The Epic Hunt for an Epic Title For…an Epic?

September 22, 2015


List of potential titles from one angst-laden page in my Dead Wake journal

List of potential titles from one angst-laden page in my Dead Wake journal


From time to time a reader will ask me, who comes up with the titles of my books, and do I have any say in the process? I am happy to assert that in fact, for better or worse, the titles of all seven of my books have been my inventions. That is about all they have in common, however. One came easily, the rest were the product of a long and ugly process involving the creation of hundreds of test titles, with me periodically tapping my wife on the shoulder at 2:30 a.m. to try out the newest candidates. She has become adept at feigning sleep.

More often I test my titles on her when she is awake, at which point she is more helpful. I will print out mock covers with the titles in 48-point font, with smaller subtitles, and will lay them out on our bed and tell her to look at them quickly and give me her gut feeling. (I periodically ambush my daughters in the same way—a literary Scaramouche jumping into their paths brandishing titles instead of a sword, setting the pages down on the floor quickly, unexpectedly—“Ah-HA! Take a quick look. Just your immediate reaction. So. What do you think?”—then leaping back to my office.) Most of the time my wife is very helpful, but occasionally the process makes her giddy, like when she suggested that my book about a hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900 should be called Big Wind Over Texas, and then proceeded to laugh hysterically, for what she had in mind was the campfire scene in the Mel Brooks film, Blazing Saddles. She then came up with another candidate: Texas Blows. This caused more hilarity. She is a doctor who takes care of critically ill newborns. She does not get much chance to laugh.

Coming up with a title for my hurricane book was in fact a challenge. I tried out dozens of titles before settling on Isaac’s Storm, which I liked because, a) the storm was without doubt the most tragic and powerful event in the life of the book’s central protagonist, a hubris-laden Texas weatherman named Isaac Cline, and b) the weather bureau in 1900 had not yet begun assigning names to hurricanes so it seemed exceedingly clever to assign a name myself. At first my editor was skeptical. She felt it sounded too much like a thriller. To which I responded with an intellectually robust argument: “So?”

For every book, I keep a journal in which I jot ideas for narrative passages and potential titles. Lately I’ve also begun doodling and sketching, but that is more of a neurological tick than anything else, and it helps keep me calm on airplanes, and, as one daughter suggested, it might enhance the value of these journals on e-Bay after I’m gone. My journal for my newest book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania, has page after page of titles in long staggery lists, the result of an exercise in titular free-association, where I just write down any reasonably relevant title that pops into my head—though I have learned that when addressing high-school writing classes, especially those with a preponderance of boys, I cannot use the word titular.

The exercise of listing titles at random is extremely useful, mainly in that it helps determine which titles most certainly will not work. It helps me eliminate the melodramatic—“When the Sea Ran Red”—and the pretentious—“Requiem for a Queen”—and the excessively oblique—“On the Loveliest of Days”—and the Star Trek-ish—“A Periscope for Capt. Schwieger”—and the kind of title that bears an unfortunate allusion to something else, as when I briefly considered calling the book “Inconceivable,” until another of my daughters pointed out that this title might make me the object of mirth given the role the word plays in a repeated comic riff in the film, The Princess Bride. In the end I chose Dead Wake, which is an archaic maritime term for the disturbance that lingers on the surface of the sea long after a vessel has passed. I liked the way it resonated with various themes and scenes in the book, including the approach of the fatal torpedo, whose path was marked by a long track of compressed air bubbles.

Certain subjects by their nature tend to ease the titling process. I suspect Walter Isaacson did not spend a lot of time agonizing over the titles for at least four of his books: Einstein, Kissinger, Steve Jobs, and Benjamin Franklin, though I will bet you he obsessed at least a little over whether to use Ben or Benjamin. Nor do I think A. Scott Berg bled onto his keyboard trying to come up with Lindbergh and Wilson. However, I do suspect that some titles that at first glance seem rudimentary are in fact the result of a long process of fretting and arguing, like maybe Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and his earlier work Cod. These are simple titles, and possibly obvious, but one can imagine sitting in on a marketing meeting at Kurlansky’s publisher. “Mark, Mark, Mark. Salt? That’s not a title. That’s a syllable. We can’t go to sales conference with that. What about something like, The Mineral that Made the World Taste Good. Or Iodized Schmiodized. Maybe not those exactly, but you know, something with a little spark. Maybe an allusion to sex, with a world history ring to it. How about The Girl in the Salt Lick. You see what I mean? A little racy, yet not! But Marco, Mr. K-Man, Salt? Just Salt? Really?….Wait, Marco! Marcosolomio! Where are you going? We love you….ahhhh Christ.”

