Pseudonyms

I believe names hold power. They connect us to our family and our culture. Many cultures believe each name has a meaning and therefore names must be picked carefully to suit the bearer. They are one of the first things we ask when we meet someone and forgetting someone’s name can be an insult. People like to be remembered, when you can call someone by their name they feel as though they are important to you. Not just “that guy with the beard” or “the woman who spoke too much at the party”, but real people who made an impression on you.

This is why I have always been fascinated with pseudonyms. When I was in grade school, around third or fourth grade, we had to write a report on our favorite author. My favorite series was the Hardy Boys written by Franklin W. Dixon. I hauled my little ass to the library and proceeded to get the most disappointing news of my life. Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t a real person. A collection of writers penned the Hardy Boys, they made up the name and wrote under it so it seemed as though one man wrote the series. The Nancy Drew books weren’t written by Caroline Keene either, but I thought those books were dumb — she entered flower arranging competitions for crying out loud — so I didn’t care as much. I’m sure I wrote the report but I couldn’t tell you what author I picked, my heart was broken, my favorite author didn’t exist. The world was a cruel place.

Fast forward five years to when I discovered Stephen King. I loved the horror and the slow drawn out suspense. When I learned that he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman I was intrigued. At least this time I wasn’t reading Bachman first and feeling betrayed when I found out he was really King. This was 1999. King had been outed as Bachman around the time I was born. He had invented the pseudonym because at the time (the late 1970s) publishers were worried about an author saturating the market. King could easily write more than one novel a year and wanted to see if something he wrote could sell under a different name. He was curious to see if people were buying his books because he was talented or if it was just because they liked the brand he had created. According to King, he was outed too soon to tell.

Being Stephen King he couldn’t just admit to writing under another name and then move on. He killed off Bachman and has since published books under that name claiming that he found manuscripts in Bachman’s attic. It seems creepy to kill off someone who is really yourself. I think the recesses of King’s mind are a dark place indeed. I wish he had been allowed to see his experiment progress further.

King’s son writes under the name Joe Hill. He too wanted to see if people would buy his books because of his talent and not the pure luck of being Stephen King’s offspring. He had ten years being Joe Hill before confirming a magazine article that had outed him as Stephen King’s son. He won a lot of awards in that time. I’m sure growing up in the King household taught him a thing or two about writing. Being Stephen King’s son helped him in more than just the name. His older brother Owen is a writer as well.

Lots of authors use pseudonyms. Mark Twain is probably the most famous. He had used other pen names before he came up with Mark Twain, and there are a lot of articles out there about what Mark Twain means – steamboats, water depth, and whatnot – but not a lot of information about why he wanted a pen name in the first place. I think deciding against using your own name is more interesting than the name you come up with.

For example the female author P. D. James writes mysteries, a male-dominated genre for writers and readers. By using her initials instead of her name, Phyllis Dorothy, she could “trick” male readers into giving her books a chance. J. D. Robb does the same thing. It’s romance writer Nora Roberts’ pen name for her mystery series. Both authors use an author photo of themselves, unlike King who used a friend of a friend for his Bachman author photos. I can’t say for sure, but I assume it’s because people know by now who P. D. James and J. D. Robb really are. In the beginning the books were probably published sans photo. There would be no point in using masculine initials on the cover and then slapping a woman’s picture on the back.

Breaking into a traditionally male genre like science fiction or mysteries is a good reason to give a fake name. Another good reason for creating a pen name, and a good warning story for new authors, is what happened to romance writer Jayne Ann Krentz. She signed a contract when she first began publishing her stand alone titles, giving ownership of her name, Jayne Castle, to the publisher. After she left that publisher she couldn’t publish under her name for ten years. I can’t imagine the frustration. Check the fine print folks! She came out on top by publishing under her married name, Jayne Ann Krentz, and then creating different names for her different series. She is Jayne Castle, Jayne Taylor, Jayne Bentley, Jayne Ann Krentz, Stephanie James, Amanda Glass, and Amanda Quick. She even uses different names in the same series to make it look like three different authors contribute work. Talk about making lemonade.

Making up names seems to go hand in hand with making up stories. The Brontë sisters and Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) published under male names to get their novels out into the world and get the guarantee that their works would be received as serious literature. It’s more than a little sad that some female authors still portray themselves as men to get the readership they want. I would hope I could put my true name on anything and be judged on the merit of my work, not my gender.

I do see the fun in using a pseudonym. I have thought that Kay McLain would be a good name to use if I ever wanted to write romance. It would be like creating a character who writes the books. Kay McLain, my first initial and middle name, would be a sweet older lady who sees charm and romance in everyday life. She wouldn’t have my cynicism. There would be happy endings. Kelly Hannon’s stories often end badly for everyone involved.

Maybe Samuel Clemens wanted to separate his writing life from his real life. Maybe his lighthearted short stories needed to be written by a version of himself. I think part of the creative process is exposing yourself to the world. Maybe developing a pseudonym can take the sting off of showing your inner soul to the judgmental masses. And if Kay McLain tanks at writing romance she can fade away, while Kelly Hannon remains, allowing me to start anew with a different name and a different story.

Kelly Hannon worked in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: