Photo credit: Ollie Grove
Ever heard of Charles Dodgson? Or Samuel Clemens? Maybe Eric Blair? What about some more contemporary names like Madeline Wickham, Jim Grant, or David Cornwell? Award yourself a cookie for every one of those you recognized. They are, of course, the alter egos of world-famous novelists. They are the Clark Kents and Diana Princes of the literary world. In case you didn’t get them all, they are: Lewis Carroll
, Mark Twain
, George Orwell
, Sophie Kinsella
, and John Le Carré
Authors have been using pen names since there were, well, authors. They’ve done it for many and various reasons, but it’s most often a pragmatic decision. Let’s talk about a few approaches to this.
Probably the least likely reason to use a pen name is the Reginald Dwight tactic. Or the Maurice Mickelwhite. Or the Chaim Witz. Elton John, Michael Caine, and Gene Simmons just sound a bit sexier, don’t they? Unlike other art forms such as music and thespianism — proper showbiz, in other words — there’s less disadvantage to a slightly nerdy name for an author. Lee Child
is a little more striking than Jim Grant, but I doubt that was Lee’s reasoning. In fact, if you’re using a pen name to sound more rock ’n’ roll, then you’re probably in the wrong business.
A much more common reason, and possibly one of the oldest, is good old sexism. The history of literature is well populated with women who either used men’s names or fudged it with some androgynous initials. Even some female authors that are household names today were first published under masculine pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters, Charlotte
, and Anne
, were first published as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Others continue to be recognized by their pen names, like Middlemarch
author George Eliot, known to her friends as Mary Ann Evans. These women chose male pseudonyms because it was felt they could not otherwise be taken seriously by readers. It would be nice to think that such daft notions aren’t a consideration today. Alas, not so. Browse the shelves in any bookstore and you’ll find a list of gender-neutral initials, usually double letters and a snappy surname, intended to disguise the authors’ double-X chromosomes. Think J. D. Robb
and J. K. Rowling
. It’s a sad reality that while women generally don’t discriminate in their reading, men are more prone to foolishly pass female writers by.
Gender swapping does, however, cut both ways. The rise of domestic noir — or, God help us, grip-lit — has seen women like Paula Hawkins
, Gillian Flynn
, and Ruth Ware
come to dominate this particular field. Given that something like 70 percent of crime fiction is read by women, it’s hardly surprising that there is a thriving market for thrillers by women for women. But, like women had to do for the last couple of centuries, men are sneaking in with crafty pseudonyms: the gender-neutral S. J. Watson
, for example, or my good friend Martyn Waites, who writes commercial thrillers as Tania Carver
. Literary cross-dressing has been with us for hundreds of years and doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
Another longstanding reason for the pen name is the anonymity it theoretically provides. John Le Carré is of course one of the very greatest spy novelists in the history of the genre. Where Ian Fleming
gave us the cartoonish male fantasy of the secret agent life, Le Carré showed us how mundane and sordid the reality of spycraft was. There’s a very good reason for the verisimilitude of Le Carré’s work: he, as David Cornwell, was in fact an MI6 agent. People in that particular line of work were forbidden by the British government to publish anything under their own names, thus out of necessity, Cornwell became Le Carré (French for “the Square”), the preeminent writer of his genre.
We might at this point consider Robert Galbraith
. J. K. Rowling moved from gender neutrality to outright gender swapping with this pen name, but then neglected to tell anyone but her agent. Some might speculate this was a convoluted publicity stunt, but I’m prepared to take Rowling at her word: she simply wanted her crime fiction to be judged on its own merits. That she was outed and her alter ego became a bestseller is happy coincidence. In similar territory is Joe Hill
, known to his parents as Joseph Hillstrom King. In his case, it wasn’t his own past works he wanted to sidestep, but rather his father’s. Stephen King
casts quite a shadow, and it’s an admirable thing that Joe Hill forged his own path without greasing the wheels with his dad’s reputation.
Speaking of Stephen King, the grandmaster of horror is part of a venerable tradition of big-league authors adopting pen names just because they wrote too damn much. King published a string of novels as Richard Bachman
because his publisher felt readers couldn’t handle more than one a year. Which of course seems ridiculous now that it’s been proven readers can handle a new James Patterson
book roughly once a week.
And then there’s the reason that’s most relevant to me: genre hopping. Literary author Iain Banks
became Iain M. Banks when it came time to write sci-fi; the aforementioned J. D. Robb is the mystery-writing alter ego of romance novelist Nora Roberts
. For me, it’s not so much genre-hopping as subgenre-hopping. Under my given name, Stuart Neville
, I’ve always been a thriller writer. I’ve tended to the darker side of things, the New York Times
describing my debut as “a rare example of legitimate noir fiction,” and I guess I’ve been pretty comfortable in the noir camp, even if I suspect that label exists purely to make us feel a little more fancy than other crime writers.
When I first had the idea for Here and Gone
back in 2014, I knew this was something different. While I didn’t set out to create something more overtly commercial than my previous work, there was no denying that it sat closer to the likes of Harlan Coben
and Linwood Barclay
on the crime spectrum.
Then there’s the setting. Up until now, my books have been mostly set in and around Belfast, capital city of Northern Ireland. The crime genre is one deeply wedded to its sense of place; Ian Rankin has Edinburgh, James Ellroy has LA, and Laura Lippman has Baltimore. Whether I like it or not, along with Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville is a “Belfast author.” But from the first moment I conceived of Here and Gone
, I knew it would be set in Arizona, the one part of America I’ve spent almost as much time in as New York.
Given the shift in subgenre and setting, a pen name became an increasingly obvious route to take. After much discussion, my agent and publishers agreed. In my mind, Haylen Beck
is an entirely distinct entity from Stuart Neville. (Yes, I’m referring to myself in the third person. It’s making me uncomfortable too.) Haylen Beck writes stand-alone high-concept thrillers set in America; Stuart Neville writes dark character-driven procedurals set in Belfast. And never the twain shall meet.
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, you want to know how I came up with the name Haylen Beck? Well, I’ll leave you to figure that out. Clue: it’s an amalgam of two famous musicians’ surnames…
÷ ÷ ÷
is the pseudonym of an acclaimed, Edgar-nominated author whose crime fiction has won the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize, and made best-of-year lists with numerous publications including the New York Times
, the Los Angeles Times
, and the Boston Globe
. Here and Gone
is his first book as Haylen Beck.