Saturday, July 30, 2022

Introducing the REAL Allison Montclair

DEBORAH CROMBIE: This seems to be my summer for being smitten with books set in post WWII London. First I discovered Natalie Jenner's wonderful Bloomsbury Girls, then a new series by Allison Montclair featuring Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge.

THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN introduces Iris, a former intelligence operative, and Gwen, a widow with a six-year-old son, who open a marriage bureau in 1946 London. I zipped through the first three books, then eagerly awaited the fourth, THE UNKEPT WOMAN. I loved the premise, the characters, the period detail, the witty dialogue!

But who was the woman writing these terrific books? I'd never heard of Allison Montclair. With good reason, as you will see!

 



How Alan Became Allison

 

by Alan Gordon, AKA Allison Montclair

 

Writing, in part, is about ego. As much as we might delude ourselves into thinking we are artists, craftspeople, or merely professionals fulfilling the voracious and unstoppable needs of our readers, there still lies that joyous kick from seeing our name emblazoned across the front cover. And yes, it’s still better with a tangible book in our hands because we know all of the effort from different people it took to produce that precious object just so we could have our name writ large on the front.

But what happens when the book is yours, but the name isn’t? What’s in a name? I found this out unexpectedly when I began writing the Sparks and Bainbridge series. My first series, the Fools’ Guild mysteries, was very much my own creature, and I loved the researching, the writing, and the ultimate glory of declaring myself an author, or [insert food-providing real-life profession]/author on my taxes. When that series came to an end, I wrote other books, stories, and even musicals with varying degrees of success, but enough to justify doing it all.

 Then, out of the blue, Keith Kahla, my editor from St. Martin’s Minotaur, invited me to lunch. I should have been suspicious immediately, but a chance to catch up and, more importantly, free food overcame those suspicions immediately. He had come across a book about a London marriage bureau founded by two women before WWII, and thought it would be a good setting for a mystery series, and that I would be a good fit for it.

 I liked the idea, and wrote a chapter on spec, along with my ideas for Iris and Gwen, the main characters, and the shift of the period to post-war London, an era that I thought would be more interesting. I wanted each of my protagonists to have been traumatized by the war in some fashion, so that the founding of this agency would also be a way for them to reinforce and rescue each other.

I sent it in. A few days later, my agent called and said they loved it. And, he added, they want you to use a pseudonym.

I hadn’t expected that. I was nonplussed. The joy of acceptance was intermingled with the stomping of my ego. But it was quickly resolved by the answer to a simple question: Do I want to be published? The answer was yes, of course. So it didn’t matter what name was on the cover, because the work was all mine.

And that was an interesting realization. Once I had let go of the ego gratification of having my name on the cover, I was able to have the greater gratification of finding out that people liked my book without having any idea it was mine. I had taken my persona out of the equation. It never was about me, nor should it have been. I was able let it go and relax, knowing that only the work was being judged, not the author.

 So, we had to come up with a name. It became a combined effort between my editor, my agent, and me. My first attempt: First name, Lana, which was an anagram of Alan. Last name, St. Clair, because it sounded vaguely British.

 Problem, said my editor. Having the last name of St. Anything confuses the shelving. Really? I asked. [I have recently spoken to a book store owner who confirmed this, so it must be so.] So I tried Lana Sinclair.

 Problem again, said my editor. It sounds too much like another author’s name.

 And so we tossed pseudonyms around like juggling clubs. It turned out that many were already taken by authors, strippers and porn stars. Finally, my agent, who like me had grown up in New Jersey, suggested Allison Montclair. And here I am.

 There were some advantages to being anonymous that I hadn’t anticipated. Since the author was not available to go out and plug the book [and my family and I became quite silly playing with the idea of putting me in drag, or sending my wife out as Allison], Saint Martin’s Minotaur had to do all the publicity themselves. They did a terrific job, as it turned out. Keeping my identity secret was interesting. I had permission to reveal it to a select few. One small website did a deep dive into the copyright to find my true identity, but they were the only one and the vast majority of the readers didn’t know. My favorite moment was when I told a bookseller friend, who turned out to have just finished reading The Right Sort of Man. “I had no idea it had been written by a dude!” she exclaimed, and I felt very proud indeed.

