July 1, 2016 - We're excited to welcome Nathan Whitlock, author of Congratulations on Everything (ECW Press) as our July 2016 writer-in-residence! Nathan's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in most Canadian magazines, as well as being anthologized in Best Canadian Essays. He is a contributing editor for the publishing industry magazine Quill & Quire.
Congratulations on Everything has been receiving praise since it was published, as a brilliant sophomore novel that "slyly masks immense depth of character and emotion behind wry humour and a simple story about seemingly uncomplicated people" (Publishers Weekly).
You can get to know Nathan through his posts this month and also by checking out our discussion below, where he tells us about a very punny title from a Toronto Life piece, his all time favourite title (we concur!), and the alternate title that almost was for Congratulations on Everything.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
The title of my second novel, Congratulations On Everything, came to me about seven years ago while I was stepping out of the shower. I’d had another title for it (see below), but had started to lose faith in it, and was trying to think of something that fit. Congratulations On Everything just popped into my head. It was the first alternate title I came up with, and it stuck right away. A big theme of the book is the idea of living inauthentically — of desiring something or chasing some goal or trying to fit within some identity that simply doesn’t fit or isn’t real — and this phrase was just banal and glib enough to sum up that idea perfectly. It was also important that the title be, for all its implicit insincerit, a positive one. Jeremy, the main character, is almost unrelentingly positive and driven. Which is also why I insist on capitalizing every word, to make it more insistent — it should almost read like Congratulations! On! Everything!
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
Maybe to establish some kind of expectations, to create a kind of thematic cloud beneath which everything can transpire. Having said that, Anne Enright, whose books I have very belatedly discovered, picks the most boring titles: The Gathering, The Green Road, etc., and that fact has no effect on how I read them or how much I love them. It only makes the books harder to recommend to other people, because I literally can’t always remember the titles.
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
While I was working for Toronto Life, I edited a piece about Desmond Heeley’s iconic ballet costume designs. The title I gave it was “Desmond’s Tutus.” I will never stop bragging about that one.
What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro. Most of her titles are fairly maudlin or forgettable, and only gain resonance by virtue of the genius-level stories they refer to, but that one is perfect. It sums up an entire culture of lower middle-class Anglo Canada — my people, for better or worse. Henry Green’s gerund-based titles — Living, Loving, Concluding, Party Going*, etc. — I find strangely haunting, too.
*Those are four different books.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
For the longest time, the novel was called Jeremy, after the main character. But then I started to worry that, having borrowed one of my brother’s names for the character, making it the title of the whole book might be a step too far. As I said, Congratulations On Everything was the only alternative that ever came into my head, and I grabbed it right away. I remember telling another writer the title, years before I finished the book, and begging her not to steal it. My first book was called A Week of This, so I’m clearly a sucker for these banal-but-loaded phrases.
What are you working on now?
I have a novel in the works about a woman who discovers she has breast cancer on the same day she makes some other life-changing discoveries. At the moment, it’s called The Lump — it’s a dark comedy. It takes place in a slightly more affluent milieu than I’m used to writing about — upper middle class people. People with bright, spacious homes adjacent to downtown parks. (I feel I ought to befriend more people with wealthy parents and call it research.) But they are still fundamentally unhappy and prone to doing and saying regrettable things that I hope are funny and sad to read about, so it’s not that much of a change for me.
Nathan Whitlock's award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.