Titles are important. They should convey not only a sense of the book’s subject, but also a feeling—will this be a funny read, or a contemplative one; is it a book I’d like to read at poolside, or in the dentist’s chair waiting for the Novocaine to kick in; will it transport me to an imaginary realm, or knock me flat with trauma and despair. Here are some of my favorite titles. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Long Goodbye. The Accidental Tourist. The Quiet American. The Art of Racing in the Rain. The Best and the Brightest. A Room with a View. A Tale of Two Cities. The Longest Day. Pride and Prejudice. Debbie Does Dallas. I am kidding about that last one. The list of good book titles is actually quite long, so I won’t bore you with more.

In the world of nonfiction, however, coming up with a primary title is only part of the battle. Next you need a subtitle. Most nonfiction books have subtitles; most novels do not, though of course there are exceptions to both rules. Take for example the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is nonfiction, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is fiction. Finding a subtitle can be as daunting as finding the primary title, though I have found that devising a subtitle can be a valuable exercise very early in the process of writing a book, especially at the point of conception. The exercise helps isolate the essential nature of a book, and can reveal fundamental flaws in a writer’s thinking, because if you can’t come up with a workable subtitle, you probably don’t have a book. At the same time, you can’t simply skirt the problem by writing a 50-word subtitle that covers all the disparate elements of the subject you are contemplating, though some authors have come close to achieving this milestone. On those occasions when I teach non-fiction writing, I pass along my Law of Subtitles, which holds that if your subtitle is more than ten words long, includes the word “epic,” and uses the word “and” more than once, beware: you are probably deluding yourself into thinking you have a book, when what you actually have is a melange of material that does not really hang together as a coherent narrative.

I found the whole exercise particularly useful when contemplating whether to begin work on the book that became The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. In the course of a period of random research into historical murders, I had learned about a serial killer named H. H. Holmes and his hotel, with its acid vats and dissection tables, but Holmes’ story at first did not interest me, because I did not want to write crime porn. In reading about him, however, I also found a glancing reference to a world’s fair that took place in Chicago in 1893. With nothing better to do, I began reading about the fair, and was entranced. I realized almost immediately that I did not want to write about the fair alone, and certainly not just about Holmes. Rather, the book that suddenly crystallized in my mind was one that told both stories. What drew me was the juxtaposition of good and evil—the fact that Holmes’ killings and this gleaming fair occurred at the same time, only blocks apart. Holmes, I knew, had called himself “the Devil;” the world’s fair had been nicknamed the White City. The title came to me within 24 hours. The subtitle came later, after a lot more struggle: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. You will note that it is exactly ten words long, that there is only one “and,” and that I avoided the use of “epic,” though it certainly would have been easy to insert the word somewhere, possibly even in multiple places: Epic Murder, Epic Magic, and Epic Madness at the Epic Fair that Changed America.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am not a fan of subtitles. In fact, a few years ago I became so appalled at subtitle proliferation that for my fourth book, about the strange intersection in the lives of Guglielmo Marconi and England’s second most famous killer, Hawley Harvey Crippen, I resolved that I would not have a subtitle at all. I called it Thunderstruck, which seemed to me to capture the climactic events in the book. In retrospect, I’m not at all sure that was the right decision. For better or worse, readers identify books that have subtitles as being nonfiction and those without as fiction. So I would not be surprised if readers were a little confused about exactly what Thunderstruck was supposed to be. They likely were further confused when they Googled the title and learned that it was also the title of a song by the rock band, AC/DC. This was a surprise to me as well, and underscored how important it is to check to see if something else has the title you wanted, like maybe a strip club or a company that rents goats to people who do not want to mow their lawns. Titles, by the way, cannot be copyrighted, so if I wanted to, I could rename my Marconi book Gone Girl, or maybe Eat, Pray, Love, or even Benjamin Franklin.  

One of my titles briefly made me a heroic figure in the school attended by my middle daughter. In the early 1990’s, I began working on a book that followed the travels of a handgun used in a school shooting in Virginia. I called this book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun. My daughter, however, began telling her friends I had written “Lethal Weapon,” which of course was the name of the wildly popular film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Alas, we who are fathers of daughters are always doomed to disappoint.