 After A Rogue’s Company, the third book, came out, the publisher finally decided to out me as the author. I’ve started going to conferences and bookstores again, with the AKA scribbled on my name tag under my own name. And I have found that while I enjoyed the secrecy, watching my books bravely go into the world without my help, it’s nice to be meeting people again, especially in these strange, isolating times.

So, if you meet me, call me by either name. I’ll answer to both.

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.

The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.

Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

DEBS: I was gobsmacked when I learned that Allison was Alan! I would never have twigged! These books are a delight from either gender! 

Signed copies are available from the The Poisoned Pen here.

And you can see the Pen's interview with Alan/Allison and Ashley Weaver here.

Alan will be stopping in to chat, but in the meantime, REDs and readers, any favorite books written under a pseudonym by authors of the opposite gender? 

45 comments:

  1. The first answer I thought of to the question about favorite books written under a gender swapped pen name was Miranda James/Dean James writing the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries.

    Glad you stopped by today, Alanson (or is that Allisan? sorry, just having some late Friday night fun with combining the names). These books sound like a lot of fun. Trying to readjust my TBR mountain range as a result.

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  2. Congratulations, Allison/Alan on your newest book . . . the series sounds delightful; I’m adding “The Unkept Woman” to my teetering to-be-read pile . . . .

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  3. Sparks and Bainbridge: a whole new series for me to try--I'm so pleased. I'm going to start with The Right Sort of Man and work up to #4. As for pseudonyms, I think my favorite mystery writer of all times (whew! do I dare to make such a pronouncement?) is Josephine Tey, who was really Elizabeth MacKintosh. But she originally wrote The Man in the Queue, her first mystery with her detective Alan Grant, under the name of Gordon Daviot, the name she also used to write plays, short stories, and three other novels.

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    1. I also love Tey, Kim. You will love Sparks and Bainbridge! Is there anything more fun than discovering a wonderful new series and having several books to read?

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  4. Mine were. The series "These Lawless Worlds" was written by "Jarrod Comstock." I autographed them "by his attorney." (Like Alan/Allison's, my series was conceived by someone else-- in my case, my agent, Sharon Jarvis, who pitched it as the amorous adventures of a woman judge in outer space. But she had no idea what a judge actually did-- so I had to do a reset on the concept as well as developing the characters and reformatting the basis for some suggested plots. Also, I was okay with space opera-- I grew up reading and watching it-- but no fantasy elements, please.) Being someone else is a very strange experience. And don't ask what happens when you spend huge chunks of your time inside the head of a very athletic jurist who is steeped in martial arts while you yourself are clumsy and very much earthbound.

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    1. That must have been a lot of fun, Ellen.

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    2. And I'm going to have to track your series down, Ellen. I practice law in an alien world called Queens.

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    3. The legal world is always alien to non-lawyers, isn't it? But after a while, the real world is alien to us!

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  5. Alan, this sounds like a delightful series. Will add it to my list!

    I don't write under an opposite gender pen name, but my two, and soon to be three, series under my pen name Maddie Day are much more popular than my Edith Maxwell books.

    I had the same reaction as you did when my agent said my editor wanted me to write the first of those under a pen name. The ego struggle and everything, but I wasn't about to turn down the contract simply because they wanted me to use a different name. It's fine now, and they never told me I couldn't connect the names - so I do!

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  6. Several female mystery writers I like reading have used the gender-neutral route by using initials instead of female names: Nora Roberts writes as J.D. Robb, J.T Ellison, R. Franklin James.
    Steve Watson is a male writer who wrote his bestselling novel Before I Go To Sleep as S.J. Watson and has a female protagonist.

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  7. Welcome Alan, those books sound wonderful! What about JK Rowling aka Roberta Galbraith?

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    1. That's interesting Lucy! But she wasn't a Roberta but a Robert. Although I prefer the name Roberta!! Her books under her pen name never seemed to catch on like the HP books did.

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    2. I'm a big fan of the Robert Galbraith books. I hope she writes another one, although I suspect she may have taken the characters as far as she intended.

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  8. I have read all 4 books in the Sparks/Bainbridge series and love every one of them. The writing is beautiful. The plots are fascinating and the dialogue is so much fun. The second book (A Royal Affair) has my favorite "the detective gathers all the suspects and announces the murderer" scene ever! The books should be read in order to understand what the protagonists went through during the war.

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    1. I very much agree that these books should be read in order. Iris and Gwen must make new lives for themselves after the war and a large part of the pleasure of this series is taking the journey with them.

