Mental Floss
BOOKS

11 Famous Authors Who Never Actually Existed

Jake Rossen
Not all authors are technically real people.
Not all authors are technically real people. / dtv2/iStock via Getty Images
facebooktwitterreddit

The more we consume the works of a favorite author, the more we want to know about them. Love Lewis Carroll of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fame? Some posit he could have been Jack the Ripper. Stephen King? He owns a radio station. Charles Dickens? He named his children after his own favorite authors. Other authors have scant biographical information, chiefly because they never actually existed. For reasons owing to privacy, being prolific, or being part of a collective, these 11 writers were never able to show up for a book signing.

1. Carolyn Keene

A stack of Nancy Drew books
Some of Mary Heller's collection of Nancy Drew mysteries at her home. / Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal

Keene was the credited author of the popular Nancy Drew series of young adult detective novels, with the intrepid Drew cracking cases involving old clocks and scary lighthouses. Her actual creator was Edward Stratemeyer, who did a brisk business with children’s adventures series like the Hardy Boys. (That series had its own imaginary author, Franklin W. Dixon.) Stratemeyer wrote outlines for some of the Nancy Drew books—the first of which was released in 1930, the same year he passed—and then handed them over to Mildred Wirt Benson to write. It was Benson who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew novels, with various ghostwriters coming in over the years after that.

The mystery of the Keene pseudonym wasn’t solved until 1980, when a lawsuit involving Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate led to the disclosure. It was made public knowledge in 1993. A former journalist, Benson was as interesting a character as Drew: After getting her pilot’s license in the 1960s, she often traveled to Central America to view Mayan ruins.

2. Ellery Queen

Nearly as prominent a name in mystery fiction as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen made his debut in 1929. But Queen was actually two men: cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. (They also named their recurring detective Ellery Queen on the premise that if a reader forgot the author’s name, they’d at least remember the character’s, or vice versa.) Dannay and Lee had chosen Queen as a pseudonym because McClure’s magazine had been promoting a writing contest and didn’t want to show favoritism to established authors; all entries had to be under a pen name. The ruse, as it were, was maintained for a little while. When “Ellery Queen” was invited to speak at colleges, Lee would show up in a mask.

3. Richard Stark

By all appearances, Richard Stark specialized in just one character: Parker, the clever and violent master thief who appeared in 23 pulp novels. (The first, The Hunter, appeared in 1962.) But Stark was one of many pseudonyms used by prolific writer Donald E. Westlake. According to Westlake, he used Stark and other names (Tucker Coe, Edwin West, and Samuel Colt) so he could secure contracts with other publishers that were limited to just one book per year.

Westlake would later say he considered writing as Stark to be a state of mind, with a style distinct from his own. “Stark and Westlake use language very differently,” he wrote. “To some extent they’re mirror images. Westlake is allusive, indirect, referential, a bit rococo. Stark strips his sentences down to the necessary information.”

After losing Stark’s voice for roughly 15 years, Westlake said he regained it in 1989, when he was asked to write a film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. Director Stephen Frears asked Westlake to write as Stark, and even sign the screenplay as such. Westlake agreed to the approach, but used his real name. “Stark wasn’t a member of the Writer’s Guild,” Westlake said, “and I wasn’t about to let him scab.”

4. Ted L. Nancy

Before emails became the default method of written communication, author Ted L. Nancy was busy writing actual letters to corporations and businesses and forcing them to field his outlandish requests. (Telling a department store a mannequin looks like his dead neighbor, for example, or trying to forewarn a hotel that he travels with red ants.) His letters and their responses were collected in the Letters From a Nut book series, which began in 1997.

In the introduction to the first book, Jerry Seinfeld claimed he had discovered Nancy’s letters at a friend’s house and helped to get them published. That led to speculation it was Seinfeld who was behind the name. Nancy was not Seinfeld but Barry Marder, a Seinfeld show writer who got the idea to write to corporations in the 1990s after seeing a message on a bag of Fritos inviting customers to contact them. In 2010, Seinfeld and Marder appeared on television to co-promote a new book and revealed that Marder was the real author; Seinfeld later helped Marder turn the missives into a 2017 stage show.

5. Betty Crocker

A cookbook reading "The Betty Crocker Cookbook"
"The Betty Crocker Cookbook" has been a favorite since 1950.Betty Crocker / Lyn Dowling/For FLORIDA TODAY

While Betty Crocker may be synonymous with boxed cake mixes, she was once best known as a prolific cookbook author and advice columnist. But Crocker was a crock: She was the invention of the Washburn-Crosby Company (later known as General Mills). In 1921, the company held a promotion in which readers could assemble a puzzle and get a pincushion in return. Along with the responses came cooking questions. The Gold Medal Home Service Staff, which specialized in flour, came up with Crocker—her last name was a nod to William G. Crocker, the onetime director of Washburn-Crosby. A secretary named Florence Lindberg signed Crocker’s name.

