‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet asks herself while mooning around on her balcony, and the answer she comes up with could be roughly summarised thus: a name probably shouldn’t matter that much, but actually it does. Quite a bit.
While it’s true that a name doesn’t make a thing (a rose, for instance) what it intrinsically is, nor a person who they intrinsically are, literature leaves us in no doubt that once the signifier and the signified have become attached to one another, there’s immense power in the connection.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde makes being Earnest very important indeed. When John Proctor effectively sentences himself to death in The Crucible, he explains that he will not sign his name to a lie, ‘Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!’ The plot of many a fantasy novel turns on the trope that knowing a thing’s true name enables you to have mastery over it.
Names, in general, matter. But how much, and why, exactly, does an author’s name matter? And how much does it matter if one or more of the names you write under isn’t the one you use for dentist appointments and phone bills?
I ponder these questions on my own account, but also because I’m so often asked about my multiple writing identities. This hasn’t happened only at writing festivals and book events (back in the days when they were still a thing), but also at parties (ditto) when I was one margarita down and minding my business over by the guacamole.
I’ve found that the most expedient way to answer, in a public setting, is to say that it’s all to do with branding. Since readers who like the grim, fairy-tale-flavoured literary fiction I write as Danielle Wood might be disappointed in the more commercial, happy-endings-guaranteed fiction I write as Minnie Darke – and vice versa – it seems sensible to have different names for the different genres. As the polynymous author who is known in her regular life as Anna Maxted has said, a nom de plume is a kind of ‘witness protection program for authors’, a shield to defend genre-hopping storytellers against critics and readers who are ‘notoriously unforgiving of writers who don’t do as previously said on the tin’.
From the podium, or while waving around a corn chip, I explain that I have a Danielle Wood tin and a Minnie Darke tin, and also an Angelica Banks tin that holds the children’s fiction that Heather Rose and I write when we work together. (We chose a pen name because we didn’t like the idea of two author names on a book, and we chose ‘Angelica Banks’, specifically, because when you’re R-for-Rose and W-for-Wood, you’re often shelved around the knees and ankles in bookshops and libraries, and we hoped a B surname would shelve us at eye-level.)
There is nothing untrue about the biscuit tin answer, the expounding of which has usually allowed me to progress to the next question at a festival, or onto the second margarita at a party. But there is another response I could offer instead: I may have ended up with multiple author names because I’m not entirely certain that authors ought to have any names at all.
This way of thinking began about twenty years ago when I plucked a book off a library shelf and read a strident essay by a writer who believed all fiction ought to be published anonymously. I wish I’d recorded the name of the writer or the title of that highly opinionated essay. Even more than this, though, I wish I was the type of best-practice writer who never fails to write down such details in one of those handy, pocket-sized notebooks that they carry with them at all times.
‘Her’ argument (because for some reason, I believe the author of the essay was a woman) was that a book of fiction ought to make its way in the world on its merits, free of the skewing influences of its author’s name and all the baggage of expectation, ego, fame, and branding that go along with it.
Part of me – the part that is rather drawn to purist notions and the deceptive simplicity of absolutism – thought, By god, she’s right! That part of me felt there was a kind of honourable self-abnegation involved in publishing anonymously, because if everyone were to publish their fiction as ‘Anonymous’, then anonymity would no longer be a provocative shout about the importance of a writer’s identity remaining secret, but a quiet statement that it’s the work itself that matters, and not the writer at all.
Robbed of the supposed imprimatur of a particular author’s fame, readers would have to develop an alternative way of working out what they were likely to enjoy, or not enjoy, and publishers would need to find new ways to help them. But the purist quarter of me would argue that would hardly be insurmountable. And consider the benefits! For example, an end to those tedious book reviews that focus on whether or not such-and-such a novelist – because of their known or assumed gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or level of ableism – ought to have permitted themselves to make particular acts of imagination in fiction. With anonymity, the problems of fiction getting tangled up in identity politics would be short-circuited.
