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Friday Fun: Infamous and Lesser Known Pen Names

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

Happy Friday readers! We’ve made it through another week. Today, carrying over from our Wednesday topic on pen names, we are talking about some of the more infamous and lesser known aliases of famous authors. There are a few pen names that readers know and recognize on the spot. Mark Twain is the now well known alias of Samuel Clemens, or that Lewis Carroll was Charles Dodgson. Today, we know some of the well known pen names of famous authors like Richard Bachman, aka Stephen King.

But what about the authors who have become so synonymous with their alias, you may not realize they publish under a pen name at all? Or whose real names are low key and off the public grid, which is an accomplishment in itself in today’s digital age. Let’s take it a step further. How about some of the women authors who thrived under their pen names?

Toni Morrison, aka Chloe Ardelia Wofford

This coming August will mark a year passing since we lost one of the literary greats. Morrison was an exquisite story teller, who spun raw and complex emotions into her stories. Toni came from her Saint’s name of Anthony after she converted to Catholicism, while Morrison came from an ex husband.

In a 2012 profile, Morrison spoke about her pen name and how it felt like a whole other persona.

“But Chloe.” She grows expansive. “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best,” she says. “Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Anne Rice, aka Howard Allen Frances O’Brien

Anne Rice actually has two other well known pen names she has published under: A. N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling, which she used to publisher her more erotic stories. None of them are her real name. Though Anne wouldn’t call her author alias an actual pen name. In 1947 she legally changed her name to Anne, and took her husband Stan Rice’s last name when they married in 1961, the name was consciously constructed.

“My father’s name was Howard, she wanted to name me after Howard, and she thought it was a very interesting thing to do. She was a bit of a Bohemian, a bit of mad woman, a bit of a genius, and a great deal of a great teacher. And she had the idea that naming a woman Howard was going to give that woman an unusual advantage in the world.”

Mary Westmacott aka Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie

I switched this one up on you. Agatha Christie is famous as the queen of mysteries, giving us Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple among her body of work that encompassed 66 mystery novels (wowzers!) and 14 short stories. However mystery is not all she wrote. Wanting to explore themes of love and psychology, Christie created the alias of Mary Westmacott from her middle name, Mary, and the family name of a distant relative. She wrote six romance novels under the alias. It continuously amazes me this woman slept a day of her life.

James Tiptree Jr. aka Alice Bradley Sheldon

This pen name is well known in certain circles, but the story behind it remains interesting. Alice was a science fiction author who used the pen name James Tiptree for the better part of twenty years spanning her publishing career. Alice, who was a counterintelligence analyst and experimental psychologist, took the name ‘Tiptree’ from a jar of marmalade at the grocery store and decided to write science fiction stories for fun. She became an icon and a cult hero, and utterly anonymous since all her mail went to a P.O. box. It took nearly a decade before the alias came out of the bag due to a slip up when Alice revealed a personal detail in a letter to a fanzine. Alice’s male alias and author voice was so well crafted fans thought she was everyone from Salinger to Kissinger, with one notable critic dismissing the idea that Tiptree was really a woman as “absurd”. Alice wrote Science Fiction as James Tiptree from 1967 to 1987 and won a Hugo for her work.

bell hooks aka Gloria Jean Watkins

Poet and activist author bell hooks, took her pen name from her great grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. Not Bell Hooks, but bell hooks; the lower cases are intentional. At the zenith of the 60s and 70s feminist movement, many feminists took lower case names to force the distinction between the person and the ideas, that the ideas were more important than the person behind them.

“Many of us took the names of our female ancestors—bell hooks is my maternal great grandmother—to honor them and debunk the notion that we were these unique, exceptional women. We wanted to say, actually, we were the products of the women who’d gone before us.”

Resources & Further Reading

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