People can have all kinds of reasons to use another name, or to change their names permanently, for that matter. There are personal or family reasons, like marriage or adoption. There are political or social reasons, like marking a religious conversion, or immigration – though that last’s not as common now as it was in the early to mid-20th century. My own father, for example, changed his name to Malan because British authorities – to whom he had to report regularly as a displaced person after WWII – suggested that he try to sound less Polish since he was planning to stay in England. He chose a name much in the news at that time, and that’s why my brother and I are often asked if we’re South African.
Setting these examples aside, however, actors and writers are probably the next large group of people who frequently change their names – or at least use other names as a pseudonym, or nom-de-plume, if you prefer. (A friend of mine once referred to her real name as her nom-de-nom.)
Why do writers and actors change names? For marketing reasons, usually. In the old days, actors, like immigrants, were asked to choose new names that were more easily said, or that struck the ear well, like Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Tony Curtis, or Groucho Marx. Okay, I’m kidding about Groucho.
It’s true that some writers likely changed their names to disguise their “real” professions; MI6 member David Cornwell, became John le Carre, mathematician and professor Charles Dodgson became Lewis Carroll. Occasionally writers change their names because they’re changing genres, and don’t want their fans to be confused. Or something like that.
I’m sure that was not the reason Iain Banks wrote mainstream novels, and Iain M. Banks wrote SF.
But, Agatha Christie did became Mary Westmacott when she wanted to write romance novels, though it should be noted that Christie was her married name, which she continued to use even after her divorce and re-marriage. From the marketing angle, it’s better that you identify yourself with the name you were using when you became famous, regardless of changes in your personal life. Like Sigourney Weaver.
There was a time when it was felt that women couldn’t write SF. Or rather, they could, but that it wouldn’t sell. That resulted in Alice Mary Norton becoming Andre Norton, or Andrew North, or even Allen Weston. Alice Sheldon became James Tiptree Jr. Gender was also hidden behind initials. Catherine Lucille Moore became C.L. Moore, Carolyn Janice Cherry became C.J. Cherryh. This phenomenon was so common that for years I thought A.E. van Vogt was a woman.
Times change, and it’s more socially acceptable for people to keep their own names, and this applies to actors as well. Zach Galifianakis wasn’t required to change his name, for example, even though many people find it hard to pronounce. And neither were David Oyelowo or Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Writers, however, are still writing under different names, and still for what are basically marketing reasons. Very few people can cross the genre barrier like Barbara Hambly and write both fantasy and mystery novels under the same name. She’s likely successful in this because her fantasy fans don’t know about her mystery novels, and vice versa.
How is it they don’t know? Because the books are shelved in different places. You know, marketing.
I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of writers using two or more names. I’m sure you can come up with examples of your own, like Stephen King, or Charles de Lint.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the upcoming Faraman Prophecy series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan.