Recently a writing student asked me if she ought to use a nom de plume, I said I could see no merit in it, especially as she has a good name. Sometimes writing students, frequently women, think this will afford them some advantage. Perhaps, they suggest, a pen name that is gender neutral or even suggestive of a male author will help them get further with an agent or publisher. Generally I find that their writing betrays their sex anyway and so this gender change might only be of benefit should they write masculine style thrillers, science or erotic fiction – E. L. James comes to mind as originally Erika Leonard née Mitchell (Fifty Shades of Grey).
It is true to say that certain authors have altered their names or used initials rather than first name, as in J.K. Rowling, but this is generally at the behest of their publisher and perhaps the marketing department, who think that the public aren’t ready for an author of science or dystopic fiction who is a woman, although clearly Margaret Atwood managed; Atwood prefers to call such writing, Speculative Fiction, as in fiction that could happen.
Journalists sometimes use a pen name Cassandra for instance (The Daily Mirror) is William Connor. Also screen writers, Michael Crichton is in fact John Lange and certainly John Le Carré has more of a ring to it than David John Moore Cornwell. Matrilineal surnames, adjusted surnames based on the mother or grandmother’s maiden names are common. My father, being Scottish, has his mother’s maiden name (Raeburn) is inserted as a middle name, a tradition passed down to the second son, the younger of my two brothers has this too. Actors adopt stage names if their own name proves too difficult to spell, another more famous actor shares the same or similar name, or it simply doesn’t have the right ring to it. Since the 18th Century hundreds of angling authors have adopted pseudonyms — I cannot begin to think why — were the fish likely to object?
There have been times in our troubled world when having an obviously foreign–sounding name was frankly a danger and so these were westernised. Émigré’s often altered their names to a more colloquial spelling for similar reasons. Leslie Charteris (author of Simon Templar) was half Chinese named Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin; prejudice also has a lot to answer for.
In the Sunday Times Magazine last weekend there is an article on Elena Ferrante ‘Step Forward Elena Ferrante’ by Michael Sheridan with additional reporting by Wolfgang Achtner, it seems the bestselling Ferrante author is in fact a little–known Italian translator with a desire for the quiet life. Since the unmasking of Anita Raja from Rome, as the author, speculation and rumour now suggests that more than one author is at work. Readers continue to be fascinated with authors assumed names and persona, Joanna Rowling tried to hide her authorship as Robert Galbraith, when she changed tack and wrote a very different novel from the Potter series; she was exposed early on and the subterfuge failed. Then there is the couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who write as one, under the pseudonym Nicci French, the really noteworthy issue is how they actually manage to pull off such a collaborative feat!
The only alteration to my name has been on divorce, to take back my full name, Patricia. Prior to that it had often been shortened to Pat, which I came to dislike and I think the appearance of my full name on spine and cover looks better, and also sounds better. On marriage (I kept my professional name after being advised by my illustration agent not to take my husband’s name ) reverting to my given name marked my return to my fully independent self after a difficult period in my life; in doing so I feeI I have reclaimed my identity.
Here are few more interesting alterations.
P. L. Travers Helen Goff
Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Gore Vidal Edgar Box
Ellis Peters Edith Pargeter