Author Names

I know we've touched upon this at various points over the years, but I don't think we've ever had a whole thread devoted to it. I've been trawling through author and literary agent websites recently and have come across some great ones, so this seemed like a good time to start a thread to compile them.

I find author names particularly interesting because they're as much a brand as a personal identity--many authors publish under their own names, but many also choose pen names that may better reflect the brand they're trying to project, and the image varies by literary genre. My particular area of interest is fantasy fiction, so most of this first batch represents that genre, but I am interested to hear other people's observations in other genres as well!

So, interesting specimens I've come across:

China Miéville - I am super slow on the uptake here, but I just learned recently that A) China Miéville is a man, and a very masculine one in appearance, too, and B) it's his real name. I haven't read any of his books yet, only come across his name in passing, but I confess I would have guessed without hesitation that it was a women's pen name. But nope--Wikipedia tells me his full birth name is China Tom Miéville, and his parents chose his name from a dictionary because they wanted a "beautiful" name. I think this is especially fascinating given our recent discussion about how parents open to masculine names on girls should also be open to feminine names on boys. I admit that China is normally very far from my tastes for a variety of reasons, but in this case I kind of love it. Also, China Miéville has a PhD from the London School of Economics, so that's pretty cool. 

Robin Hobb - This really is a pen name, and I think I've mentioned before that I think it's an amazingly astute choice for a fantasy writer. It's simple, distinctive, easy to remember, and sounds like it could be the name of a character in a fantasy novel without being over-the-top fantastical. It's also androgynous enough (and she writes characters of both sexes convincingly enough) that many men seem unaware that she is a woman writer. I've read interviews with her saying that she chose an androgynous pen name deliberately because the point of view character in the first Robin Hobb novel was male, and that she picked a surname starting with H because that was the letter at eye level on most bookstore shelves. 

Lemony Snicket - Perhaps the natural progression of a pen name that fits into the genre. I haven't actually read the books, so maybe someone who has can comment, but I understand that the author actually spun Lemony Snicket out into a whole persona with an elaborate backstory and a presence as a character in his novels. 

J.K. Rowling - Everyone knows this story by now, but just to catalogue it, Rowling's publishers asked her to publish under gender-neutral initials rather than Joanne Rowling to better market her books to boys. She didn't have a middle name, so she picked K for Kathleen, her grandmother's name. Also of interest: Rowling's chosen pen name for the publication of The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith. Everything about that name is totally masculine, staid, traditional. I have to say, it makes me wonder what the critical reception of the novel would have been if it had been published under an obviously feminine pen name, knowing the gender bias in literary criticism. But since the point of Rowling's experiment was presumably to prove that her writing could stand on its own merit, adding the extra variable of sexism probably would have been counterproductive.

Guy Gavriel Kay - Another great name for a fantasy writer. As far as I know it is his real name, but the inclusion of Gavriel really makes it what it is--that v makes it slightly exotic to the English ear, plus the Tolkienesque angelic ending -iel. Guy Kay is totally unexceptional, but Guy Gavriel Kay has incredible presence.

Naomi Novik - Another real name. This one sounds more like an ordinary person, but the alliteration gives it that nice superhero kick. I also have to add, from reading a book jacket, that Naomi Novik named her daughter Evidence. I think that is all sorts of awesome, and should probably also be added to our long compendium of science-y names from awhile back. 

N.K. Jemisin - more gender-neutral initials on a woman writer (her name is Nora), but I think her surname is super cool.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, probably set the standard for the use of initials by fantasy authors. Also note the recurrence of the double R in George R.R. Martin--I've often wondered if he used the initials as a deliberate reference, though of course it's his real name, too. 

Rosamund Hodge - I haven't read any of her work yet and don't know much about her, but isn't the name beautiful? It also reminds me very much of Robin Hobb, but obviously feminine.

Lucienne Diver - Same as above. She's also an agent, so I believe this is her real name--I think it's lovely.

And not an author, but at the same agency as Lucienne Diver is an agent named Nephele Tempest. Amazing. (The Anglicized classical pronunciation, for those curious, would be NEFF-uh-lee--it's the name of a nymph in Greek mythology).

Anyone else have any interesting specimens to add to the collection? Romance, crime, literary fiction?


By EVie
March 30, 2016 11:38 PM

Oh, and since women writing under masculine pseudonyms seems to be a recurring theme, I have to drop a couple of centuries back and mention the Brontë sisters, Emily, Anne and Charlotte, writing under the pen names Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell. I love how they coordinated their pen names to remain siblings. I also love how well those pen names would fit in today as a trio of androgynously-named preschool girls. (Well, maybe not Currer as much, but Ellis and Acton for sure). 

Incidentally, Brontë was not the original spelling of their surname--their father changed it the generation before, from Brunty, presumably to sound more highbrow. 

Also of note: George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans. Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, published under "Mrs. Gaskell." 

March 31, 2016 2:39 AM

Re Guy Gavriel Kay, what Gavriel says to me loud and clear is "I am a Jew," which he very much is.

March 31, 2016 11:38 AM

To me, stylistically, the practice of authors using initials is very reminiscent of the South Indian naming practice in which a man (I think it's only men) uses the initial of the father's name as the first part of the given name, prior to the given name. I'm trying to think of a famous example, but am coming up empty. 

I also associate the practice in the West with British authors. This leads me to wonder whether this is a stylistic borrowing that originated in the colonial encounter in India. 

In other news, I've seen China Mieville give a reading. He is quite masculine, and very intelligent, as one might gather from his writing (not that it's not without its flaws. I mean if anyone read Embassytown... great premise, wonderful initial atmosphere, squandered). And extremely charismatic and attractive. 

April 1, 2016 6:24 AM

James Tiptree Jr. - pen name of Alice Sheldon. She wrote science fiction (I haven't gotten around to reading her yet, so I can't comment on her work) and used a pen name reportedly as a joke. My memory is fuzzy, but I think she got "Tiptree" out of a peanut butter jar or some other food label.

Saki - pen name of Hector Hugh Munro (and just Saki, no other name). "Saki" makes me think of a long-dead Japanese poet, so I found it surprising that Saki was British. No idea why he picked that pen name, though.

April 1, 2016 4:47 PM

Katherine Addison is a pen name for the author Sarah Monette. She says that, because her books as Monette didn't sell as well as her old publisher liked, her new publisher required that she write under a pseudonym to start fresh.


At first I thought that was weird, but I find the name "Katherine Addison" more appealing than "Sarah Monette" and I have no idea why. I don't know if it would influence my purchasing, but I do like one name MUCH more.

By EVie
April 1, 2016 10:29 PM

Oh yes, publishers do pull tricks like that--I think in part because debut novels can be hyped up more, and they can pretend it's a debut if it's being published under a new name. Mark Anthony published a series a few years back under the pen name Galen Beckett, and it was definitely marketed as a debut. It was also a shift in genre for him, and with a female protagonist, so he picked a more gender-neutral name (Galen being historically masculine, but I've known at least two female Galens my own age).

Similarly: Kate Elliott is the pen name of Alis A. Rasumussen. She published a couple of books under her real name and they didn't sell well, so she took a mulligan. 

It's unfortunate that it needs to be that way, but publishing is so cutthroat these days that publishers are really reluctant to give second chances to authors who didn't do well the first time--which really sucks a lot, because writing is a skill that improves tremendously with practice, and it may take a writer a few novels to really hit their stride. (I recently finished reading through Diana Gabaldon's entire oevre, and I was immensely impressed by the quality of her writing in the later books--far less so in the first two of the series, which I thought were a bit overwritten and had pacing problems. I'm so glad I stuck it out, though! What a loss it would be if some publisher had cut her off after the first). So I consider the ability to start fresh with a new name a very good thing, even though there is an element of deception to it. 

April 1, 2016 11:45 PM

The kicker to this particular one is that two of Monette's books, as Monette, with her first publisher, are out of print...and they're the first two books of a series.  The other books in the series are in print but don't sell because you can't get the first two. 

Publishing is weird.

By EVie
April 2, 2016 8:21 AM

That seems like a very strange decision on the part of the publisher.

I wonder if part of the issue with the name Monette is the French feminine diminutive ending? I think we, as a society, are still suffering from our historical patriarchal, colonialist, what-have-you bias toward white, Anglo-Saxon male writers, and so when you see authors choosing pen names, the surnames are almost always English, with maybe some Irish thrown into the mix. Whether it's because those names sound right to them, or because it's what they think will appeal most to readers, or some combination of both, I don't know. Addison is notably more masculine and English than Monette, which to our biased ears sounds more like a toy poodle than a Serious Writer. 

I know I suffer from this problem myself--when I was thinking about publishing under a pen name I went through my family tree to see if anything there sounded good, and I couldn't imagine myself publishing under any of the the Italian surnames. They just didn't sound authorial to me. The German ones were better, but still not right. In the end I will probably end up publishing under my real surname, which is very Anglo-Saxon indeed (and which my husband's grandfather changed from a very Jewish surname to protect himself from bias in medical school). 

April 4, 2016 4:52 PM

That's an interesting point. I find Monette displeasing as well. It sounds so diminutive. It also reminds me of a name given to a "sanitary product" for women, with all the connotations of that terminology. There used to be a brand called "Modess" which came wrapped in brown paper in the local pharmacy when I was growing up.

I have a name picked out if I ever publish a novel. The last name is my beloved grandmother's original last name, which is Scottish, and the first is Claire, which is part of my last name. Definitely in the style you mention.

