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TMN Talks

Nom de Plume

Nom de Plume

Carmela Ciuraru’s first nonfiction work, Nom de Plume: The (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, was recently published by HarperCollins. The book explores the biographies of several writers—Patricia Highsmith, Mark Twain—who adopted pen names and their various reasons for doing so.

Ciuraru has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. She has also edited anthologies of poetry for Alfred A. Knopf/Everyman’s Library and Scribner.

TMN: What drew you to the topic of pseudonymity?

Carmela Ciuraru: This project evolved from a brief magazine article I had written—I wanted to pursue the subject further and was very pleased when I learned that it could become a book. I’ve always been fascinated by pseudonyms and what motivates writers to adopt them. Of course I had no idea just how complex and mysterious this issue was until I got deeper into the research. Nor did I know that writers could have such intimate relationships with their alter egos—except for maybe Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer. I had found his work many years ago and fallen in love. I knew immediately that it was essential to include him in the book because he had more than 70 authorial identities, and he had such intense relationships with his various selves. But in other cases (though not quite so extreme), authors had complicated bonds with their alter egos as well. That was so interesting to me.

I think the other thing that drew me to the topic is that I grew up in a household in which three languages were spoken. As a result, I never felt entirely one identity or the other—I felt caught between the two, which I think is a common experience for children who grow up with immigrant parents. And so the notion of identity as something fluid or unstable was familiar, perhaps not unlike how it was to the writers in my book. 

TMN: There must be thousands of writers who have used pseudonyms. How did you decide which ones to focus on? 

CC: This was very difficult to figure out. I had to offer a kind of survey, but by definition this could by no means be a comprehensive history. I spent a lot of time agonizing over my choices, but in the end it was about which stories were the most dramatic or compelling, and how they played off one another. I settled on 16 stories and I liked that as a number. To me the first really great story of pseudonymity begins with the Brontë sisters; and I decided to stop with Pauline Réage a hundred years later. Even though I could have gone further, ending with Réage just felt right; I’m not sure how else to explain it. And I should add that literary merit was a secondary consideration overall. I really just wanted to find the best stories (to me) about pseudonymity. This is not a collection of my favorite writers, although some of them do happen to be in the book—such as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Henry Green, and Pessoa. Part of the pleasure in writing this was discovering writers whose works I didn’t know well or even at all. I’m so happy about that.

TMN: It seems as though writers are more likely to adopt creative personas than other artists. Why do you think that is?

CC: Well, signing a fake name to a painting seems fairly pointless, although there are examples of visual artists who changed their names (Blinky Palermo comes to mind). Still, changing your name is different from adopting a creative persona—or engaging in a kind of deception or inhabiting a different identity to produce your work. In the context of filmmaking, for instance, no one cares that Woody Allen was once named Allen Konigsberg. He did change his name, but he wasn’t trying to hide or “become” someone else to write and direct his movies. In literature, however, there is a long tradition of pseudonymity that flourished in the 19th century especially, and this device made many works possible that may not have been written otherwise. That tradition doesn’t exist in other genres to the same extent. Writing is a solitary act, the least collaborative, thus making secrecy and privacy easier (at least in the past).

TMN: Do you find that more or fewer writers use pseudonyms now?

CC: Of course, that’s the tricky thing about pseudonyms: we don’t know. In an online context, though, fake names are obviously being used more than ever. But in the traditional sense? My guess is that fewer writers adopt pseudonyms these days. Some of the motives for authorial disguise are simply no longer relevant in the 21st century (e.g., a woman pretending to be a man to get her work published). And since “fame,” or the taste of it, has become such a cheap commodity, more people seem to crave it—and if they can get their work published, they mostly seem to want to take credit for it. There are certainly writers and poets today using pen names, but I think it’s much less common.

TMN: Are pseudonyms being used differently now?