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    2. Also, I improve with every book, so if you read them out of order, I get worse.

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  9. Like Kim, I'm partial to Josephine Tey / Gordon Daviot.
    I just purchased The Right Sort of Man and look forward to reading all the books in the series!

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  10. Congratulations on your success, Alan/Allison. I'm glad you were able to come clean and be 'out'. I immediately thought of the scandal last year regarding Carmen Mola, a Spanish writer whose bio included details of a husband and children and a job as a university professor. She wrote under a pseudonym "in order to remain anonymous." Her book La Novia Gitana won a major literary prize (a million Euros). At the awards ceremony, she was revealed to be three men. Very interesting, and makes me wonder if her books would have been successful with three male names on them. Why not? What kind of game was the publisher playing creating a fake author story? Maybe there's a book there for some talented writer.

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    1. The book that won the prize was actually La Bestia. La Novia Gitana was an earlier work of Mola's.

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    2. The late Parnell Hall used to tell the story of submitting The Puzzle Lady under his own name, getting rejected, then resubmitting it successfully under a woman's name. When it was bought, he insisted on having it under his own name.

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  11. I wonder if P.D. James would have been as successful is she hadn't used the gender neutral initials?

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    1. Agree, agree. Writing crime fiction then was @an unsuitable job for a woman.”

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  12. Welcome, Alan! What a great story! I always love the authors Debs recommends!

    Several contributors to this blog use pen names and I get it. Most of them don't have to cross gender nor are they prohibited from connecting their work to their real identities. One of my favorite authors when I was in school was George Elliot. Many female authors at that time posed as males.

    I am very excited about your series and will begin looking for the first book this morning. Some of my favorite authors are from NJ. They have a certain flair with language! Debs hosted E J Copperman ( Jeff Cohen) here recently and I am dissolving in laughter over his humor.

    Tell us a bit about your research into post WWII London. What a interesting time frame and setting!

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    1. That would be a very long answer. But I start with the Times of London for the entire month in which each book is set. Fortunately, newsprint rationing restricted the dailies to eight pages, jumping to ten in September, 1946, so it doesn't take too long.

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  13. This is fascinating! Like a peek into the sausage factory. Sounds like a terrific series with a fascinating back story. In the "olden" days a gender switch on the author pseudonym was almost always female to male... happily that's changed.

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  14. Oh boy! I so want to read all these books no matter who wrote them, so congratulations Alan/Allison!

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  15. I've had my eye on An Unkept Woman--didn't realize it was part of a series. Love finding new series to read, Alan! I totally get that vibe "let the work stand on its own without my name attached to it," but still, it's nice to be acknowledged as a person (not just an ego).

    My favorite gender-switching author was Madeleine Brent, who turned out to be Peter O'Donnell--a fact I learned here on JRW.

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  16. Weren't the first stories of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters published under men's names? And of course there are George Sand/Amantine Dupin, George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans. Harper Lee deliberately dropped her first name, Nelle, so her middle name would make her sound more male.

    Carolyn Keene, of course, did not actually exist, and many different authors wrote under that name, including Charles Leslie McFarlane, who wrote four of the Dana books as Keene. The most shocking, and intriguing, contemporary example, though, is Elena Ferrante, who is may or may not be a man named Domenico Starnone and possibly his wife, Anita Raja. A lot of mystery around this one!

    For my part, I can't say it matters whether an author is a man or a woman. I enjoy a good story, full stop.

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    1. Your series sounds fabulous, Alan. I look forward to getting to know Iris and Gwen!

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  17. I love these books. Debs introduced me to them, and insisted that I read them RIGHT NOW!! She practically sat down to watch me read, just to make sure I followed through. Like Judy, I usually find I love the books she recommends, so it was no hardship to follow her guidance on these. Now I'm highly recommending them to all my friends, too.

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    1. LOL, Gigi! I can picture Debs sitting you down and observing you while you read chapter 1. Sweet!

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  18. Sounds like a great series, no matter what the author’s name is! I’ll be on the lookout for it.

    I would like to add J. A. Jance (Judith), who writes several series.

    I could never get into the Harry Potter books but I love the books Rowling wrote under Robert Galbraith.

    DebRo

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  19. Congratulations on, ah, coming out, Alan! I haven't stumbled across the Sparks and Bainbridge series before, which is one of the wonderful things about JRW - we're always growing our TBR piles!