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How to Fly

September 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 7.47.49 AM

I do not like to fly. It has nothing to do with fear of heights or being separated from the ground. Most of the time I have no problem with the fundamental concept of being in a metal tube a few miles above the earth held aloft solely by the physical forces of velocity, drag, and lift. Rather, what I experience is a dread that arises from the fact that I am six-feet, two-inches tall and get panicky when I am wedged into an airplane seat that was built for a child. This feeling is amplified when the person in front of me puts his seat all the way back and when the person next to me erects a wall of electronics consisting of laptop, iPad, iPhone, and noise-canceling earphones, and when the traveler behind me lets his toddler crank up her Queen Elsa singing doll, the one where when you lift its left arm the doll begins belting out “Let it Go,” as an array of LED lights flash under her blue dress.

This will not be an essay of complaint, however. I wish only to share some solutions that I have come up with to manage my unhappiness with flying. By the way, as I am writing this I am at 29,000 feet over Montana, with thunderclouds blooming around me like mushrooms after a downpour, and the captain has just announced in his captain voice, “Ladies and gentlemen we anticipate some turbulence, and have turned on the seatbelt sign. Please return to your seats, and stay the fuck there, because I have never seen weather conditions like this in forty years of flying. God save us all.”

First, let me list some of the things I like about flying.

Now let me list the things I have found effective to help me get through long flights.

1. Xanax. This is a drug, not a place, and it was prescribed for me by my physician after I told him about my issues with flying. I was about to depart on a book tour which would involve a lot of flying in small regional airplanes, which if you ask me are a creation of the devil—aircraft like the Canadair Sopwith Pup and the Embraer von Richthofen 9E. At first I was uneasy about resorting to a pharmaceutical solution to my problem, so before I tried Xanax, I Googled it. I learned that psychiatrists do not like to prescribe it for depression, because it works so quickly that it can become addictive. This gave me pause. But then I checked a couple of online fear-of-flying sites. Here Xanax was considered a drug with magical powers. People wrote about getting on a plane in New York and then landing in Los Angeles without being aware of the passage of time. This sounded good to me. I have never taken a whole tablet, only a half, and only when I fly long distances or in unsettled weather or in regional jets or in propellor planes or when through some act of dark magic I end up in a middle seat. The drug does seem to calm me, and when I am calm, I am very courteous, and the flight attendants all like me and give me treats as if I am a particularly cute schnauzer strapped into a seat. The most beneficial effect, however, is the drug’s ability to compress time. I find myself marveling on transcontinental flights when the captain says we will soon begin our descent, and yet the flight feels as though it has only been underway for an hour or so. For me, this is a singularly pleasurable feeling. My fear is that one time I will awaken from this trance and find my fellow passengers looking at me strangely, with smirky smiles on their faces, as if at some point during the flight I had exited the bathroom and strolled the length of the plane naked but for my headphones and iPod, singing “Take me to the River,” the Al Green version.

2. Bloody Marys. These can be effective as well. So can Jack Daniels. It is not a good idea, however, to combine these with Xanax, according to my doctor. “Whatever you do,” he told me, “do not drink alcohol when you take this.” He rolled his eyes. “That’s when the crazy things happen that you read about.” He did not elaborate.

3. Talk. Sometimes it is helpful to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, though this can lead to a nightmarish hours-long engagement with a person who decides that your soul needs saving. On one flight to Europe I overheard a clean-cut young man attempt to persuade the young woman next to him that the Bible was her one path to salvation, a point she did not dispute because immediately she asked a flight attendant for permission to move to a seat twenty rows away. Traveling with my wife is helpful. Flying does not trouble her; she stays calm in turbulence; and I like talking to her—although I learned recently that she and my daughters will sometimes draw straws to see who has to sit next to me. I acknowledge that I can be a pest. I have been known to write secret notes in the margins of the books my wife is reading as if the author had written to her directly, and sometimes, but only if the book is a paperback, I reach over and tear out a page and hold it hostage. (It is in fact true that once during a particularly competitive Scrabble game at my home I tore a page out of our Scrabble dictionary and ate it, to keep my fellow players from confirming that the word I had just put down did not exist in any known language.)

4. Avoid TV news. I discovered by accident that YouTube is home to scores of videos of airplanes making scary landings in high winds. If you enjoy this kind of thing, go to YouTube and search the phrase “Scary Landings.” There are also “Scary Crosswind Landings” and “Scary Takeoffs,” or my favorite, “Scary Landing at Fort Lauderdale with People Yelling.” And by the way, those are actual titles. I could be wrong but it seems to me an inordinate number of these scary moments occur at German airports in the dead of winter. I find myself curiously drawn to these videos, in the way that a toothache sufferer cannot resist tonguing the sore tooth. The commentary of the amateur videographers is particularly compelling. “Mein Gott, zat vas a cloze von, vas it not Herr Gruber?” I have learned to avoid these videos at all costs.

5. Know your airplanes. As a cautious flyer, I am picky about the aircraft in which I travel. Other travelers must be this way as well because now when you book a flight you can see what kind of airplane will be flying the route. I avoid aircraft where in the course of a routine flight I bump my head more than twice. Once on a flight on a tiny jet the captain asked if anyone aboard was a physician, and could help with a medical emergency. My wife is a doctor. She volunteered. A very large man, whose weight likely exceeded 300 pounds, had suffered what at first seemed to be a heart attack while seated in the tiny bathroom at the very back of the cabin. My wife learned that the man was diabetic and discerned from his symptoms that the likely cause of his distress was a sugar imbalance. She recommended the flight attendant get him a glass of orange juice. This helped. He was allowed to remain in the john for the landing, which is probably the only enviable thing about the incident, the toilet being the most comfortable seat on that size aircraft. We landed without incident.

6. Sit by the window. This is crucial. When I sit by the window I can see what is causing the airplane to roll around like a kitten in one of those tedious GIFs that populate Twitter, and thus reassure myself that we have not flown into the center of a thunderstorm but rather are experiencing clear-air turbulence that, while uncomfortable, is at least survivable. It may also be the case—and I am not confirming or denying this, just putting it out there—but it could also be that in sitting by the window I, through sheer willpower, help the aircraft stay aloft.

7. Only fly in daytime. I like to know that the pilot and first officer of my aircraft can see what is around and ahead of them. As I routinely tell my daughters, “If I can see, the pilot can see.” Often when I fly, I see other jets darting past in the opposite direction at what seems alarming proximity. Or, I see aircraft flying parallel with us, keeping pace, seeming to float at zero velocity, but also seeming to drift in my direction. This happens a lot on the approach to San Francisco International, which for some godforsaken reason has two parallel runways. This is when I have to restrain the impulse to push the flight-attendant call button and tell the responding attendant, “Could you please inform the captain that there is a 757 two inches away, so close that not only can I see the Queen Elsa doll in the window, I can tell that the doll is singing, because it’s left arm is raised. Thank you so much.”

8. Always sit in a bulkhead seat. While these can be awkward, because you have to put your personal belongings in the overhead bin during takeoff and landing, they also allow you to exit the row without asking the person with the wall of electronics to remove it so that you can go to the bathroom.

9. Don’t fly at all. This is my favorite resolution. On my book tours I will gladly drive five hours in a rental car to avoid flying, though five hours is about my limit. I like driving. I like seeing the countryside. And I have a passion for road food, in particular a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries, and a chocolate milk shake (without the whipped cream). Sometimes I substitute coffee for the milk shake. And depending on time of day, I will substitute an Egg McMuffin for the Quarter Pounder. I vary my road-food consumption by geographic region. When I am driving on the east coast I stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and get a couple of plain cake donuts, or maybe chocolate-frosted cake donuts, and a cup of coffee. You cannot get these things on an airplane, which is something the FAA needs to look into. What would help me get through a flight would be a package of Hostess Ho-Ho’s, because at least I could offer these as a bribe to the little girl with the Elsa doll, to get her to turn it off. But that may be asking too much.

Crowded plane

Dante’s first circle of hell.

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I, Trump: On Becoming a Corporation

August 24, 2015

Trump's jet. Mine will be bigger.

Trump’s jet. Mine will be bigger.

Recently, I made the decision to become a corporation–to be precise, a Delaware corporation, with an S election, registered to operate in the states of New York and Washington. This is a new thing for me. I am deeply averse to paperwork, and being a corporation will bring me a forest of paper, but my new accountant suggested it would be a good idea, and cited many benefits, my favorite of which is that I get to have my own corporate credit card and assign all my business expenditures to my corporate account. What I need to remind myself is that I am also the person who has to pay the bill at the end of each month, because as we all know corporations are people too, a point I now understand with much greater clarity.

Before deciding to become a corporation I asked my friends who were independently employed whether they too were in fact corporations. I learned to my surprise that secretly a number of them and a few of my tennis pals have in fact been corporations all along, while I thought they were merely people. I have discovered that some corporations cannot hit a backhand to save their lives.

My first challenge was to come up with a name for my corporation. I could simply have called myself Erik Larson, LLC. Or maybe a more corporate variation, with a defense-contractor ring, like Larson Dynamics, Inc.. Or just IBM, and always wink slyly when handing out business cards. Actually, Delaware is very cranky on this point and insists you adopt a name that is not already in use by another company. But there are many other names to choose from, so that “at the end of the day” it is easy “to step out of the box,” which, by the way, are two examples of the corporate speech I employ now that I am a fully registered corporation.

I considered giving my corporation a creative name, maybe with a historical flavor. Something along the lines of Abraham Lincoln LLC., or the Moonwalk Was a Hoax, LLC., or Katie Couric is Really Cute LLC. Briefly I contemplated a name with a little southern flare, like Don’t Shoot, It’s Christmas, Inc. I thought about choosing an artisanal name, except I had no idea what that meant. I thought of clever names, like Where the Light Don’t Shine, Inc.  I thought also about naming my corporation for my last dog or maybe something in honor of the Republican party, which now that I am a corporation will of course be my party of choice, a name like, Evolution is a Theory, LLC, or Darwin is Dead and Ain’t Coming Back Any Time Soon, LLC., or Why Does That New Texas Voting District Look Like A Daddy-Longlegs, LLC. And by the way, I am not an LLC, I am a full-fledged corporation, and please do not ask me what the difference is because I do not know.

I am so getting into this corporation thing. Next I will build a giant tower in Manhattan and begin hiring employees whom I will pay minimum wage while demanding that they come to work on time every morning even though they must commute from Dubuque, Iowa, which is the only place they can afford to live. I am going to get myself a corporate jet, and park it at LaGuardia next to Trump’s jet, and on nice summer days he and I will sit on the wingtips across from one another and sip gin-and-tonics and compare notes on barbers, while dangling our bare feet in the breeze and squinting meaningfully into the sunset with lips pursed like sphincters.

I will buy a Tesla and make it my corporate car and have my daughter, who just moved to a ground-floor studio in Brooklyn and needs all the money she can get, dress up as a chauffeur and drive me to black-tie functions and hold an umbrella over my head as I dash across the red carpet just in time to do my TED lecture on how great it is to be a corporation and to have minions who would do anything to see me run over by a bus.

Of course I recognize that as a corporation I have huge responsibilities toward the environment and I will get around to all of that once I get up and running, but anyway who cares because my manufacturing plants are in Kuala Lumpur, or maybe it’s Bangladesh, I forget. High on my list of future projects is a pipeline. I plan to build it across Central Park, to haul artisanal olive oil from a bodega at 105th and West End to my apartment on the Upper East Side. I will be sure to have environmental controls in place, including regular payoffs to the city council, and will further ensure a clean environment by gerrymandering my voting precinct so that it includes only people in apartments with working fireplaces.

I will hire a director of publicity, and of marketing, and will establish an R&D department like Google X, to insure that my corporation always stands at the forefront of technology. I will have a fleet of drones, and they will fly all over the city, and will nest on the window-sills of the San Remo and the Beresford, along Central Park West, just to annoy their co-op boards. I will also have 3D printers. I don’t know why. But here is my secret plan: I will use my 3D printers to make more 3D printers, and have already registered a catchy name for them, 3X3D™. Eventually I will use my printers to build my drones, which I will equip with solar panels, storage batteries, and cameras, and which I will then place in permanent hover outside the bedroom windows of my neighbors with hot wives.

As progressive as my company will be, I have to confess that the minimum wage thing bothers me. Why should we coddle people? I had to work for $1.85 an hour when I was a kid; why should people today make more? I had no trouble surviving. I worked in a park and at lunch hour walked home, where my mother made me sandwiches and soup, after which I walked back to work, unless I was too full to walk, in which case she would drive me back in the family’s champagne-green Chrysler Newport with the big back seat where my high-school girlfriend and I used to play cards.

I am going to contribute a lot of money to political candidates, because I believe in democracy, and the only way to insure that democracy thrives is by dropping off bags of money and having skimpily-clad women visit congressmen late at night while I film them with an infra-red camera mounted in a smoke detector.

I will start watching Fox News. I will turn it on at 6 a.m. at full volume and leave it on until midnight, and will keep it on during meals including at Thanksgiving so that I will more fully understand the never-ending threat to American business posed by liberals and Democrats and Kenya-born politicians, and more fully appreciate the shame of cities like Paris which has allowed the Louvre to become an Islamist no-go zone, and appreciate as well the necklines of those sleeveless black cocktail dresses that the Fox News anchors wear when reading the news.

To make sure the free market stays free, I am going to hire a lobbyist and every time I go to Washington I will take him and his interns out for steak dinners at the Capitol Grill, for which I will pay with my corporate credit card, one of those black steel ones that look so cool until you drop them on your hotel floor in the dark and can’t find them, and your guest in the negligee with the credit-card reader says “oh sure, I’ve heard that one before. You get down and look for it.”

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