By EVie
April 5, 2016 9:51 PM

I think Claire is a great authorial name! When I was thinking about pen names, I was specifically looking for something that was recognizably feminine, yet projected a feeling of authority and gravitas, and also didn't feel too dated, and I think Claire really hits that sweet spot (along with names like Elizabeth, Diana, Katherine... I actually found it really hard to find names with the exact quality I wanted to capture, and eventually gave up and decided I will probably just use my initials).

By EVie
April 1, 2016 11:01 PM

Oh, here's another interesting one: Anne Rice, of vampire fame. Her birth name is actually Howard Allen Frances O'Brien. Howard--wow. She was named after her dad, but apparently it was her mother's idea. Quote by her on Wikipedia: "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." Then it goes on to cite her authorized autobiography, which says that she was self-conscious about her name, chose to be called Anne when she started school, and it was legally changed at age six.

She also has published a BDSM erotica series under the pen name A. N. Roquelaure (a roquelaure is a kind of 18th century French cloak), which is apparently considered a classic in the BDSM community, and a couple of dark romance novels under the pen name Anne Rampling. 

Oh, and speaking of BDSM erotica, there is of course E.L James, born Erika Mitchell. I think I read somewhere that James is a family name. E is obviously Erika, and I think L is her married surname, Leonard. 

It doesn't surprise me that writers doing erotica, especially BDSM, would want to publish under a pen name ;) One exception I can think of is Jacqueline Carey, though I would consider her books more fantasy novels with a major erotica component than straight erotica. 

April 1, 2016 11:48 PM

I think all of the pro erotica writers that I know personally use pen names.  It sometimes ends up being weird with one particular friend because I know her as her legal name but sometimes end up meeting people who know her under her pen name because we run in overlapping circles!

April 2, 2016 12:15 PM

Wow indeed, EVie! For someone who spent a good deal of the 90s reading Anne Rice, I never knew about her name; must not have been such the name nerd back then. Although I was aware that Rice was her husband's name, which I did think was slightly odd for a female author.

April 2, 2016 2:25 PM

Anne Rice's husband was Stan Rice; I don't think it is particularly odd for a female author to use her married surname.  Some do and some don't.  Her son Christopher was in my son's class in (a very small and expensive private) high school in New Orleans.  He is also an author (writing under his own name).  I read his first novel which was so poorly written and so offensive on so many levels that I never picked up another.  I can't imagine that any publisher would have touched it with a ten-foot pole if his mother had been named Jane Doe.  Perhaps he's improved.... I only knew Anne Rice through parent activities at school, and my opinon of her in that context was, shall we say, not favorable.  After I got to know her a little, I never read her books again, although I do regret the loss of my set of autographed A.N. Roquelaure books in Katrina.

April 2, 2016 3:27 PM

I do know who Stan Rice was. Though I am only familiar with a few poems quoted in Anne's books as far as his work goes.

I guess a lot of female authors I think of off the top of my head were published before marriage or never married or had pen names. I meant no offense to anyone using their married name. 

Too bad about your thoughts of her. I never met her, but have heard stories. Even though I loved some of her work immensely, some books I'd put down after one chapter and never pick-up again.

Sorry for the loss of your books along with all the other things in that terrible storm.

April 5, 2016 9:40 AM

I read that book by Christopher Rice as well, Miriam. It was dreadful. The funny thing was that my very sweet, conservative, evangelical sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas one year. She obviously hadn't a clue what it was about, and as I was reading I kept thinking, "Holy moly, I hope she never asks me about this book!" I had a particularly annoying co-worker that year and I joked with my husband that I should stick my co-worker's name in the book and then put it on the swap table in the office, but I just couldn't do that to him.

April 5, 2016 10:58 AM

Beyond the horrible writing, probably the worst thing about that book was that it was essentially a roman a clef.  There were readily identifiable real people and events in that thing, but twisted horribly and hurtfully for his "artistic" purposes. 

April 5, 2016 9:45 PM

Wow. Not being from New Orleans, I had no idea. That's horrible.

April 5, 2016 9:18 PM

Jennifer Crusie, a wonderful modern romance author, is legally Jennifer Smith. Her birth last name and her ex-husband's last name are both Smith. Crusie is from the family tree somewhere. Apparently, she always goes by Jenny, but the powers-that-be wanted the full Jennifer.

Crusie has written about names a few times on her blog.

By EVie
April 5, 2016 9:43 PM

That's a fun link, thanks! And I've never read Jennifer Crusie, but I've been meaning to for a long time, as a friend with great literary taste highly recommended her. Too many good books out there, not enough time!

September 24, 2018 6:45 PM

Has anyone heard Kathleen for a girl?? 

September 25, 2018 1:06 AM

yes,  but not for about 10 years

October 7, 2018 4:11 PM

Yes, I know a 5yo, but her parents are Asian immigrants, so it's not unusual in my experience that they chose a name that isn't super-current in anglophone countries, but does have a history and people recognize it.