CC: Yes. There’s widespread online usage, and the use of transparent or “open” pseudonyms—meaning a label such as “Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb” is slapped on a cover as a way to market the book. This was not the case in the 19th century. Even after an author’s nom de plume became widely known, authors typically didn’t acknowledge that fact, and certainly not on their book covers. Today, we insist on “knowing” authors and because of Facebook, Twitter, and so on, they have become much more accessible, for better or worse. We have sort of stripped away all the mystery of authorial identity, and I think that’s a shame. I would prefer more distance between author and reader. With few exceptions, I’d rather know less, not more, about the writers whose books I read.

TMN: Why do you prefer more distance between the author and the reader? How does that affect your experience as a reader?

CC: This isn’t always the case, of course, but often I find that knowing too much about the author can interfere with my reading or interpretation of the work. I want to take a poem or story or novel on its own terms as much as possible. I don’t want to feel that the author is standing in the room staring at me while I’m reading the work. Reading is such an intimate experience that (usually) I’d prefer more distance from the author. Everything you need to know is really there in the book. Many people would say that when you do encounter a favorite writer directly, the experience can prove a bit disappointing. How could it not? These poor authors cannot possibly meet our expectations, especially when we assume that the stuff of their books actually happened to them instead of being imagined. 

I read an interview recently with a contemporary author who used a pseudonym for a new novel, and she said that adopting a pen name felt more “pure” somehow. I understood what she meant. Having an alter ego can remove unwanted baggage or preconceived notions about one “ought” to have achieved with a book, or whether it measured up to one’s previous work. Wanting distance on both sides—as author or reader—makes sense to me.

TMN: What was the most surprising or scandalous thing you found out about an author during your research?

CC: I made all sorts of interesting discoveries with each of the chapters. I came away with greater admiration for some authors. Others I had made certain assumptions about before starting my research, and by the end those ideas were overturned. So many of these writers led “scandalous” lives (or were perceived to have done so in their lifetimes—like George Sand) that it’s hard to choose just one.

I thought I knew a fair amount about the Brontës, but as I got deeper into the research I was surprised by how much I learned and how inspiring I found them—Charlotte in particular. She had amazing courage and confidence and ambition. She outlived her mother and all of her siblings, and she had a brief life herself. I saw her as a heroic figure.

I was well acquainted with Patricia Highsmith’s work, but I never knew that she was a raging anti-Semite. I was surprised by how cruel she could be, and that she was filled with vitriol almost to a comical extent. Her meanness was incredible. Empathy was not part of her emotional repertoire. 

And the whole story of the charismatic French author Romain Gary was extraordinary to me. All of it. He pulled off one of the greatest and most elaborate authorial hoaxes in history. He actually won the Prix Goncourt once (as himself), then shed his name to start anew, and won the Prix Goncourt—again!—under his pseudonym. (Authors are allowed to win this prize only once.) He always seemed to get the last laugh, no matter the toll it took on his reputation.

Even in his suicide note, he showed contempt for the French literary world and all that it stood for. His death was shocking and sad, but in his final utterance he still seemed to be having fun at the expense of others—you know, “catch me if you can.” Well, no one could catch him. He was far too clever. Once he felt that he had no more tricks up his sleeve, he simply ended his life.

I also especially loved the story behind the scandalous publication of Histoire d’O, and the fact that the author of this S&M novel, Pauline Réage (or, Dominique Aury) was so demure and austere in her private life. She had the appearance of a school librarian or a civil service employee; there was nothing flamboyant in her dress or manner. Her sexual life was nothing to brag about. She was quiet and intellectual. And somehow she had created this bizarre (and at times violent) novel. Her story was shocking in many respects, but it reminded me of how complicated we are as human beings—how many of our behaviors and impulses cannot be explained.

TMN: If someone forced you to assume a pen name, what would it be and why? 

CC: The context would determine the name. Would I be using a pseudonym to describe a painful autobiographical experience, or would it all be for fun? I’ve joked that my pen name would be “Carmela von Plume” because I like that it sounds vaguely aristocratic, but I can’t imagine ever being able to use that. If I were compelled to use a fake name for some reason, I would consider the possibilities very carefully and agonize over my choice.

At this point, having seen a vast number of variant spellings of my difficult surname, and having heard it (mis)pronounced in so many funny ways, I’m inclined to keep the name I have.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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