In my family, the naming story that gets told most often is the one where my mother is trying to obtain her first passport, and she sees her birth certificate for the first time. She discovers that her legal name is not Laurie Jo, the only name she has ever, EVER been called. It is "Gertrude Greer."
My mom, who is the mother of two babies herself at this point and the wife of an Air Force pilot named Bert, calls home to ask her mother why in the world the name on her birth certificate would be "Gertrude." My grandmother, who has been awakened from a sound sleep, says blandly, "The doctor was drunk, and that was one of the names we were considering."
My mother is shocked. Gertrude? They could look at her and think, Gertrude?
"Oh, well," my unflappable grandmother says, "you could have been Gert and Bert!"
From the very beginning of writing The Practice House it was called The Practice House. It was as if I had decided to get pregnant because I liked the name Henry or Sam. The germ of the novel--the spark, the root, the yeast, the egg--was that name. The existence of a bungalow in my town called The Practice House, and all of the actual and metaphorical and, to me, incredibly rich and ominous meanings of the name and the idea--building a house at a high school where girls would practice--for a grade!--being housewives and mothers!--were the reasons for writing the book. Once we were preparing to write the name on the book's legally binding birth certificate, though, my editor at Little A inquired gently whether I was open to considering other names for my baby.
I really wanted the baby to be an official, legal, recognized citizen because she was, to be honest, about 13 years old. And whether I called her the exact name she'd always been called around the house didn't seem essential. What if she were more of a Gertie than a Laurie Jo? Maybe I needed to look at her with the eyes of a stranger.
So we began a process that was familiar to me from re-naming other babies whose names I thought I knew. The Incident on the Bridge, in particular, had many, many other titles in its childhood and adolescence, including but not limited to:
The Last Flight of the Bean Clam
I Am on Fire and Have Dangerous Cargo
I Have a Diver Down
Crooked went all the way through kindergarten as When All the Good Holidays Are Over. The Decoding of Lana Morris was called The Big If until graduation. Dark Water started life as The Pearl and The Egg. As with those books, I read the entire Untitled Work again with the Title Filter affixed to my brain. Any time I came across a phrase or word that seemed even remotely resonant, I jotted it down, and then I sent the resulting list (see photo below) to my editor, and we tossed the names around, talking about which ones would likely get it teased on the playground, which ones were confusing or hard to spell, which reminded us of people we already knew, and which might be so over-familiar that there were would be four other girls in her class with the same name (a problem that afflicts Dark Water to this day).
The name that was first runner up was The Scottish Girl; second runner up (in my tally, at least) was The Sound of Her. Third runner up: Home by Water. I mention this because now that The Practice House has started going to school a little bit and making friends and hanging out with people, there are some readers who think her name is all wrong for her and can't even understand how anyone could name her that. One Amazon reviewer has even asked why the book isn't called something like The Scottish Girl.
The long answer is offered by Emily St. John Mandel in The Daily Mail, but I'll summarize in case you're in a hurry: we did not want to seem to be copying the papers of the writers next to us just to be popular. We did not want to seem to be calling our baby The Scottish Girl just because The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Danish Girl and Gone Girl were getting asked to all the big parties. We wanted her to be liked for who she is, and the original name still fit best, in our opinion. Although only one character ultimately teaches home ec in a place called the practice house, all of the women practice house-keeping and homemaking in an attempt to make themselves and others feel at home and happy. The Practice House is both a literal place in the novel and an idea that every female character has to reckon with. Is it the best title? I think so, but maybe I'm not the best person to say. I'm still fond of the name F. Scott Fitzgerald started out calling his famous baby, The Great Gatsby. But Trimalchio in West Egg would have been hard for high school students to spell on their exams.
I don't know why we always do this but we do. We go looking for the true story behind the novel we just read & enjoyed precisely because it felt true. What we like is believing in a whole and contained world with solid walls and living people. And yet we ask: where'd you get the idea? And the author can't just say, "Well, it all happened."
As a reader of literary biographies and interviews with writers and the acknowledgment pages at the backs of novels, I confess that I'm always picking apart the story to find the true parts and the made-up parts and the Terrible Childhood Events that inspired fiction. Even that isn't enough. I go on pilgrimage to the very places where the transformation from life to fiction occurred--to Key West or Chawton or Rome--so I can stare at the holy typewriter or handwritten manuscript page.
When you're writing historical fiction, the sacred moments are the ones when you come across a photograph, artifact, or place that feels inhabited--haunted, really--and you hope somehow to hold out a wick to that still-burning candle and use it to light your book. That's what these pictures show: the candle flames.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal