…would smell as sweet. Yet Shakespeare’s rule may not apply to books. After all, who these days would write a play called Henry IV Part II?
The late Anthony Blond was a brilliant publisher. In the Seventies he found himself stuck with a rather dull-sounding book by an Austrian academic on the subject of intermediate technology in the developing world. Blond thought up a clever new title. It sold millions.
When I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels in India and China in Search of Tea, I thought the title rather marvellous. The gunpowder referred to a type of green tea, and also to the legacy of the tea trade in the Opium Wars and the imperial project in British India. The gardens in question were tea plantations. My father-in-law, himself a publisher, referred to it as a canting title, by which he meant it explained nothing to anybody. I think, after all, that he was right. My next book was called unambiguously On Foot to the Golden Horn. The subtitle repeated the main title in a form anyone might understand: A Walk to Istanbul.
Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by an inscription on a mosque in Bursa, placed there by an early sultan who described himself as ‘Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.’ It seemed to sum up the Ottoman project nicely.
The titles of my Yashim novels, thrillers or mystery stories dealing with an investigator in 19th century Istanbul, have had a mixed run. The Janissary Tree was, I think, rather brilliant. Everyone knows what a tree is, but almost nobody recognised the word janissary, so their curiosity was piqued. The publishers were less enthusiastic. In Dutch, the book was called Istanbul Fire; and in Norway, where the term janissary is actually still used – applied to some sort of school choir, I believe – they thought it would cause confusion.
The title of the second book still irritates me. The Snake Stone was meant to be called The Serpent Column: like the Janissary Tree, the Serpent Column is a feature of modern Istanbul. In the event, the publishers won – but I still don’t know why they preferred one over the other. The third novel, about the search for a lost Bellini portrait, is called The Bellini Card in, I think, the sense of playing a card, or taking a chance. Some people tell me it’s their favourite book in the Yashim pack, but I have to admit the title stinks.
Book Four deals with intrigue and superstition in the sultan’s harem. I called it An Evil Eye. Strictly speaking it should have been The Evil Eye, to match the others in the series: but then it ran the risk of sounding like a history of malocculation. Later I was told that books with the definite article always sell better than books with the indefinite article. The trumps a every time. (Reminding me of my friend the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who regrets doing the research for his superb book Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. Cat books, he assures me, outsell dog books five to one).
The latest Yashim novel, out next Spring, has the provisional title The Latin Reader. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic hate it. It runs a serious risk, they say, of ending up among the Dead Languages section of the bookshop. It involves a group of hapless Italian revolutionaries who have fled to Istanbul to avoid prosecution in the Papal States. Polish ambassador Palewski, who admires their youthful idealism but doubts their staying power, has an affectionate but slightly contemptuous nickname for them. So, as I edited the final manuscript, a new title sprang out at me.
The Baklava Club.
I am an avid fan and am looking forward to your next novel in the series. Perhaps Collegium Polenta for the title as a reference to Collegium Maius in Krakow? That would bring together a Polish – Italian – Turkish connection which there is for Krakow’s history. I don’t recall if Palewski has any connection to Krakow.
Thank you for the lovely suggestion – though I fear that if the very word ‘Latin’ in a title sends publishers screaming for their marketing managers, dishing it up neat, so to speak, might trigger a mass firing! Palewski, Krakow? Goodness, you must be reading over my shoulder. As Palewski recalls in the latest book: “Of course I was much the same in Cracow at their age. At Jagiellonian University there were dozens of us talking about revolution, emancipating the serfs, giving power to the people, all that old stuff. In my day it was Saint Simon and Locke. Now it’s some Jew in London, Marx, good journalist – and Owen.”
Am really looking forward to the next book. Keep getting reminded of Yashim as I walk around Sultanhamet at the end of 3 weeks in Turkey. Been recommending your books to fellow visitors as well.
Thank you! It sounds like a good trip…three weeks! all best Jason
Dear Mr Goodwin
I was wondering what books you would recommend for a friend who has been curious to find out more about the Ottomans, especially after the recent series on BBC. I was thinking of getting her your book and Caroline Finkel’s ‘Osman’s Dream’. A friend also recommended Ilber Ortayli.
You don’t want to overload her, Mushtaq! I heartily concur with your choice of books: my history, Lords of the Horizons, also goes well with Kinross’s Ottoman Centuries, which may be old but is a detailed read – though not as detailed as Finkel. But when you mention my books, do you perhaps mean the Yashim series of suspense novels? Anyway, I hope it’s some use. best, Jason