Whether it’s for gender-bending, to protect their reps, or because the name on their birth certificate is just, well, boring, authors have been masking their identities via pen names since time immemorial. Let’s take a look back at the weirdest and funniest author pen names of all time.
Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling
This ex-military mystery novelist is actually one of the most beloved children’s book writers of all time—J.K. Rowling. Galbraith’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received wide acclaim, even before its famous author was revealed. Rowling was disappointed the secret was spilled, saying “I hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” But alas, her lawyer spilled the beans to his wife’s best friend and got fined £1,000 for breach of confidentiality.
On how she chose the pen name: “I chose Robert because it is one of my favorite men’s names, because Robert F. Kennedy is my hero and because, mercifully, I hadn’t used it for any of the characters in the Potter series or The Casual Vacancy. Galbraith came about for a slightly odd reason. When I was a child, I really wanted to be called ‘Ella Galbraith’, and I’ve no idea why. I don’t even know how I knew that the surname existed, because I can’t remember ever meeting anyone with it. Be that as it may, the name had a fascination for me.”
Tania Carver, a.k.a. Martyn Waites
Who is thriller writer Tania Carver? Author of the popular Brennan & Esposito series and … a British dude.
How did an already successful male author come to create this female persona? From Tania’s official site via Waites, “I was having coffee with my old editor one day. And he said that the one thing he was lacking was a ‘real high concept female thriller writer. Like a British Karin Slaughter or Tess Gerritsen. That kind of writer. And without thinking I replied, ‘I can do that.’ (Why did I say that? Because I trained as an actor. And at drama school they always tell you that you say yes to anything. Get the job, learn how to do it afterwards. I think they were talking about things like horse riding and fencing and stuff but the same applies, right?) … And thus was born Tania Carver … As for me I enjoy it. It’s very liberating having an alter ego. Like Bruce Wayne and Batman. Except if he was Batwoman.”
Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., a.k.a. Jonathan Swift
Call this one an epic April Fool’s joke. Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift used this pseudonym in 1708 to prank astrologer John Partridge, whose Merlinus Almanac published assorted vague doom and gloom hokum. Writing as Isaac Bickerstaff, Swift published his own almanac entitled Predictions for the Year 1708. He predicted that Partridge would “infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever.” On March 30, a letter circulated confirming that this had indeed come true and that, on his deathbed, Partridge admitted to being a fraud. As word of his death spread on April 1, no one was more surprised than John Partridge himself, who was awoken to the sounds of church bells tolling for him. He had visitors all day along, including an undertaker, church officials, and mourners, all of whom, were presumably very surprised to find him alive, well, and very, very angry. And from then on, he spent the rest of his life, until his actual unpredicted death in 1715, assuring disbelievers that he was, in fact, very much alive, and trying to hunt down the true identity of his tormenter—one Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.
Sue Denim, a.k.a. Dav Pilkey
Æ, a.k.a. George William Russell
Irish poet, mystic, critic, and painter George William Russell, who inspired Yeats, as well as other poets of the Irish Literary Renaissance, often wrote under the unusual pseudonym of Æ. His original pen name was Aeon, but he changed it to Æ after worrying about misspellings.
Edmond Dantes, a.k.a. John Hughes
John Hughes, writer and director of nearly every popular 80s movie, including The Breakfast Club and 16 Candles, often submitted screenplays using the pen name Edmond Dantes, after the main character in Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. As Dantes, he wrote Maid in Manhattan and all of the Beethoven movies.
Boz, a.k.a. Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens started out his writing career as a serious news journalist, mainly covering politics. When he wanted to start writing fiction—mainly essays and sketches for newspapers, to start—he chose to use a so as not to detract from his political reporting career. He choose the extremely odd Boz. How did he choose this unusual moniker? It was, he wrote “the nickname of a pet child, a younger brother, whom I had dubbed Moses, in honour of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, which, being pronounced Bozes, got shortened into Boz.” In fact, Dickens liked the name so much that he named his son Charles Culliford Boz Dickens. Boz’s writing proved so popular that in 1836 the stories were collected and published as the Sketches of Boz.
Silence Dogood, a.k.a. Benjamin Franklin
Good old Ben Franklin was a champion of the pen name, using a variety of them throughout his life. To him, they were characters created to prove a point. Silence Dogood was the creation of a 16-year-old Ben Franklin, who after several failed attempts to get his letters published in The New-England Courant, decided to write as a middle-aged widow, in the hopes of finally getting his letters printed. In April 1722, Dogood succeeded where Franklin did not, ultimately getting 14 letters printed in the Courant. Other characters Franklin wrote as include Anthony Afterwit, Alice Addertongue, Polly Baker, Harry Meanwell, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Busy Body, Benevolus, and perhaps most famous of all, Richard Saunders, the writer of Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler
Serving as both author and narrator of the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, Lemony Snicket is the creation of Daniel Handler. Snicket even has his own autobiography! Handler explained, “The pseudonym’s been around since I did research for The Basic Eight, when I used it to contact right-wing organizations to get pamphlets and learn their dogma. And it became a running joke with me and my friends; they gave me Lemony Snicket business cards one year, we invented a drink called the Lemony Snicket … And when I started writing the children’s books, and the character of the narrator emerged and my editor and I decided I needed a pseudonym, well, I’d had a pseudonym all along. And now I’m on the New York Times bestseller lists for a book by Lemony Snicket.
Man Without a Spleen, a.k.a. Anton Chekhov
In the 1880s, when Chekhov was a young medical student, he submitted stories to humorous magazines—essentially the 19th century Russian equivalents of The New Yorker—under silly pseudonyms like Man Without a Spleen, Chekhonte A, and My Brother’s Brother. Once he started writing more series stories and plays, he began using his real name.
Q, a.k.a. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
Not to be confused the Star Trek character, this Q was a 19th-century Cornish poet, novelist, and literary critic. He’s most famous for his work on The Oxford Book of English Verse and as an inspiration to the 20th century American writer Helene Hanff, who read his book of Cambridge lectures, when she couldn’t afford to go to college during the Great Depression. Her 1986 memoir is called Q’s Legacy.
Edgar Box, a.k.a. Gore Vidal
In the 1950s, Vidal wrote a trio of satirical mystery novels as Edgar Box. The series featured Peter Cutler Sargeant II, a New York PR man, who finds himself an accidental sleuth. Via The New Yorker, “A reader of Vidal’s later fictions can see in these books that he was learning how to indulge all that he already knew of the world—regarding sex, politics, the foibles of the upper classes, and the gutter competition of the journalistic cadre—in a kicky genre setting.”
Yi-Fen Chou, a.k.a. Michael Derrick Hudson
File this one under terrible ideas. After having trouble getting his poetry published under his real name, Hudson decided to mask his identity as a white man and submit his poetry under the made up name of Yi-Fen Chou. The good news: it worked—his work (or rather Chou’s) was published in The Best American Poetry 2015. The bad news: turns out people really, really resent cultural appropriation for personal gain.
Hudson explained himself thusly: “The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent … I realize that this isn’t a very ‘artistic’ explanation of using a pseudonym.”