Why, I’m asked, do you write under a pseudonym? At this point in my career (such as it is), I’m almost inclined to say, “because it’s a great conversational gambit.” At public readings or at book launches, or in private exchanges where I’m introduced as that baffling creature, a fiction writer, it’s the ice-breaker question not just frequently, but almost always, asked.
And here’s my answer, or at least part of it: I wanted a separate identity from the nonfiction-writing me. I had spent decades working for or contributing to newspapers and magazines and seen the name accident of birth and parental selection had saddled me with, “Doug Whiteway”, printed many, many, oh many, times. The first time I saw my byline in a newspaper, many, many, oh many, years ago, I was thrilled to bits, gobsmacked, dazzled with the glory of it all. But in that particular thrills department, it was ever after all downhill.
When my first fiction was accepted for publication in the 1990s, I thought I might like to feel again that frisson of first-time pleasure and so I said to my editor – the inimitable Kate Miciak – that I’d like to publish under a pen name. Unfazed, she said, “then pick a name from the top of the alphabet – A, B, or C.” Intrigued, I said, “Okay. Sure. Why?” “Because,” she explained, “your books are more likely to be shelved at eye level in a bookstore.” Ah, marketing! My real surname, Whiteway, is disadvantageous: it puts me somewhere ankle-level. You have to bend down, such a pain, oy!
We batted around B names. She liked “Blessing.” I didn’t. I countered with blessing’s recondite synonym, “benison.” And so a pen name was born. Where the “C.C.” came from I can’t recall. Availability? Euphony? Milne had grabbed “A.A.” “B.B.” recalled a certain French actress. “D.D.” sounded like a character in a 60s BeachBlanketBingoBikiniÀGogo film. Cummings got “E.E.” (Excuse me, “e.e.”) “G.G.”? Gigi, am I a fool without a mind, or have I merely been too blind to realize? Oh Gigi! Munro (Saki) had “H.H.” “I.I.”? Aye Aye, captain! And so on. Two ‘K’s’ was one ‘K’ shy of cross burning. Unt – vorse! – ve vouldn’t vant to use ze “S.S.” vould ve?
And, yes, when a copy of my first crime novel, Death at Buckingham Palace, arrived at my door, I did experience a moment of giddy delight. It felt sort of metamorphose-y. I had been a caterpillar and now I was … well, at least a caterpillar with a new pair of shoes. But, of course, as with my experience seeing my byline printed those many, many, oh many, years ago, the thrill of seeing my (pen) name on a book cover soon palled, and life went on.
Now, because I’ve written nonfiction only intermittently since the late 90s and “C.C. Benison” fills more Google retail than “Doug Whiteway”, the other part of my standard reply has grown more relevant: It’s fun. I have an alter ego, a doppelganger, an evil (though possibly good) twin. I can put on an identity, then take it off, much the way, I suppose, an actor does. Writing fiction feels different than writing nonfiction anyway – it’s more trance-like – and so I feel like a different person doing it. A different person wants a different name.
Anyone can have writerly pseudonym. I don’t recommend the old nom de porn formula: (First Pet) + (Name of Street You Grew Up On) = Porn Name. (Mine is “Snowball Moorgate”, which wouldn’t get me a lick of work.) I suggest: (Childhood Best Friend) + (Name of Favourite Fictional Character) = Pen Name. If I had used that formula years ago, I would be, let’s see, Ross Yossarian. Which would shelve my books next to your big toe. Maybe that isn’t the best formula.
Hmmm. Under the traditional method, I could be Frisky Elmcrest, which does suggest a certain lack of character. I prefer C.C./Doug's suggestion, which would give me the nom de plume of PJ Bennet. I can almost see the serious British police procedurals lined up on the shelf. What has been your experience with pseudonyms, dear Reader? Have you ever been surprised at the name behind the name? Do you like "different authors" for different types of literature? And what would your pen name be?