How do I know if I should write under a pen name? This is a question no one can answer but the authors themselves. Almost everyone who writes knows that Ann Landers is a pen name, but what isn’t so commonly known is that two women wrote behind the name of Ann Landers. Did Eric Blair and Samuel Clemens write stories so dangerously radical they needed the protection of pen names? Would Joanne Rowling’s stories have been critically impeded if she hadn’t published under an abbreviated name? Is it unscrupulous for political activists like William Penn to hide behind the fake identity of a pen name?
Although my name is James, I’ve written several short stories and a few novels under the pen name Jake Elliot. That is like Elliott, but with only one ‘t’. I mention this because most people automatically add the extra ‘t’, and then they find some other person in their Google searches. I’m just not popular enough (yet) to have Google automatically redirect lost souls to my ethereal existence on the inter-web. Eventually, I’ll discuss my reasoning for taking a pen name but first, I’ll open this discussion reflecting on popular authors who’ve written under pseudonyms.
Johnathan Swift, although this truly is his birth name, originally released Gulliver’s Travels under the name Lemuel Gulliver, and his essay A Modest Proposal was also released under a pseudonym. In fact, most of his writings were penned under a pseudonym, and by their scathing anti-British intensities, he earned his recognition as an Irish patriot. Johnathan Swift’s writings against English hegemony drew sharp attention from the mock-Irish judiciary, who in turn attempted to silence Swift by accusing him and his printer of seditious libel for one particular work, the Drapier’s Letters. These weak charges were intended more as a point of intimidation and did not stick, only instigating more feverously outspoken attacks against British rule over Ireland. However, despite the many pen names Johnathan Swift used, everyone seemed to know the real author’s name.
Which brings me to both Samuel Clemens and Eric Blair—far more successful at being known as their false names, I often wonder if these authors needed to write under pseudonyms. Both England and the United States are societies claiming freedom of speech. Animal Farm is among my favorite books—in my top twenty for sure—and although ripe with political satire, was the story of pigs and sheep overthrowing a farm so eviscerating that Eric Blair needed to write under a pen name? What about 1984? Clearly a work of dystopian fiction, 1984 seemed more an attack against communist Russia and Joseph Stalin than a criticism of England’s governing style, even if the story is set in a reformed London.
Samuel Clemens wrote several scathing stories, oftentimes against the bigotries of the southern United States, and occasionally a good-humored jeer against the arrogant flair of the northern United States. Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seemed pretty light in its delivery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cut deep against the hypocrisy of free men who kept other men as slaves. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another humorous story with pointed criticism, but was Clemens’s work so infuriating that he needed to write as Mark Twain? I realize that ‘mark twain’ is a boating reference from the time of paddlewheel riverboats, and Samuel Clemens loved the mighty Mississippi, but did he need to write under a pen name?
E.L. James…okay…I fully understand the need for a pen name, but what about J. K. Rowling? Rowling wasn’t writing bad erotica, but great children’s fiction. And, when Joanne Rowling did write under a pen name, she was relentlessly attacked by public opinion for her efforts. Personally, I say good for her. She proved to the world that not only could she write stories for adults equally as well as she did for children, but she could be successful doing so. However, I speculate (and there is no proof to this speculation) that someone who could make more money from Rowling’s name associated with those books leaked the true identity of Robert Galbraith. I could be very wrong in my suspicion, considering there is no privacy within our new world order.
Unlike E.L. James, my first work of fiction was published under my real name. I knew fame and fortune were right around the corner and realized that I needed some sort of cover—a sanctuary to protect me from the soon-to-be mob of clothes-tearing fans. After all, being an author is a lot like being one of the Beatles, or Elvis. But a closer facet of the truth, even more important than escaping the roving gangs of relentless fans and paparazzi if I was to ever become a household name, I first needed a household name.
Verizon knows me as James Eickolp, my driver’s license claims I’m James Eickolt (at least that’s close to the correct spelling), and even the IRS has misspelled my name since I first filed for a tax return in 1988, insisting that my name is actually James Eickart despite what my birth certificate and passport say.
Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite Oregon authors, but I still don’t know how to say his name. Even now, I need to go to my bookshelf to make certain I spelled his name correctly (which I didn’t). No one misspells Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. I needed a name like that—powerful, dignified, and easily recognized by the fifth-grade reading level that America boasts. So, Jake Elliot it was. And yet, I have been asked more than once why I write under a pen name. “It isn’t like you’re writing smut,” some have said. Perhaps fooling people into thinking my books are naughty will be my path to fame and glory as an author of fiction, and if so, at least Jake Elliot is an easily remembered name.
James Eickholt is a hybrid author who generally writes dark fiction with mildly sarcastic and ironic edges. Most of his stories are told under the pen name Jake Elliot. With one short film, eight short stories, and three novels to his credit, he considers himself accomplished in a grossly over-saturated market. When not writing twisted little stories, or working for ‘the man,’ James and his wife enjoy going on real life adventures. World travelers, they have visited Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria—all of these experiences stain and bleed into James’s writings—sometimes only as wisps and smudged fingerprints.