As a reader, I’m always curious about the epigraphs in books. These short quotations set the tone or suggest the theme for the story I’m about to read. The writer is giving us information before the drama even commences, as well as placing their work within the history of literature by showing its connection to what has been written before.
The tradition is more common in literary fiction then, say, thrillers. Most of the mystery and suspense novels on my shelves prefer to let their stories begin on page one rather than say anything beforehand. The exceptions tend to be stated facts or political quotations that ground the subsequent story in a particular world or lend authenticity to the fiction. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code or Barry Eisler’s The Detachment use this latter method to great effect.
My novel The Last Night, which will be published on November 1, falls into the literary tradition of epigraphs.
When I began writing the manuscript, nothing could be more important than choosing the precise quote that would border on profundity. (Note: this is a young writer’s trait.) Since Shakespeare is my all-time favorite author, I was ecstatic to find the poem “The Passionate Pilgrim” with the following verse:
If thou sorrow, he will weep;
If thou wake, he cannot sleep:
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee does bear a part.
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe.
These lines fit the early drafts of the story perfectly. The book was about friendship, loyal and otherwise. However, if this theme continued as the primary focus of the novel, my choice was a tad on the nose. I rightly scrapped this Shakespearean quote, especially after I learned that scholars debated the poem’s authorship. Not only would the verse fail my profundity test, but how embarrassing would it have been to incorrectly attribute authorship to the Bard?
No. I had to disregard this high-brow obsession and choose the right quote for the story. More than that, I needed to choose something simple, which would be consistent with my writing style.
My MFA thesis manuscript as well as the final book carries the following epigraph:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally…
John Donne. “Holy Sonnet X.” Simple. Straightforward. True.
This single line addresses the greater theme of the novel: rebirth. Friendship and family are the vehicles that carries us through this subject matter, but as I learned through the writing process, the story actually speaks to the broader truth of resurrection.
If there’s anything I learned (or relearned) from this experience, it’s that each project must be true to itself.
Forget about proving that your book is the greatest tale ever told; it can’t and shouldn’t be done. Forget about showing how clever you are; everything must be in service of the story, not the author. And forget about trying to prove to the literary community that you are legit and, therefore, belong in their circle; your aim will likely be off target.
Instead, just tell a good story.