Title Role: Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits

It’s hard for me to describe the joy I felt when, in December of last year, my agent called to say that my debut collection of short stories had sold. I had been warned over and over that collections don’t sell, that fiction set outside America, particularly in Africa, was a difficult sell. I’d been writing for years, of course, but I’d spent well over three years on that particular book. I’d left a well-paying job at a great company, put up with my parents’ disapproving comments, and even moved out of a city I loved, just so I could focus on it. So when the call came, it was both a reward and a validation.

Almost immediately after hearing the news, though, I began to worry. My friends often say that if there’s a way to worry about something, I’m always sure to find it. I was having second thoughts about my title, The Things That Death Will Buy, which I’d picked in early 2003. It’s from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and it’s part of this stanza:

The things that Death will buy
Are Room,-Escape
From Circumstances,
And a Name.

The Single Hound LXXII

What attracted me to the line was the idea that death could buy something, that it could be traded for something better. It seemed mysterious and intriguing, and it appealed to me. My characters take great risks with their lives, I thought, so this would work nicely.

By 2004, though, I’d started to have doubts. I felt that the title wasn’t organic, that it didn’t really describe the journey in the book, and that it didn’t entirely fit since my book is a chronicle of survivors’ stories. But I kept my thoughts to myself. It wasn’t until after the book sold that I realized I might have a problem on my hands. I received emails citing The Things Death Will Buy; paperwork referencing The Things That Death Can Buy; and even a wildly enthusiastic note about the release date of What Death Will Buy. Each new variation made me wince and sent me back to my title page.

A couple of months ago my editor finally called and asked how I felt about my title. “Well,” I said, “it’s a bit unwieldy.”

“Some people here think it’s not a good idea to have the word death in the title.”

“Why not?” I asked, rather defensively, I admit. Chronicle of A Death Foretold is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’ve always loved the title.

“Laila,” she said. “Nobody dies in your book.”

She was, of course, quite right. My characters are all survivors; they’re not victims. What they really have in common is their hope for a better future. It is a dangerous hope, though, because they are willing to risk everything for it.

And so I spent a few, tortured days thinking about alternative titles, until I settled on my new one: Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits. I liked the juxtaposition of the noun and the adjective, and it feels beautifully descriptive. So there it is: Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits. At least I won’t have to worry about that anymore.