(Apologies once again, I have to recycle an old blog for this week. I was trying to find something topical or relevant and I came across an article I wrote about names published in May, 2014. My avid readers will remember that I have been sharing interesting, unique and odd names at the end of my blogs these days. For more on the subject, read on.)
Over the past several months I have been wracking (racking) my brain to find a suitable nom de plume for me. Not for the blog, but for the book that is brewing inside. As many of you know I have already written a book, my memoir, (The Vivid Air, Amazon) but then I used my real name. What is the use of using a pseudonym when you try to tell your own story?!! No, this second book is going to be a murder mystery. It has all the essential ingredients of a mystery novel—greed, homicide, poisoned chalices, car chase, traffic jams, fist fights, adultery, politics, racism…..
All I need is a pen name.
The idea of someone using a false name was something that I learned when I was in Form Three. One of the prescribed books was The Mill on the Floss written by one George Elliot. When I bought the book at the beginning of the term, my father, as usual looked at all the text books and casually mentioned that the author was actually a woman—Mary Ann Evans. In the class, the teacher was referring to the author as ‘he’ and one day summoning up all my courage, but with a great deal of trepidation, I ventured to say that the author is a woman. The class roared with laughter and I got a box on the ear from the teacher!!
It was much later that I realized that the real name of the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was not Mark Twain but Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He said he did not like his name and chose Mark Twain which was actually a phrase that boatmen used to indicate two fathoms of water (app. 2 feet), the depth needed for a row boat’s safe passage on the water.
But Mary Ann Evans chose to write under a male name to ensure her works would be taken seriously. In those days many female authors were published under their own names, but Evans wanted to escape the stereotype of women writing only light hearted romantic fluff. She eventually would become a highly successful writer. Her novel Middlemarch (1872) was once hailed as the greatest novel ever written.
Another woman who wrote under a pseudonym (sort of) is J.K. Rowling. I say ‘sort of’ because the author’s real name is Joanne Rowling. As a divorced, single parent, trying to make a living, she wrote the first Harry Potter novel and when she submitted it to the publishers, they said the book would not be popular among boys if it is /was penned by a woman! So they recommended J.K. Rowling even though ‘K’ does not stand for anything. Well, we now know that her series sold more than 400 million copies. But see what happened when she decided to write a novel using a pseudonym. Her detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It was released in early 2013 and just 1500 copies were sold. It was the 4709th in rating!! But it surged to number one seller as soon as she announced that Galbraith was, indeed, Rowling. Signed copies of the first edition are selling for four to six thousand dollars.
There are many woman writers who used pseudonyms. Louisa May Alcott who wrote The Little Women started out as A.M.Barnard and the Bronte Sisters wrote under Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell.
Theodor Geisel, American writer, poet and cartoonist went to Dartmouth College and became the editor-in-chief of the College’s magazine Jack- O-Lantern. But when he threw a raging party breaking Dartmouth and federal law during prohibition, he was fired from the job. But to continue his work on the magazine without the knowledge of the administration, he began signing his work with his middle name—Seuss. Years later, when his first book was published Seuss added the “Dr” as a joke at the expense of his father who always wanted him to pursue a medical career! (He went to Oxford from Dartmouth and earned a Ph.D in English literature.)
It is not only writers who seek a pseudonym, but actors do as well. Of course, it is not called nom de plume but nom de scène or nom de theatre. Issur Danielovich was born in Brooklyn of Russian parents. As a young man he was interested in acting and so joined The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When he was ready to look for jobs, his acting teacher suggested that if he expected to become an actor, he should change his name. He did and became Kirk Douglas. One of his classmates Betty Joan Perske also got the same advice and she became Lauren Bacall.
Or consider this. Archie Leach– high school dropout, vaudevillian, acrobat and stilt walker– crossed the pond and came to Hollywood. Producers liked his debonair demeanour and killer looks but not the name. So he became Cary Grant. Can you visualize a marquee which declares “My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston”?
And you can’t blame Stefanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta if she chose to be known as Lady Gaga.
Well, I started off saying that I was seeking a pen name. I was trying to get ideas from those who have/had successfully picked pseudo names. I am afraid I can’t come up with anything half decent.
I tried what Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the obsessively shy Oxford professor of Mathematics, did. Charles translated into Latin is Carolus and Lutwidge is an old German form of Lewis and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass) was born! My name does not translate into anything in Latin. Sanskrit, yes; Latin, no.
Then I tried what William Sydney Porter (The Gift of the Magi) did. He was thrown in jail for embezzlement while working in a bank. He started writing stories while being incarcerated and obviously he could not use his real name because no publisher would accept anything from a jailbird. So he created his pen name: O.Henry, picking letter from OHio State PENitentiaRY. I tried what both Dodgson and Potter did and came up with KARNA or ARAYA or MARYA.
Not too exciting. Finally I decided to copy H.H. Munro. He picked a neutral but exotic word—Saki, who is the wine bearer in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
So I went for something exotic too.