Choosing the names of a novel’s characters is a task not to be undertaken lightly. As Jane Austen herself was aware, a name is a crucial handle, revealing character, demographics and possibly self-image. In the case of Project, many characters were imagined versions of real people — I was stuck with Jane, Cassandra, James and Henry Austen, Edward and Fanny Knight, Mr. Seymour, Mr. and Mrs. Tilson, Martha Lloyd, etc. The only field where my imagination could play in this regard concerned the invented people of 1815 and those from the future: Jencks, Tom, Mrs. Smith, Grace North, Norman Ng, Dr. Ping , Eva Farmer, Dr. Hernandez, Dr. Montana.
And of course my main characters, Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane, who also had to have assumed names for 1815. (Mary and William Ravenswood). I spent an inordinate amount of time considering their real names, their fake names, and how the two might work together. I was delighted with what I finally came up with. (And only later began to entertain doubts — but by then it was too late.)
I liked “Ravenswood,” an uncommon but not fictional English surname, reminiscent of an offstage family in Mansfield Park (Ravenscroft, which in turn echoes Liam’s snooty Old British boarding school, Crofton) and its slightly spooky avian association with the crows that show up at two crucial moments in the story.
Rachel seems to have come into my mind fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Ever since I have imagined her she has been a petite, adventurous physician, Brooklyn-born, Ashkenazi. She was not always Katzman, but she was always Rachel. Mary, as she is in 1815, was typical for that time and place, with the additional advantage of being the most goyish name imaginable, an emblem of one secret source of unease for her in 1815.
I loved how Liam hides within William: English exterior, Irish core. The slightly plaintive quality in the saying, like a bleat. (LEE-um, not LIE-um, fyi) What I did not expect was that in the time I was writing Project it would vault to No. 2 on the list of most popular baby-boy names in America. The Liams are everywhere, and it will only get worse. I feel like a mother who gives her child what she imagines is a unique, carefully selected name — and four years later finds there are five others at preschool. Fabulous.
And then there’s his last name. I struggled with this too — but in the end I loved Finucane: it seemed to have a vulnerable goofiness, while also reminding me of the endlessly returning literary giant Finnegan (fin, again).
Except with the stress on the middle syllable, or so I thought. As I first was made aware in a wonderful mention of Project in a podcast by some librarians in South Carolina, there are apparently people in this world who say FINuCANE. Or FINucane. Or even pause, take a breath, and seem unsure where to put the stress.
I had always heard, and thought, FinOOken. If you were wondering, that’s how Liam says it. I had never even thought there was any other way; to discover this so late in the day has been disconcerting, in a historical moment already a bit too full of rude surprises.