Surely all authors long to see their name in print. My academic publications did lead to one satisfying moment, even if my own parents didn’t read my whole book. At a conference, on introduction, a peer replied: ‘Catherine Haines. The Catherine Haines. I love your chapter eight. I use it all the time.’ For a moment I basked, smug in writers’ heaven. Sadly, it never happened again.
The urge to reveal all in fiction.
So recently, when a short story was accepted for publication, I was shocked to realise that my fictional alter ego was still a gawky adolescent: skulking at the edge of the dance floor, yet longing to dazzle with my unique display. Yet this writerly affliction, this urge to create and share, cannot avoid the opinions of the unpredictable crowd. One browse on TripAdvisor or Goodreads is enough to show you the sheer mind-bewildering diversity of responses human beings may have to the same stimulus.
What is there to hide?
A psychiatrist friend offered to write a review of my fiction on Amazon, and it pulled me up short. My little tale of plastic surgery, vanity and failed relationships wasn’t me, but how would the world know that? My story of a grossly politically incorrect alcoholic office worker could trigger law suits from everyone whom I’d ever worked alongside. What am I revealing, not just to the psychiatrist (who must get used to keeping quiet as we express our common neuroses before them) but to the world? Could I live with whatever may be read into it? Always supposing I should be so lucky as to have readers!
A name to live up to.
A pseudonym may take the strain. But what would she or he be called? We all have names to live up to and names to show where we belong. My own name: Catherine Haines, translates as Purity Fencepost. As contradictory a pairing of aspiration and stolid purpose as you could ever hope to find: a name uniting my mother’s romantic love for Wuthering Heights and our farm-labouring roots. The poet, Wayne Burrows, not content with inventing characters within his poetry, has created an entire fictional artist, Robert Holcombe, complete with Facebook account, obituary and fictional/actual artworks.
And why not? I certainly know how the fictional hero of my novel brushes his teeth, even though I killed him in 1951. In The Starling Bequest, I explore the struggles of my hero taxidermist, Kenneth Starling, and Emperor, the largest bull elephant ever stuffed.
A name to hide behind.
A little light research revealed different ways you could hide within your name. Many adopt a ‘nom de plume’ but recruits are given a ‘nom de guerre’ (warrior name) to live up to. On joining a religious order one is reborn with a new name. A group of people can all act under the safety of the same name. Is there only one Banksy? There is a long tradition of authors differentiating their public and private identities for social and commercial reasons. The same author may have one name for romantic fiction and one for science fiction.
The good old Brontë’s wanted to hide their femininity. A solid citizen of my acquaintance adopts a racy female name for his lucrative porn-writing work. Which reminds me. Perhaps my porn name would do? You know, the name of your first pet combined with that of your first street. But Tufty Belmont did not strike the right note, and could also be required by my sister, should she ever strike out in this direction.
Pick a name. Any name.
Even Winston Churchill (Nobel Prize for literature, and a bit of a politician) had to adopt a pen name, Winston S Churchill, to differentiate himself from the far more well-known US author of the era with the same name. Equity will only register one named actor at any one time, thus prompting Maurice Micklewhite to become Michael Caine and helping Norma Jeane Mortenson to Marilyn Monroe herself. And is the author’s name synonymous with their identity? Are you your own intellectual property, your own brand name? Could there be future merchandising links? I foresee a rush on Barbara Taylor Bradford dressing table sets and Catherine Cookson recipes for leftovers sold through libraries. What product could I become? An educational taxidermy set? If things really took off, would my name work in other cultures or prove disastrous? I once advised a man I met at a US conference never to visit Britain. His name? Dr Randy Wanker.
Should I just avoid psychiatrists and grow a thick skin? Eventually, an answer emerged: I chose a pen name which differentiated my fictional writing from my professional academic writing. It allowed me to distance myself, if I chose, from writing about the sort of slightly disturbing subjects I enjoy. Yet, it feels familiar. It keeps my mother’s maiden name in the mix. I also moved closer to the top of the alphabet or the front of the bookshelf, and became easier to spell! Hello Catherine Haines, writing as Catherine Brookes, time to take a daring solo leap onto the dancefloor.
Now, I must consult my stylist and my personal trainer ready for my book promotion tour and my amanuensis and editor to see how they are getting along with my next novel.
So, what name would you choose, and why?