I knew the title before I wrote the book. The title would be My Mother’s Cross: Cancer, Kink, Sex, and Death. I told my mother about the title and she liked it. We were in her hospital room at the time. We’d briefly discussed trying to write something together about the strangeness of her experience as an aging and ailing Domme dependent on her daughter to help her navigate the often-unforgiving health care system treating the cancer that was killing her. Ultimately we agreed that neither of us could be truly honest if we were writing together because we’d each be too worried about the other’s feelings. She approved of my writing about it on my own, she loved the title, and when I started writing it a year after she died it never even occurred to me to call it anything else.
I wrote the book twice and each version went through revisions, but the title remained. The book went through multiple iterations but the title held steady. Then last Thursday my publisher, Brooke Warner, wrote to tell me that she thought the book needed to be retitled. I felt a number of things in rapid succession. First, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Then I felt grateful that she was looking out for the success of the book. Then I felt lost. I’d never known the book by any other title. I’d never even been curious about another title. There were times when I wondered if the word “cross” would be misunderstood. Might it make people think the book was about a religious woman or a religious experience? But I never considered changing it. To me, the cross signified the burdens my mother carried and the way I sometimes shouldered them for her while also referring directly to the St. Andrews cross that took up most of the space in her craft room and which symbolized her strength, power, and sexual domination. It seemed the perfect metaphor.
It occurs to me now that books might sometimes need more than one title. Maybe sometimes a book needs one title that inspires the author to spend the hours, months, years of drafting, editing, revising and generally agonizing over every image and phrase it takes to write the book, and then it needs another title that inspires the reader to pick it up, turn it over, read the back cover copy, open it, and wander inside.
In the week since Brooke’s initial email title ideas have rolled over me like waves and each one has left me feeling off balance. The solid ground I’d known is gone and the push and pull of new ideas is knocking me around. Without someplace solid to stand I feel afraid of drowning before I find the answer.
I’ve learned a lot in this past week and one powerful lesson has been that I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who understand the way I think and who share many of my interests. Prior to this week it would never have occurred to me that cancer, death, or kink, were words that should not be included in mainstream book titles because in my small corner of those world those words are freely used and people are interested in them alone and in combination. I rarely have to cloak my interests in euphemisms or worry that terminology common in my subcultures will be misunderstood when I use them in everyday interactions. But I’ve also been reminded of something I learned a long time ago: I have no marketing sense. I resist having to package and sell things. And when you’re publishing a book the packaging matters a lot. Nobody will discover the story inside if they don’t pick up the book in the first place. And a book certainly does get judged by its cover.
There’s one essential thing I haven’t learned yet. I haven’t yet learned the name of my book. I can’t wait to discover it.