Where does the title of a book come from? Seems a simple enough question, right? From anywhere and everywhere is the answer.

In the case of my new novel, A Family Garden, my title started with Jackson Browne and ended with Joni Mitchell. Here’s how.

If I were back in my English Professor days, I’d begin this title discussion by talking about theme, the heavy emotional quotient that underscores the characters, plot, and thrust of the book. From this contemplation often springs the title of a book.

The theme of my novel is recapturing lost hope and the love that engenders it. Jackson Browne’s song, The Pretender, is a cogent expression of this theme in relation to the lost hope of the Sixties Generation, The Boomers. It’s a song that played unrelentingly in my head some years ago. It got me thinking more deeply about my own sense of loss, about the bright future that seemed to be dimming in the current climate not just of America but of the planet itself…loss of dreams, loss of youth, loss of love…and, yes, loss of hope.

The opening line of The Pretender is:

I’m going to rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway.

It’s a picture of desolation. The Pretender can’t hope for a “home,” but only a “house.” Nor can he buy it, he can only “rent.” And worst of all, it’s in the “shade of the freeway,” perhaps the ultimate symbol of our modern decay.

I replaced the word “freeway” with “eyes,” and for nearly two years, The Shade of Her Eyes, was the title of my book because the loss of love was essential to my central character, Chris Baker’s, motivation. As the book developed, though, I felt there were limitations to the title since it wasn’t conceptually broad enough to cover other important elements I was concerned with, especially as the novel became more and more an extension (or completion) of the themes of my memoir, Passage From England.

Here’s the most direct statement in Browne’s song that sums up the profound sense of loss:

I want to know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring.
Or were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?

Some Greater Awakening…what a wonderful title that would make! The phrase got to the heart of the matter; namely, we once had a chance to become something better than we were, but we blew it and settled for what we already had. So I adopted it as my title for another year of writing.

Then doubts crept in. Could these words be construed as a religious expression, “An Awakening?” When I searched Google for the term “Greater Awakening” my doubts were confirmed. I abandoned A Greater Awakening.

Now what could I call this book that was growing in my brain and on my computer screen?

I always knew that the ending of the characters’ journey would take place in Canada and that it would be uplifting in some specific way that I won’t reveal just yet. I was also certain that the last pages would have to be in synchrony with the implied promise of the book’s beginning.

That’s where the Garden came in…the Garden of Eden of course. There’s a story I’ve heard David Crosby tell in interviews of how Joni Mitchell wrote a song that was better than anyone else’s about the half a million hippies who gathered in Upstate New York…and she wasn’t even there! Her song, Woodstock, was covered first by CSN.

The bridge/release lyrics of Woodstock (which is sung with slight variations throughout the song, including, Caught in the Devil’s bargain, my favorite) seemed to perfectly describe the theme of my book and dovetail with its ending:

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
 

Back to the garden. Yes, the garden, literally or metaphorically, I wasn’t sure yet, but I knew the characters were headed back to the dreaming, back to the hope of youth. Back to the love of their essential selves.

I pounded my thick skull to think not of the problem of the book, i.e., waking up or not waking up fully, but rather to the successful ending…finding the garden. I decided then to call the novel, The Family Garden.

It made perfect sense…and yet as the weeks and months passed…something still bugged me about the title. It said everything, sure. But it didn’t say it exactly right. Something, oh what the hell was it, something was wrong?

Of course, it was my amazingly talented wife who, when I said I wasn’t quite satisfied with the title, said simply, “Well…it’s a different garden for everybody, right?” “Yeah,” I answered, “each has to find their own way back to themselves.”

“Okay, then,” she said, “How about ‘A’ instead of ‘The’?”

And that’s how the definite article “The” became the indefinite article “A.” At last, the title and theme converged and encapsulated each character’s journey: A Family Garden. Perfect.

Oh, and before I forget, A Family Garden for Kindle is on sale all next week for a $1.99, cheaper than a double macchiato at Starbucks, not as sweet-sounding perhaps…but hey, what’s in a name?

 

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