Feeling Unentitled / Mary Morrissy
Getting the right title for a story is important and there’s usually an ‘aha’ moment when you find it, or it finds you.
With ‘Repossession’ this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it is still a story in search of a title. Over numerous redrafts it became ‘Onset’, ‘Slippage’, ‘Drunkard’s Island’, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise. Which is odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her last collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)
For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story. At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ‘Is Anybody There?’, a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de La Mare. (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler / Knocking on the moonlit door.)
Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.
‘Is Anybody There?’ is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is. We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour? Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all? Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?
Something about that slipperiness went into ‘Repossession’, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her. There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.
. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage. I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror. I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course. It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.
My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died. She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was. The only way she could ‘come back to herself’, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.
I remember taking a note of it. Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts. What would it be like not to ‘know’ yourself? And to be aware that you didn’t.
Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.
Calling the story ‘Onset’ I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story. It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia. Shel’s ‘episode’ might foreshadow further ‘unmoorings’, but equally, it might not. I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.
My second title option, ‘Slippage’, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.
‘Drunkard’s Island’ is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.
Unsatisfactory as it is, ‘Repossession’ is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important. It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.
But still I wonder. Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?
Mary Morrissy is the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey and two collections of stories, A Lazy Eye, and most recently, Prosperity Drive. Her work has won her the Hennessy Prize and a Lannan Foundation Award. She has just completed a speculative novel, Penelope Unbound, about Nora Barnacle. A member of Aosdána, Ireland’s academy of artists, she is a journalist and teacher of creative writing and was until recently the Associate Director of Creative Writing at University College Cork. She now offers literary mentoring online – see The Deadline Desk on https://marymorrissy.com/
You can read ‘Repossession’ in our five year anniversary special issue, Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.
Photo by Jo Mazelis.