Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Entitled Interview with Shawna Lemay

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Shawna Lemay

In Shawna Lemay's Rumi and the Red Handbag (Palimpsest Press), Shaya meets Ingrid-Simone while the two work together at Theodora's Fine Consignment Clothing Shop. In Ingrid-Simone, Shaya finds inspiration to return to her long-abandoned writing practice, returning slowly by scribbling away on Post-Its and scraps of paper in the shop. Chock full of allusions to favourite writers, including of course the titular poet, it's a beautiful book. Kerry Clare of book review blog Pickle Me This called it "slim, heartbreaking and perfect read, rich with gorgeous prose".

We're welcoming Shawna to the site today as part of our newest interview series, The Entitled Interview. This series allows us to speak to writers we love about their process of selecting and brainstorming titles, their favourite titles and just what function a title ought to serve.

Shawna tells us about the very short title that almost won out over Rumi and the Red Handbag, what her work in libraries and bookstores taught her about titles and the beautiful of eponymous titles.

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Shawna Lemay:

The working title for Rumi and the Red Handbag was I.s. I really loved that title and I still do, but it wasn’t the right title for the book. I firmly believe that if the book had been titled I.s. it would have had a much smaller audience. I.s. is the signature of one of the main characters — Ingrid-Simone. I like the idea of a title having a bit of a secret in it. You’d have to read the book to know exactly what and how it meant. When Aimée, my editor (and the publisher of Palimpsest Press) suggested Rumi and the Red Handbag, it clicked for me immediately. (Yes, there was a bit of a pang over losing I.s. but full props to Aimée for the title). Right away it conveys so much. The character, Ingrid-Simone, is a poetic soul with a penchant for reciting Rumi and who loves handbags. And the red handbag is the secret at the center of the book.

OB:

What, in your opinion, is the most important function of a title?

SL:

A book’s title should be memorable. Admittedly, this answer is informed by my having worked mainly in libraries, with an earlier stint in a bookstore. You’ve heard the joke about someone asking for a book that’s blue or red, and in fact this happens frequently. I’ve spent a large portion of my working life helping people find a book whose title they could partially remember, titles completely remade, or reconfigured. Sometimes a person remembers a theme or the name of a character. A setting, perhaps. Where they heard about the book. Part of the author’s name. Of course, once you start asking questions, people do usually remember more than they thought they would. And there’s nothing more satisfying than finding the book for the person who came in asking for a book that’s ‘probably got a blue cover.’

OB:

What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)

SL:

Calm Things. This is the title of my book of essays, also published by Palimpsest Press, as well as the name of my blog. Most of the essays are about still life painting and I had read that while the French use the term nature morte, and the Italians call still life vita silente, the Japanese refer to still life as calm things. How we refer to something changes how we see it, how we approach it. I think this is endlessly instructive and fascinating.

OB:

What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?

SL:

Mrs. Dalloway. In general, I’m fond of eponymous titles. Jane Eyre, Olive Kitteridge, Lila, Emma.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SL:

I’ve just started working on a novel about a photographer. The working title is, Irene and Daphne and Xaviere, but I’ve already been accumulating a list of alternate titles: The Interviews, or, Voices like Wings, or, Slipping on the Light, or, Love the Questions. In all likelihood, the final title will not be any of these.


Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry, All the God-Sized Fruit, Against Paradise, Still, Blue Feast and Red Velvet Forest. All the God-Sized Fruit won both the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. Her blog is Capacious Hold-All. She lives in Edmonton with Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter Chloe. Calm Things was released by Palimpsest Press in 2008. Rumi and the Red Handbag, Palimpsest Press’s first fiction title, launched Fall 2015.

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