by Juhi Singhal Karan
Is taking on a pseudonymous self caving in to the exigencies of the publishing business, or is it—as Joyce Carol Oates would have it—“an interior and not merely an outward transformation, a conspicuous redefining of the self”? Read on to find out the story behind the pen names of five bloomers.
Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen
Karen Blixen’s desire for a pseudonym, in her own words, stemmed from how her father “hid behind the pseudonym Boganis. . . . [It was to] express himself freely, give his imagination a free rein. He didn’t want people to ask, ‘Do you really mean that?’ Or, ‘Have you, yourself, experienced that?’” As Lisa Peet mentioned here on Bloom, Karen Blixen was “always a writer and a doodler.” Isak Dinesen wasn’t the only pen name she used. Under the guise of Pierre Andrézel she wrote The Angelic Avengers, a thriller that was a departure from her usual fare. As Carmela Ciuraru mentions in Nom De Plume, a friend of Blixen’s once said, “Karen Blixen as a person was always pseudonymous in varying degree, [and] that she always wanted to be suspected behind her texts but under no circumstances caught.”
William Sydney Porter aka O. Henry
William Sydney Porter tried on various names—T.B. Dowd, Oliver Henry, James L. Bliss—before settling on the one that would become world-famous: O. Henry. His desire to distance himself from his past (he was convicted and imprisoned for embezzlement) have led to there being as many stories about his pen name as names he tried on. He told The New York Times that he picked up Henry from a newspaper and used O because in his words, “O is about the easiest letter written.” Another version would have that he took the name of a guard, Orrin Henry, at the prison where he was incarcerated. Or perhaps it was a carry-over from his past, when he dated a girl whose cat used to answer only to, “Oh, Henry!” His advice to aspiring writers: “Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”
Alison Potter aka Ali Knight
After years of working as an editor and a journalist, just before the publication of her first book, Wink Murder, Alison Potter was told by her publisher that “There’s one problem. . . . Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s your name. It’s just not right. We need to change it. Your first name and your surname, I’m afraid.” And so Alison Potter’s alter ego, Ali Knight, was born. In her own words, “Age and class are nebulous things, but they are powerful. I never thought of Alison as indicating very much at all. . . . It’s boring. It’s safe, dependable, middle-of-the-road. And for a thriller writer, that’s fatal.”
John Banville aka Benjamin Black
The metamorphosis of John Banville into Benjamin Black, at the age of 61, was “pure play.” And the back-and-forth between the two, according to Banville, is not that difficult: “I’ve spent my life being a journalist, a copy editor—in other words, a technician. I have always been two people, professionally. Going back and forth between John Banville and Benjamin Black is just an extension of that.” As Black, Banville recently released a new book, The Black-Eyed Blonde, an addition to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe canon. One reason it was easy for him to slip into Chandler’s voice was the pen name, Benjamin Black, he told NPR. He continued, “None of us is a singular being, we all invent versions of ourselves.”
Alice Bradley Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jr.
Alice Bradley Sheldon always felt as if she were a compendium of beings. She fought depression all her life and wanted to escape the confines of being a woman. Her journey to becoming James Tiptree Jr. was, perhaps, inevitable. As Tip—as she encouraged everyone to call her—she felt she had choices and a measure of control that Alice didn’t have. Dissuading people who wanted to discover more about Tiptree, she said in Meet Me at Infinity, “Maybe I believe . . . that the story is the realest part of the storyteller. Who cares about the colour of Coleridge’s socks?” She also said, “You know as well as I do we all go around in disguise. . . . So who the fuck cares whether the mask is one or two millimeters thick?”