eyed way she is willing to account for our darknesses, and, temperamentally, I felt one of the book's subheads, "In the Devil's Territory," accounted for an idea that formed a context for the characters in my book and their struggles. Mine were characters full with their own capacities for selfishness, and full of conflictedness about their own good-doings, and all of it as they trod the territory the devil had claimed as his own. And a second resonance: Each story turns upon one or more moral choices or upon a memory of a past failure of goodness, and despite the characters' occasional embrace of a tenuous redemption, they're all constantly reminded how, in the words of one character's father: "You're far from home now, buddy."

With all of this in mind, I kept my title, but with fear and trembling. Everything would be in the hands of the book designer now. And that's where I got hugely lucky. Dzanc's Steven Seighman came through with a series of designs I loved. He read every story, and decided that the image that best represented them was a door that led to a dark place, a symbol of the choices that confront each focal character in each of the stories. The design we settled upon took as its centerpiece a photograph of a front porch somewhere in Appalachia, a porch that looked pretty nearly like how I imagined the front of Franny's house in the story "A Day Meant to Do Less," and he finished it with a red font that tipped its hat to the luridity of the title without taking it too far over the top. I'm really happy with his work. I feel like it in many ways captures the tone of the book, and most of all, I'm grateful that he rescued the title I wanted so badly to keep.


Kathleen Rooney said...

It's a good title for a book, and also a good song by Sufjan Stevens. Were you thinking of that at all when you named the book?

Kyle Minor said...

I have Seven Swans, the Sufjan Stevens album that has the song "In the Devil's Territory," but I never bothered to notice the names of the songs on first listen.

Seven Swans is not like Sufjan's other albums. It's soft banjo music, mostly, and the songs (I thought) were sentimentally religious. But after the book was done, someone told me one of the songs had the same title, so I listened more closely, and I realized I had it all wrong. "In the Devil's Territory" is actually a hugely subversive song.

The lyrics:

Be still and know your sign.
The beast will arrive in time.
We stayed a long, long time.
We stayed a long, long time.
To see you, to beat you,
to see you at last.

I saw the dragons drying.
I saw the witches whine.
We stayed a long, long time.
But I'm not afraid to die.
To see you, to meet you,
to see you at last.

I stole my father's shoes.
I pulled his pockets too.
We stayed a long, long time.
We stayed a long, long time.
To see you, to beat you,
to see you, to meet you.
To see you at last

Knowing what I think I know of Sufjan's biography, my suspicion is that his song title might have come from the same sources the title of my book come from -- those Biblical ideas about which territory belongs to whom, and Flannery O'Connor's wrestlings with the same.

(Mr. Stevens,

If you're reading, shoot me an email and let me know for sure. I think your albums are more literature than any ten of my favorite books.)