Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms

Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms

By Robert Matz

Carmela Ciuraru, BA English ’94, chronicles the pseudonyms of authors past and present in her recent book, Nom De Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. She explores the often dark reasons for why authors hide behind pretend identities and made-up names. Robert Matz asked Ciuraru about the book, why an author might want to construct an identity.


What gave you the idea for Nom de Plume?

I have always been interested in authors who used different names or inhabited other identities to publish their work. After doing some initial research, I realized that a comprehensive history was not possible, so I narrowed the scope by looking at writers whose stories, backgrounds, and motives I found especially intriguing, and went from there. I was fascinated by what I learned about why these writers concealed their identities and wanted to tell the stories of both famous authors and more obscure ones. In the end, I decided not to write about contemporary authors, so my book begins with the Brontë sisters and ends with Pauline Réage.

What are some of the reasons the writers you cover in the book adopted noms de plume?

There are women writing as men, not just to get their work published, but to set themselves apart and be taken seriously by critics. (George Eliot, for instance, despised what she deemed "silly novels by lady novelists.") A few authors, such as Lewis Carroll, were ambivalent about fame and wanted to distance themselves from readers or separate their literary lives from their day jobs. Others wanted to tell stories that were extremely painful and potentially damaging, so a pen name was a protective buffer. And some writers used pseudonyms simply because it was fun to play with different identities.

As writers, we always construct identities for ourselves. To what extent does the writer with a nom de plume act as any writer does in this respect and to what extent is writing with a nom de plume different?

I suppose the pseudonymous writer is just taking things one step further by giving that constructed self a name. It's a way of unlocking creativity, and it can be incredibly liberating. The interesting thing is when authors inhabit that alter ego even when they aren't writing. In many cases throughout history, people have "shed" their former selves and felt more at home as their pseudonymous identity. It can be a means of shedding the baggage of the past—an attempt at reinvention. The appeal is easy to understand.

Which of the writers do you think was most aided by his or her nom de plume, and which do you think was most hampered by his or hers (if any)?

That's a very interesting question. Sylvia Plath could not have possibly written The Bell Jar without using a pen name, Victoria Lucas. The novel was so close to her own experiences that she feared it would destroy her mother. Writers such as George Orwell (Eric Blair) and Henry Green (Henry Yorke) also found safety in pen names to avoid embarrassing their families. But certain authors were ultimately stymied by their nom de plume and unable to recover. Alice Sheldon, who became a very successful science-fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr., comes to mind. She was so happy as Tiptree for about a decade, enjoying fame and a great deal of critical praise in a male-dominated genre. But then she grew tired of keeping up the mask and spoke of wanting to kill off Tiptree. She grew to hate him. After her secret unraveled, she found that she was actually incapable of writing as herself. She ended up committing suicide in 1987.

Which of the writers do you consider had the most witty or creative nom de plume, and why?

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was so inventive that no one can top him when it comes to pseudonyms. He had more than 70 identities—he called them "heteronyms"—and assigned them different astrological signs, physical characteristics (e.g., a hunchback), and even genres in which to write. His heteronyms sometimes collaborated, and sometimes trashed one another's work. Pessoa described them as an unruly bunch and insisted that he could not control them. There was Alexander Search, Charles Anon, and Alberto Caeiro, just to name a few. There was also a suicidal baron who was said to have destroyed most of his works in a fire. And when a young woman ended her relationship with Pessoa, he had one of his heteronyms, Alvaro de Campos, write a letter on his behalf, pleading to take him back. What's amazing about Pessoa is that he was obscure in his lifetime. He produced thousands and thousands of writings, all under these various names, yet published very little before he died in 1935. Today, he is considered a national treasure in Portugal.

Writers still use noms de plume, of course. Which ones especially interest you and why?

It's far less common to use a nom de plume these days, perhaps because in our Internet era it is so easy to track people down. However, I was interested in the recent revelation of J. K. Rowling's nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. There was a slight backlash, as people assumed it was a big publicity stunt. But she had been betrayed by someone at the law firm she uses, presumably one she has now fired. She said how upset she was to be outed, and how elaborate her plans had been to keep the name a secret. Who can blame her for wanting some privacy, and wanting to have her work taken on its own merits, without all the baggage of Harry Potter attached to it? After the news broke, she said how wonderful it had been to publish "without hype or expectation," at least briefly. She had been able to tackle a new genre (crime fiction) and to be left alone, without the pressure of fans or critics. I admire her for trying to start over again, in a sense.

Do you think that the reasons writers today use noms de plume are different from the reasons chosen by earlier writers?

Yes, I think the reasons today are far less compelling. It tends most often to be a marketing strategy, so that authors can avoid saturating the market under their own name (e.g., Nora Roberts "writing as" J. D. Robb). Most people these days seem to crave fame far more than privacy, and no story—no matter how salacious—seems too awkward to tell. And the publishing industry demands that authors interact with fans, through publicity appearances, book signings, media interviews, and so on. If you try to hide, you probably won't sell many books. Using a nom de plume now is little more than a branding device, with little mystery attached to it. Daniel Handler has published literary fiction under his own name, for instance, but he has achieved enormous wealth and international success only through his nom de plume: Lemony Snicket. And the Lemony Snicket brand has expanded with movies, products, and more.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on another nonfiction book, but it is still in the very early stages.

If you could give a piece of advice to a student currently studying English at Mason, what would it be?

This seems obvious, but read everything you can, as much as you can: poetry, novels, stories, plays, nonfiction. Read books by men and women from all over the world and from different eras. Go outside your comfort zone, in terms of what you think you like in, say, fiction or poetry, and you may be surprised. It's good to mix things up. William Trevor has spoken of reading "hungrily and delightedly" before becoming a writer. I received an excellent education from Mason’s English department, one that I'm still grateful for, and my love of reading led me to become a writer and editor. But studying literature is useful for all sorts of career paths. Above all, it deepens your imagination and your empathy, and it helps you comprehend a variety of experiences, wholly different from your own.