Clearly, the purist part of me is tired of such book reviews. But I should explain that if I were to involve all parts of me in a debate on identity politics and fiction writing, I would descend into civil war. In fact, I think I can hear the bickering starting now…
Earnest part: Surely the only writers who fantasise about being able to write fiction outside of identity are white dudes, and privileged white chicks like you.
Curious part: If that’s true then, wow, hasn’t the world changed since the Brontë sisters were pretending to be the Bell brothers so they could be taken for white dudes?
Devil’s Advocate part: Hey, hang on. There are still women writers who disguise their gender by using their initials rather than gender-revealing first names. And writers from marginalized backgrounds sometimes feel hemmed in by the labels that the world gives them.
Purist part: You see? You see? It would just be easier if writers didn’t have names at all!)
But before I become tempted to give each of these parts of me a name and a biography, in the style of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronyms’, I’ll move on to the question of how to do public appearances when you’re not quite sure, while you’re waiting to go on air, or standing nervously in the green room, exactly who you are being. When I began to write under pseudonyms, I thought I might be dealing myself out of some of the business of ‘being a writer’ – appearing at festivals, having an active social media presence, offering glimpses of my personal life, turning my private identity into a curated brand that would shore up my marketability. I didn’t think a pseudonym would enable me to avoid the marketing machine altogether, but I did think I’d be able to outsource a lot more than has actually been the case. At one point, I dreamed of hiring actors to be Minnie – a different one each time. But since building a sustainable career relies on selling books into a crowded market, and since this in turn relies on the author being prepared to be the public face of their work – nom de plume or no – I’ve made the pragmatic choice to do my own stunts. So, I show up at writing events as an odd amalgam of Danielle and Minnie, and have become accustomed to the awkward moment when the radio host or festival facilitator looks pained and asks, ‘But what do I call you?’
So, there’s the biscuit tin answer, and the more complicated one about anonymity. But there’s yet another answer to the question of my multiple writing names, and it’s probably the one I like the most. It’s the one closest to my heart, and therefore the one I am least likely to admit to while talking to a stranger by a big bowl of avocado-based dip. This answer comes from the part of me that enjoys mischief and spent a good deal of her childhood wishing for an invisibility cloak. It comes from the part of me might once have wanted to be an actor but knew – deep down – that I lacked the necessary capacity for public disinhibition. This part of me also enjoys creating Memojis, drawing maps of fictional islands and thinking up names for new pets.
‘Minnie Darke’ came about because I was trying to reverse my initials from DW to WD. Although I hit on Darke quite quickly, I couldn’t find a first name starting with W that sang to me. The closest I got was with ‘Winnie’, which led me to ‘Minnie’, coincidentally the first name of a great-grandmother I never knew, but who appears in photographs with enormous, soulful brown eyes and a full-lipped mouth you could tell would be given to laughing and kissing.
But, for me, writing under a pseudonym isn’t just a matter of slapping a made-up name like ‘Minnie Darke’ on the first page of a completed manuscript, but a matter of becoming Minnie Darke before I even begin at page one. It’s a matter of occupying the part of me that writes with a lighter touch, using a palette of primary colours, as opposed to occupying the Danielle Wood part of me, who can be more savage, occasionally adding a bit of blood or bile to the ink.
When Heather and I work as Angelica, we have to access a shared reservoir of both imagination and diction. The corollary of this in the physical world is that when we appear in public, we wear matching outfits. The Angelica Banks look involves insane red curly wigs, long coats of blue velvet, and ostentatiously large sunglasses.
A pseudonym is a lot like those wigs and coats – concealment and theatre all at once.
I’ve come to understand that creativity is reliably accessed through childlike means, so if make-believe and dress-ups are what it takes, then bring it on. I’ve also realised that even the infinitesimal weight of an imaginary invisibility cloak on your shoulders is sometimes enough to make creativity feel safe.
Who knows what name I will need to take on in order to embark on the fantasy novel that’s been visiting me in dreams? Or who I will become when I sit down to write a suite of obscure-but-heartfelt prose poems? Who knows how many noms de plume I could end up with if I am blessed to have a long writing career? Who knows, after all, how many different parts might be contained in a single human soul?
This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Arts Tasmania.