An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.
It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.
An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.
Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.
It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.
Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.
That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the gettin’ there.
— Townes Van Zandt,
“To Live Is to Fly”
I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.
Moving right along . . .
For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.
As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.
“Who in the world am I?” Good question.
In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
My book was about just such a journey. The main character, William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.
I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.
I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:
What a world, what a world.
— The Wicked Witch of the West,
“The Wizard of Oz”
and . . .
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen,
For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.
Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!
CORALINE by Neil Gaiman has a great epigraph from G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” — JP. I’m not sure of the source material or that veracity of the quote, but that’s basically it.
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