With the Internet, it's possible to check and make sure your title hasn't already been used. That wasn't quite so true in 2000, when my publisher first heard of my novel in that initial query letter. I'm not sure I even had the Internet in 2000. And then when I did get hooked into the www, my computer, or modem or whatever, was so slow that it was impractical to do searches. Was Google even around back then? Anyway, as search engines became faster and more useful, I finally did determine that my title, Homunculus, had already been used by a British author back in the '80s. In fact, the word homunculus appeared in several book titles including what appeared to be a graphic novel. My publisher, who had by that time accepted my novel for publication, pooh-poohed my concern, but I was wishing I had stuck with the title of the short story and subsequent novella that my novel had developed out of: "Animus and Homunculus." But even that was awfully close, phonetically anyway, to the children's book Anna and the Homunculus. Since my publisher wasn't concerned, and we did agree that, just in terms of my story, it is definitely the right title, I put the issue out of my mind, and sure enough there's been no apparent problem. But still I occasionally catch myself wishing I had come up with something unique.
I just read Cormack McCarthy's new offering, The Road. Let's see, that was McCarthy's The Road, right? Not Jack London's The Road, and not my old friend John Ehle's The Road. I know it wasn't On the Road, because I read that long ago in college, about the time I read John Barth's The End of the Road. Just want to make sure, here... which road was it? The one to Oz or the one to Wellville? No, I am a big T. C. Boyle fan but that was way back there too. (I know there are lots of roads to exotic places traveled by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but those were movies, not of any concern here.)
One thing I completely overlooked was the pronounceability of my title. I've never had any problem pronouncing 'homunculus,' but apparently some people do. Just as I was too early to put the title into a Google search, I also jumped the gun in regard to the installation of a U.S. President who was unable to pronounce 'nuclear,' a situation that made us aware that there is a whole population out there -- small maybe but significant -- who simply cannot say nuclear and say instead nucular. I've now collected quite a menagerie of misspellings and mispronunciations of my title. Some people have just stuttered around enough to let me know they are trying to say the name of my book, and then smile sheepishly and continue what they were saying about it. One of my colleagues asked if he could simply refer to the book in our correspondence as Homo. My riposte: Homu, please! My favorite so far, I guess, is 'homonucleus,' which makes me wonder whether those persons (three people fell into this particular transmogrification) can pronounce 'nuclear.' It also makes me ponder what might be the meaning of 'homonucleus' if it were a word. Seems like it might just be useful...
Some years back I was reading a wonderful short story by Louise Erdrich in the New Yorker, and ran across the word "humunculation." What did it mean? The context wasn't much help. It wasn't in my dictionary. It wasn't in any dictionary at all, and I looked in major, major dictionaries. I wrote to the New Yorker, but, well, take my advice and don't bother. Finally I wrote to Louise, explaining that I had written a novel called Homunculus and so her word caught my eye but I couldn't find out what it means, so could she explain. She wrote me back a nice post card. She couldn't remember what it meant or why she used it! That's Louise Erdrich we're talking about!
Have I learned anything from all this, really, though? Have I learned to think twice before titling a novel with a word not many know and quite a few can't pronounce? The working title for my current project -- a longer and more ambitious novel -- is The Paraclete. That's right. One phoneme away from a talking bird. But it's the right title for the piece, I tell you!
By the way -- I mean BTW, sorry -- After years of pondering the non-word "humunculation," and revisiting Erdrich's truly beautiful short story several times, I'm quite convinced she intended the word "humicubation." Where were those New Yorker editors?