How 8 Famous Writers Chose Their Pen Names

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Scottish author Iain Banks died earlier this week after battling gall bladder cancer. With him died his nom de plume Iain M. Banks, under which he wrote science fiction. I admit I’m not familiar with the work Banks wrote under either name, and when I heard the news, I initially thought it weird that two writers with such similar names died on the same day. I wasn’t alone, and my Twitter feed was soon littered with realizations from others that they were the same guy. 

Some pen names are fairly well-known for what they are. Most people know that Mark Twain was the alias of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The outing of Richard Bachman as a pen name used by Stephen King was well-publicized and inspired King’s novel, The Dark Half. Some pen names you don’t see coming, though, and assume the name on the book cover is the real deal. Here, eight that threw me for a loop when I first heard about them. 

1. Lewis Carroll

While Lewis Carroll might sound delightfully British to American ears, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is even more so. Dodgson adopted his pen name in 1856 because, according to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, he was modest and wanted to maintain the privacy of his personal life. When letters addressed to Carroll arrived at Dodgson’s offices at Oxford, he would refuse them to maintain deniability. Dodgson came up with the alias by Latinizing Charles Lutwidge into Carolus Ludovicus, loosely Anglicizing that into Carroll Lewis and then changing their order. It was chosen by his publisher from a list of several possible pen names. 

2. Joseph Conrad

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski is a bit of a mouthful, and when the Polish novelist began publishing his writing in the late 1800s he used an Anglicized version of his name: Joseph Conrad. He caught some flack for this from Polish intellectuals who thought he was disrespecting his homeland and heritage (it didn’t help that he became a British citizen and published in English), but Korzeniowski explained, “It is widely known that I am a Pole and that Józef Konrad are my two Christian names, the latter being used be me as a surname so that foreign mouths should not distort my real surname… It does not seem to me that I have been unfaithful to my country by having proved to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine [Korzeniowski was an ethnic Pole born in formerly Polish territory that was controlled by Ukraine, and later the Russian Empire] can be as good a sailor as they, and has something to tell them in their own language.”

3. Pablo Neruda

Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (another mouthful) had an interest in literature from a young age, but his father disapproved. When Basoalto began publishing his own poetry, he needed a byline that wouldn’t tip off his father, and chose Pablo Neruda in homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Basoalto later adopted his pen name as his legal name. 

4. Stan Lee

Stanley Martin Lieber got his start writing comic books, but hoped to one day graduate to more serious literary work and wanted to save his real name for that. He wrote the kids’ stuff under the pen name Stan Lee and eventually took it as his legal name after achieving worldwide recognition as a comic book writer. 

5. Ann Landers

Ann Landers was the pseudonym for several women who wrote the column over the years. The name was created by the column’s original author, Ruth Crowley, who adopted it because she was already writing a newspaper column about child care and didn’t want readers confusing the two. She borrowed the name from a friend of her family, Bill Landers, and made an effort to keep her real identity a secret. 

6. Voltaire

When François-Marie Arouet was imprisoned in the Bastille in the early 1700s, he wrote a play. To signify his breaking away from his past, especially his family, he signed the work with the alias Voltaire. The name, the Voltaire Foundation explains, was derived from “Arouet, the younger.” He took his family name and the initial letters of le jeune—“Arouet l(e) j(eune)”—and anagrammed them. If you’re left scratching your head, the foundation helpfully points out that I and j, and u and v, were typographically interchangeable in Voltaire’s day.

7. George Orwell

When Eric Arthur Blair was getting ready to publish his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, he decided to use a pen name so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time in poverty. He chose the name George Orwell to reflect his love of English tradition and landscape. George is the patron saint of England and the River Orwell, a popular sailing spot, was a place he loved to visit. 

8. J.K. Rowling

Joanne Rowling’s publishers weren’t sure that the intended readers of the Harry Potter books—pre-adolescent boys—would would read stories about wizards written by a woman, so they asked her to use her initials on the book instead of her full name. Rowling didn’t have a middle name, though, and had to borrow one from her grandmother Kathleen to get her pen name J.K. Rowling.

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June 14, 2013 - 8:40pm
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