August 3, 2009

The Murder of a Pen Name

During the first fifteen years of my career, my income per novel was so small that I might have done better trying to sell hamburgers to Hindus. The proceeds from one novel per year would have sustained me only if I had crafted all my clothes from leaves, wild grass, and bird feathers, with no concern for the cruel stares that rude people would direct at me, and with a willingness to tolerate the pain from being pecked by all those angry, bald birds. A strict diet of peat moss and beef bouillon would have been within my one-novel-per-year budget, because peat costs mere pennies per pound when bought at a discount garden-supply center, and if I had found an occasional entre of fresh roadkill, first-rate nutrition would have been assured.

Because I prefer the classic vegetables rather than peat moss, however, and because I believe the main course at dinner should be processed by professional food-handlers rather than by drunken drivers, I was motivated to write more than a single novel every twelve months. Out went the corn-husk shirts and grass pants; in came cotton pullovers and jeans. A modest apartment proved far more comfortable than either a cave or the interior of a big hollow log. And in an apartment, my wife, Gerda, didn’t have to pedal furiously on a bicycle ten hours a day to generate power for my electric typewriter–a task that creates a huge appetite and dramatically increases the peat-moss bill, ironically reducing the positive budgetary effect of relying on a cheap garden-store food source.

When a young and unknown writer routinely completes more than one book per year, publishers urge him to use a pen name–or names–for what they view as excess production. They believe that critics will dismiss the work of a prolific writer without even reading it, assuming it is piffle. Many critics do, indeed, respond this way, even though Henry James–the litterateur’s litterateur–produced over a hundred and twenty books in his lifetime, and though writers from Shakespeare to Dickens to Joyce Carol Oates have proved that one can produce quantity with quality.

Publishers also recommend–or often insist–that pen names be used on books that the writer creates outside of the genre in which he first began publishing under his own name. If one begins writing adventure novels about trout fishing, then delivers a romance with not a trout to be found in its chapters, one will be pressured to use a pen name for this suspect, fishless fiction. Because I enjoyed writing in a variety of genres–international intrigue, romantic suspense, psychological suspense, tales of terror, science-fiction, humorous suspense–I ultimately published under several pseudonyms before finally forsaking all false identities.

One of my early pen names, Owen West, wrote horror novels for Jove Books, a sub-imprint of Berkley Books, my primary paperback publisher at that time. Owen’s first shuddery tale was a novelization of a motion-picture screenplay, The Funhouse, to which Jove owned the book rights. I was beginning to build a reputation as a suspense novelist, and I didn’t want to be known as a horror writer. Some of my novels had, I admit, enough of a macabre edge to be tagged with that label by critics who didn’t like to think too much. (Most critics are responsible and thoughtful, but a significant minority resents thinking, because the time devoted to thinking inevitably means fewer hours in the day for swilling down booze and torturing kittens). Although I enjoyed the horror genre both as reader and writer, I didn’t want to doom myself to that limiting label by publishing novels of the supernatural under my name. Consequently, also because Jove wanted to build a new name in the horror genre, I wrote The Funhouse under my Owen West persona–he had shorter hair than mine, delft-blue eyes, and a lap dog named Pookie that slept draped across his thighs while he worked–and I signed a contract to do two more West novels.

Although the film of The Funhouse flopped, Owen’s novelization sold more than a million paperbacks and became a New York Times best-seller. The second novel under the pen name, The Mask, was also a best-seller. Fortunately, during this same period, books under my real name began selling better than Owen’s. By the time I delivered the third of these supernatural tales, The Pit, the publisher and I agreed to poison Owen’s morning tea, bury him, steal his final novel, release it under my name, and later re-issue his previous two novels under my name, as well. Because we realized that the title The Pit would thrill reviewers looking to take an easy shot at me, we changed the title to DARKFALL, and subsequently the book received only good notices. It also became a best-seller; thus this murder of a pen name and the looting of his literary estate proved rewarding both creatively and financially.

I do not use pen names any longer. Most of the books first published under pseudonyms have been reissued under my byline. Mr. Owen West remains dead. Pookie, his lap dog, is still alive though now arthritic.

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