Naming a book is, I think, much harder than naming a child. When new parents smile through emotional and physical exhaustion and say ‘he / she is called Tom / Natalie / Jemima / Gideon’ no one replies ‘really? That’s not very catchy’ or ‘you can’t call it that, the McEwans already used that’ or ‘from a marketing point of view, it’s not a winner’. At least, they don’t say it out loud.
My novel has been called many things. In the beginning it was ‘the World War Two book’ or ‘the one about the pilot’. Then it became Thin Smoke Without Flame, then The Fire Within Us, then The Wasting Embers which is what it’s been called ever since. Until this week.
My excellent editor, Rodge Glass, in amongst his comments, suggestions and edits, mentioned the possibility of a new name. Fine, I thought. It isn’t a child. It isn’t named after my grandfather, it doesn’t have a middle name that means something to my wife and, in this instance, its appeal in the marketplace is an important consideration. Fine, something will come up. I put the idea to one side and got on with erasing great swathes of the book.
Then on Tuesday of this week my publisher, Adrian Searle, asked for the new name by the end of the week. Panic. I spent the next couple of days going through the text looking for a likely phrase, flicking through poetry books, religious and philosophical books, short stories, novels, eventually everything on my shelves and Googling various combinations of jazz+war+friendship. Nothing. Rodge and Adrian also pitched in with suggestions, but we were scuppered by the fact that so many of the good names have been taken. Again, books are unlike children. The fact that there are a couple of thousand Nathaniels in the world is not seen as sufficient reason to drop the name. That Roald Dahl called the second volume of his autobiography Going Solo (an excellent book, by the way, one I read when I was younger and which I re-read, thanks to Simon Sylvester giving me a copy, as research) and William Boyd christened his new James Bond novel Solo is a problem. Yet some combination using ‘solo’ seemed ideal. The novel deals with three main themes: jazz music (playing a solo), flight (going solo) and young men leaving home for the first time (also going solo). Ideas bounced around in increasingly short and fast emails, a process not helped by the international nature of our collaboration: I’m in Japan, Rodge is in Chile and Adrian is in Scotland. Many names were suggested. Some good, some bad, some downright silly. Since my main character is a trumpet playing pilot, the flippant side of my nature wanted to go for Horn Solo. That was groaned to death. Finally Rodge hit upon the phrase First Time Solo and we had a winner.
So there it is. The book previously referred to as The Wasting Embers is now First Time Solo. Now I just have to finish editing and rewriting the thing.