In 1986, when Simon & Schuster editor Nancy Nicholas finished reading a mystery novel titled Lives of the Twins by first-time author Rosamond Smith, she decided she wanted to publish it. Nicholas contacted Smith’s agent, negotiated a deal, and forwarded a $10,000 advance. It was all part of the thrill of being an editor—the opportunity to discover new talent.
But by early 1987, Nicholas discovered she had not, in fact, found a fresh voice in fiction. Instead, she had unwittingly signed Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prominent and respected writers of her generation, with nearly 40 books (at the time) to her credit.
The “ruse,” as some came to call it, was not motivated by any malice. As Oates later explained, Lives of the Twins was a departure for her: a populist thriller about a woman who becomes romantically involved with twin brothers who are both psychotherapists. Along with the new genre, Oates decided she wanted to adopt a new author persona—one that wouldn’t carry the weight of expectations. It was similar to what Stephen King had done when he began writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a bit of misdirection that was eventually uncovered by a bookstore clerk who noticed Bachman’s voice was similar to King’s.
“I wanted a fresh reading,” Oates told The New York Times in 1987. “I wanted to escape from my own identity ... I didn’t think of it as a trick. I just thought of it as something different.”
Oates actually went to considerable lengths to obfuscate her real identity. Instead of going to her regular publisher, E.P. Dutton, and using her longtime agent, she reached out to agent (and neighbor) Rosalie Siegel, completing the illusion that “Rosamond Smith” was starting from scratch.
It worked—for a while. Then, in February 1987, gossip columnist Liz Smith broke the news that Oates was set to publish under a pseudonym with Simon & Schuster. (It’s not entirely clear how Smith found out, though one can infer her network of sources tipped her off to the deal.)
The Times then elaborated on details, including the book’s title and Oates’s explanation. (That they didn’t credit Smith for breaking the story rankled the columnist.) Among those surprised by the revelation were Oates’s regular agent, Blanche Gregory; her frequent editor at E.P. Dutton, William Abrahams; and Nicholas, who seemed slightly aggrieved.
“I don’t know that I’m publishing Joyce Carol Oates,” Nicholas said. “I signed Lives of the Twins in good faith as a first novel.”
Part of Oates’s motivation may have also been the theory that audiences (and critics) weren’t keen on an author publishing more than one book a year, believing that it signaled someone who valued quantity over quality. Oates was due to publish You Must Remember This under her own name with E.P. Dutton that same year.
The brief media frenzy led Oates to swear off pseudonyms, but that proclamation didn’t last. She would return to the Rosamond Smith pen name several more times for her mystery novels, though publishers didn’t embrace the fiction-within-a-fiction. The books were usually credited to “Joyce Carol Oates Writing As Rosamond Smith.”