What’s in a Name? – Names and Pseudonyms.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet and this is something writers must ask themselves before they push a button to publish their first story online or – should they be so lucky – sign off on the proofs for their publisher. The name on the front cover will become their writing persona and the fact that people fiddle around with it, changing the format or using something totally different from their private name illustrates just how important this is.
History is full of people who altered their name for publication. Some, like George Eliot, chose a male pen name in order to be considered a “serious” writer at a time when anything written by a woman was likely to be dismissed as “just” a romance. Others such as George Orwell chose a pen name in order to avoid embarrassing their families with the content or subject of their work. There are cases of writers who use two names to differentiate between works in different genres – Ian Banks for example – and several writers who achieved critical success went back to the beginning, submitting new books under another name. Stephen King published a number of books under the pen name Richard Bachmann (including “The Running Man”) and more recently J.K.Rowling chose to publish her adult crime novels as Robert Galbraith.
There are many reasons for writers to publish under a pseudonym and so it is not surprising I am often asked if I write under my own name. What does surprise me is how many people think it very strange that I do. And the reason I do is because I promised my father. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he began to fade as I was completing my MA in Creative Writing. He could barely speak but would watch my face as I talked, occasionally giving my hand a squeeze or uttering a little laugh.
I spent some time looking into our family history and one day I took in a family tree and told him about some of his ancestors. He became very agitated at one point, repeatedly tapping on the names of his grandchildren and I suddenly realized that, through various circumstances, none of them had his family name. I had a small keyboard with me and I took it out and held up the work I was doing for my final project. I was going to be a writer, I told him. I would publish a book and my name – his family name – would be on the cover. It would go into the British Library and be there forever and every time someone took a copy down from a shelf in the library or a bookshop they would see our name.
He looked at me with very bright, dark eyes, then squeezed my hand and gave what my nephew calls his “serial killer laugh”. After he was gone I thought of that afternoon and I know he understood. So that’s why I use my own name. Because I promised.