Before writing a book, I had an idea about how an author decided on a book title. It was kind of like the way queens name their children in fairy tales: a magic-wand ritual, with no doubt or any contrasting opinions or people pissed off at one another. Just a very simple “and you shall be called…” moment. With my debut memoir, Only in Naples, I learned that that’s not exactly how it works.
I’m an American actress who moved to Italy nearly 20 years ago and fell in love: with the city of Naples, with Italian food, and with a Neapolitan man… and his mother. The culture of Naples astonished and enchanted me. I learned to embrace the concept of carnale, living with comfort in my own skin, as well as the importance of preparing and consuming food in compagnia, in the company of others. I decided to write a memoir because I wanted to share my transformative experience with American friends and family. I wanted them to experience Naples with me.
The book was sold, and like a first-time mother, I have wondered every day since then, how is it possible that so many people have done this, and that some have done it lots of times? The steps in the getting-ready-for-publication process have been exciting, stressful, surprising. No step, however, has been more fraught with emotion than choosing a title.
When the memoir was just a file on my computer, I changed the title daily. The Save As click at the end of my writing day was a moment fra me e me, between me and myself. Nuggets from Naples, Weird Things My In-Laws Do, Riffs on Ragù—you get the picture. Naming and renaming was something I did for fun. The working title was The Mother-in-Law Cure, which I thought was kind of cool. But mother-in-laws don’t have the best rap, and the people at Random House were skeptical. Suggestion: how about Here, Taste? Or some word in Italian that Americans could understand?
Everyone had a different idea of what the book should be called. I waited, with anxiety and adrenaline, nixing some titles and mulling over others. I was a wreck, which is why I made the mistake of calling my parents, two human beings who agree on nothing, and who compete over everything—not the best people to share a problem with. I got both of them on the phone (otherwise they would compete over how many minutes each got on the line) and asked nonchalantly if they had any ideas.
They signed off quickly. “Great talking to you, honey!” Click. But less than an hour later the barrage of emails began.
The subject line of my father’s first email was “I’VE GOT IT.” His title (the reasoning behind which was described in punchy caps lock) was SUPERSPOON. With all fairness, there are important wooden spoons in my memoir: my mother-in-law uses them to spoon-feed her ragù to the whole family. But the idea that my life in Italy could be reduced to a piece of cutlery with a superhero cape was disconcerting, to say the least.
My mother’s first email had as a subject line “So wonderful talking to you.” In the body was a list of titles including Table of Plenty and Sacred Feast, suggestive of songs in the Presbyterian hymnal. The words nourishment and tender were all over the place, as were love and garnish.
Things degenerated fast. My mother’s subject headings soon became “DISREGARD your father’s email,” and my father’s were “URGENT!! SUPERSPOON!!” At one point, there were eight exclamation points after Superspoon.
When my editor came up with Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law, I was happy. I felt like it captured what the book was about, and honestly, I was getting sick of the clandestine, whispered phone calls that had begun when my parents realized that I wasn’t answering their emails. (“Your father’s upstairs, I only have a second, honey. Just enough time to share… A FEAST OF PLENTY!! And lemme tell you why!”)
Finally I thanked my parents for their help and told them that the title had been decided by “the powers that be.” I made it sound like I had very little say in the matter.
I made it sound like the kingdom of publishing had waved a magic wand.
Katherine Wilson’s memoir, Only in Naples, will be published by Random House on Apr. 19, 2016
A version of this article appeared in the 02/22/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: What’s in A Name?