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Why do so many genre authors adopt pseudonyms?

Michael Redhill

This summer, Michael Redhill came clean about his secret identity. The Canadian author of the literary novels Martin Sloane and Consolation revealed that he is also Inger Ash Wolfe, creator of the three-book Hazel Micallef detective series, about a policewoman in the fictional Ontario town of Westmuir who gets involved with manhunts and mutilated corpses.

Redhill is far from being the only recent Canadian author to have adopted a pseudonym in pursuit of a divergent literary path. Sylvain Reynard’s Gabriel’s Inferno series and L. Marie Adeline‘s forthcoming S.E.C.R.E.T. (the first of at least two books) “ both billed as erotic thrillers in the vein of Fifty Shades of Grey “ are written by Canadians whose true identities remain shrouded in mystery. And HarperCollins Canada has acquired world English-­language rights to a pair of self-published romance novels by Meadow Taylor, the pen name for two historical-fiction authors.

Writers use pen names for all sorts of reasons. Taylor’s agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, boils it down to two primary motivations: privacy and branding. Meadow Taylor is a pair of writers who have worked together with me on three historical novels that are, let’s say, more serious, says Pearce. For us, it makes sense to distinguish [romance] from their historical work, because it can get confusing to follow different genres under the same name.

Nita Pronovost, L.M. Adeline’s editor at Doubleday Canada, says authors often use pseudonyms to draw attention away from the author and focus on the work. I think it’s a way of letting fiction speak for itself instead of having an author who explains their creation, she says. It’s an opportunity to explore without the weight of expectations about what they should be writing. There’s a freedom that comes from writing under a pseudonym.

From an author’s perspective, writing a pseudonymous book can be especially enjoyable. Before writing the first Wolfe novel (2008’s The Calling), Redhill had long flirted with the idea of an alter ego. It simmered and then matured, and what came with it was the idea of a secret life that had its own working parts, he says. The longer I worked on these books, the more a weird conduit opened.

Redhill dropped the ruse just prior to publication of the third novel in the series, A Door in the River, only because the publicity-related disadvantages had become clear: there was no author to shake hands, give readings, or smile for the cameras. He sensed it was making life more difficult for the people who worked on his alter ego’s books. If you haven’t yet run into any publicists who hate me, you will, he says.

Still, Lorissa Sengara, Taylor’s editor at HarperCollins Canada, acknowledges that working anonymity into a publicity plan can have short-term advantages. There might be interest among readers in the ˜story behind the story,’ she says. Sometimes simply the fact of a pen name is a source of fascination and can create buzz, even if that is not the original intent.

There is, of course, an undeniable connection between certain genres and the insistence on anonymity. Perhaps the reason so many authors of thrillers, mysteries, and erotica seek anonymity is nothing more than persistent genre bias? After all, most serious writers would never use the words hot and loin in the same sentence unless describing braised pork.

But there’s another way to look at it. Very few people have the opportunity to try on a new persona, and even authors like to have a little fun with their work.

Redhill says that, post-disclosure, he will happily continue writing under the Wolfe name. It expanded my frame of reference as a writer, and I realized that writing a book is difficult no matter what it is, he says. Every book has its own logic and internal framework and you have to show respect for every genre and its readers.

This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Q&Q.