    I suppose my favorite pseudonym is Caroline Todd, which was not one person, but two; not a woman, but a woman and a man, and finally, neither of them was actually named Caroline or Todd!

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    1. Charles Todd--oh yes! One of my favorite authors of all time!

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  20. I think "I had no idea it was written by a dude" is the highest praise a male author can receive when writing female protagonists and I have no idea how I've missed this series! It sounds fantastic! And i ma just thrilled to have four books to queue up for vacation. Thanks for visiting, Alan/Allison, and congratulations!

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  21. ALAN: Welcome to JRW! And congratulations on your new novel! I was very lucky to get an advanced DIGITAL copy of An Unkept Woman (great title) and loved it. I wrote a five star review on NetGalley and Storygraph. I loved loved loved your Alison Montclair books especially the book with the clue about Princess Alice of Battenberg. I stumbled on The Royal Affair by chance at my local independent bookstore and Impulsively bought it, even though I was on a book buying ban. As a member of Instagram Bookstagram, I heard rumors that the author of your books was a man and this post confirms that you wrote under a female name. I wanted to say that I loved how your detectives knew something about Princess Alice that most people did not know - that Princess Alice was Deaf. When I was touring Scotland, I had a conversation with a Deaf tour guide in Edinburgh. He told me things about Princess Alice, Prince Philip and the four royal children. For example, Prince Philip knows Sign Language and often had conversations with his children in Sign Language.

    QUESTION: Can I ask you if you ever met Deaf people in England or Deaf people in general?

    Speaking of favorite novels by authors using a nom de plume (I cannot spell pseudoynm) of the opposite sex. Charles Todd is a mother son team. JK Rowling who created Harry Potter is another favorite. While I loved her Harry Potter, I am sorry to say that I am not a fan of the Conor Strike series.

    Yes, I recall that George Eliot was really a woman named Mary Ann Evans ? Or was it George Sands? It is only recently that I started reading Jane Austen and I read my first Bronte novel - JANE EYRE.

    Personally, as an aspiring author, I am seriously considering using a male name for my novels. I am currently writing a historical cozy novel and using a male name. It would have been my name if I was born a boy. My parents seriously thought that I was going to be a boy before I was born. LOL. When I was born a girl, they had names in mind and it worked out.

    Diana

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    1. I haven't met any deaf people in the UK. I have in the States, of course.

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    2. Alan, that's great that you have met deaf people in the States.

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  22. Welcome Allan. This series seems so interesting, I just downloaded the first.
    Danielle

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  23. A new series to read! I always get the best recommendations from JRW.

    Congratulations, Alan. I look forward to your books.

    Marianne from Maine

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  24. Kathy Boone ReelJuly 30, 2022 at 1:59 PM

    Sometimes I think the Jungle Reds can read my mind, or I can read theirs. I had some online book friends who were just talking about this series, and I checked and found #1 on my Kindle already. I've also got #5 because it was at such a good price for Kindle. Now, to find the time to fit them in all my scheduled reading. I've no doubt I'll find time. Everyone seems to love this series. Alan, congratulations on the new book and the series and being able to keep such a huge secret.

    A favorite author of mine is British author Sharon Bolton. She started out with her novels published under S.J. Bolton, and I have those. Then, at some point she changed to Sharon. I haven't read anything about why, but my guess would be that she had established herself and felt she no longer had to have an androgynous name.

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  25. Alan, I love this series! It is so interesting to watch the women evolve to face their realities, especially Gwen. Although Iris is working on her own missteps, especially in this latest story. I hope there are many more books in this series!

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  26. Hank Phillippi RyanJuly 30, 2022 at 7:41 PM

    Coming in so late, but with a massive welcome. This sounds absolutely marvelous, what a wonderful story, and I cannot wait to read all of these! I think you’re philosophical journey about your ego is fascinating in so many ways. And if it had not been as great as success, well,… Well, thinking again, that’s something you’ll never have to deal with! And the idea that your darling publisher was there to shepherd is very wonderful. And then voila! You get to reveal it is you. So all the better. What better for a successful author than to have a twist?

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  27. A general thank you for all the nice comments. And one more interesting entry: Alice Bradley, who wrote wonderful science fiction under the name of James Tiptree, Jr. Robert Silverberg wrote an introduction to one of her short story collections, stating that Tiptree had to be a man based on the writing. After her identity was revealed, he wrote a later introduction admitting the error of his way of thinking.

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