For something so key to the meaning and success of a novel, no one really talks about how to choose a title. We all know a terrible title when we see one, and a good one too. It needs to be memorable, and capture something about the narrative and meaning. Not an easy thing to do and still fit on an 8x5 format.
For me, the title often comes quite late. A Dead Polar Bear on a Sledge was for a long time called Half-squirrel, which is what Jen’s friend Polly calls her. It was never a really serious contender. It’s part of what she finds to hard to deal with about Romily, the comparison with her assuredness and cool. But I didn’t want to centre Jen’s awkwardness and clumsiness, because Jen doesn’t harbour negative feelings to Romily. She’s not that petty and anyway, to be honest she doesn’t really mind being half a squirrel. In fact she quite likes it. As she tells us as some length, squirrels are smart and cool with lush tails. It’s not that she wants to stop being half a squirrel – it’s that she wouldn’t mind just giving up being a human and being a squirrel for a bit, because at least they don’t have to go to terrible parties hosted by their husband’s glam new lover.
For a while after that, the working title was ‘Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes’, referring to the scene where Jen panics when Ed jokingly refers to her in a text as Mrs Robinson - but again, that’s not what the book is about. I only really included it to make Jen panic and say yes to the terrible date with Barry – sorry Jen, using your panic as a plot device for a bit of comedy. Anyway, Ed’s just teasing her, and that’s not really what’s going on in his head or hers. The age gap between Ed and Jen matters to other people, but not to them all that much, so to include this in the title would suggest that the deep and sweet connection between them is in fact a little tacky – which would be misleading and unfair to them both.
(As an English teacher I spend a lot of my time telling students not to confuse characters in texts with real people; as a writer I consider my characters to be dear friends, feel guilty when I screw them over and frequently have a little chat with them. And yes you can put that in your essay.)
On balance I am very happy with the title I landed on. The novel is in the end about the pain and burden every single one of us carries around, unseen to the rest of the world most of the time. And a tribute to the bravery of those whose burdens are so hulking and bloody that they need a sledge just to even move around. Jen’s heart is broken, but she faces it bravely – as so so many do. Ed helps her pull it along for bit – as so so many do – although he has a great hulking deceased mammal of his own, too. It’s a universal story, and I hope it helps me remember to practise kindness to everyone, because the burden they’re dragging might be invisible to you, but it might just be about to drag them under.
Most people seem to like the title, and the image it creates resonates with some. It’s memorable, and it reflects what the book as about. One person thought it might put people off, as people are so sensitive about the lovely polar bears and their fate – she might be right, but I would like to assure everyone that no polar bears were harmed in the writing of this novel. The only time I had serious regrets was when I asked the lovely Sam Jarman to draw me the beautiful cover and I realised that the vividness of the image was going to be rather difficult to portray – but she did a beautiful job of showing the secret burden Jen carries, as this cropped image shows.
Of course the reality would be quite different, as this image found for me by my brother in law Richard shows. Maybe not the best choice for the display table at Waterstones.
But the really good news is that if I ever need a merch opportunity, this bag is already available.