6. Richard Bachman

Bookstore employee Steve Brown noticed a curious thing about the work of obscure thriller author Richard Bachman: His prose resembled the work of Stephen King, who was as famous as Bachman was unheralded. Brown wrote to King’s agent to inquire about the similarities, at which point King knew the game was over. He had spent eight years writing titles like Rage, The Long Walk, and Thinner as Bachman to escape conventional publishing strategy about name authors releasing just one book a year to avoid oversaturating the market. The ruse was comprehensive: As Bachman, King claimed a facial deformity made him wary of interviews and registered the books’ copyrights under his agent’s name. After being discovered, King would declare Bachman had “died of cancer of the pseudonym.”

7. Erin Hunter

The author of the Warrior Cats series is actually a team of people. Created by Vicky Holmes for HarperCollins in 2003, Warrior Cats (think Game of Thrones for felines) initially featured outlines by Holmes, with the narrative being fully fleshed out by Kate Cary and Cherith Baldry. Later, story editors and other writers joined as the series turned into a multi-title franchise.

8. James S.A. Corey

The writer behind the sci-fi series The Expanse is—plot twist—not available for interviews. Corey is actually the joint pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who met in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the same writer's group and who had a mutual love of role-playing games. The Corey name proved so popular that when the two got hired to write the 2014 Star Wars novel Honor Among Thieves, publisher Del Rey insisted they use it.

9. Abigail Van Buren

Need life advice? You can count on Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. Abby of Dear Abby fame. But you won’t find anyone with that name who has wisdom to dispense. The column was written by Pauline Phillips, a Sioux City native who began counseling people via newspaper in 1956. Later, her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, assumed the role. Pseudonyms are apparently a genetic trait: Pauline’s twin sister, Esther Lederer, was the woman behind the Ann Landers persona.

10. JT LeRoy

In the early 2000s, author JT LeRoy became a publishing sensation with Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, the former a novel about a male prostitute and the latter presented as a fictionalized account of the author’s own traumatic upbringing that was later adapted into a 2004 film. LeRoy made sporadic public appearances in which he would usually whisper answers to admirers via proxies, which only added to his mystique.

But LeRoy didn’t exist—at least, not quite the way people assumed. He was the alter ego of writer Laura Albert, who had been writing in a male persona since her teens. Calling LeRoy her “avatar,” she found herself more comfortable embracing a splinter of her identity—a public-facing persona that allowed her a safe distance to cope with both an abusive childhood and a world often hostile to mediations on queerness and gender fluidity. LeRoy was embodied at gatherings by Savannah Knoop, Albert’s partner’s half-sibling. (Albert was physically present, too, but in the guise of “Speedie,” the author’s assistant.)

The ethereal nature of LeRoy was eventually excavated by The New York Times in 2006. Albert’s self-granted latitude in identity, which would have been embraced in the 2020s, was befuddling to contemporaries. The literary and celebrity circles that had feted LeRoy were puzzled: Some were angry and felt misled, while others believed it was in line with an author’s right to craft their own narrative. Albert would later describe LeRoy as a “shield…[like] mechanical hands that manipulate materials too dangerous to be touched directly.”

In 2020, audiobooks of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were released, the latter read by Albert, Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), Shirley Manson, and Robin Weigert (Deadwood), among others. Though JT LeRoy has taken on a few iterations, there is always a constant: the voice is always unmistakably Albert’s.

11. Penelope Ashe

In 1969, an erotic novel titled Naked Came the Stranger was published to mild controversy. The book was credited to a “Long Island housewife” named Penelope Ashe, but in reality, Ashe was a pseudonym for a team of Newsday writers who wanted to satirize the bodice-ripping, lurid novels of the era like Valley of the Dolls that prioritized sex over prose. Mark McGrady, a Newsday columnist and the ringleader of the plan, insisted on an “unremitting emphasis on sex.”

Roughly 24 staff writers—among them Pulitzer Prize winners Gene Goltz and Bob Greene—took a week each to write a chapter, which were then assembled to tell the tale of a sexually adventurous jilted wife named Gillian Blake. All were instructed to write as poorly as possible. McGrady’s sister-in-law, Billie Cooke, was hired to pose as Ashe for publicity purposes. Shockingly, it worked: Naked Came the Stranger became a bestseller. When the ruse was publicized, it sold even more copies.

This story was updated on March 12, 2022 to include additional information about JT LeRoy.

facebooktwitterreddit