Writing in Disguise


Stephanie Johnson on definitions and disguises, and the risks of writing under a pseudonym.

In August 2012 I began work on a novel set mostly in Australia and a little in New Zealand, with the working title Small Life. It is a phrase that has always interested me, being a description of the prey of various carnivorous animals. In the outback and bush, firehawks are known to drop burning twigs into grassland and then hover in the air above, waiting for small life to escape incineration, whereupon they would swoop in for the kill. It is a powerful metaphor.
From the beginning I knew I would not publish the novel (if indeed it was accepted for publication!) under my own name. I wanted to attempt a commercial novel, a saga of the kind I had enjoyed reading as a child and teenager before my palate was ‘educated’ by university degrees and an acquired idea of the superiority of literary fiction. After a long career of some twenty books as well as plays and screenplays, it was a kind of experiment. It had its genesis in a number of sources, none of which are more important than the other. It was kind of confluence of all of them that led me to this highly personal semi-crisis.
Firstly, I suppose, it was to do with a hope for financial recompense for the enormous amount of work that goes into a novel. Many years ago, while bemoaning my insolvency to a publisher, she responded ‘But you don’t do it for the money.’ She seemed almost shocked when I replied, ‘Of course I do.’ I don’t remember how our conversation progressed from there but it was probably along the lines of so many conversations between New Zealand writers and their publishers/book sellers/ agents/friends and supporters. The same tropes are wheeled out, i.e. it is impossible to make a living as a writer in this country, (with the subtext: either leave or don’t bother trying); the only hope is to sell the film rights; you need to sell a book in England/America to get yourself established; you need an agent/shark. But possibly, just possibly, I thought, a novel rich in story and presented under a different name might sell.
Another influence was my dear friend, writer and filmmaker Peter Wells. A long time ago he suggested I do this, write under a pseudonym, with the reasoning that many writers like me, with a long backlist, do write under pseudonyms. It affords a kind of freedom, a rebirth.
A third influence came from another conversation, this one with a powerful arts bureaucrat. I suppose I was behaving badly when I asked her, ‘Why have I never had an [Arts] Laureate [Award]?’ It seemed to me that I would have been at least a candidate, having written for every medium possible, published here and overseas, having co-founded and directed the Auckland Writers’ Festival, mentored younger writers and taught in many universities as well as Auckland Prison. The bureaucrat answered me reluctantly. She said, ‘In Wellington your work is regarded as lowbrow.’
Lowbrow?? I thought of the complex plots and heavy research that went into my six historical novels and fumed. Is that where my work belongs, in the lowbrow section? Right, I thought. I’ll give you fucking lowbrow.




A fourth influence, not that I thought of doing it myself at the time, is a plot line in The Writers’ Festival. This is my eleventh novel, and a sequel to The Writing Class. Both are novels about writing and writers. Merle Carbury, a central character, decides to send a novel away under a pseudonym. She however goes one step further than I was to. She attaches a photograph of a young and beautiful friend, presenting the pretty visage as her pseudonym’s own. Young and beautiful writers, as we all know, have an advantage. Early in my career a fax was mistakenly sent to me, intended to be sent in-house by an overseas publisher. It contained the memorable words ‘She photographs well.’ I was outraged because I wanted to be taken seriously, not valued on my appearance. Since then I have observed many instances of aesthetically pleasing writers not only blazing through the media but receiving enormous advances. A gorgeous young Australian set a record in the early 2000s with an advance of a million US dollars for a fairly average novel – an advance that never earned out. At the Adelaide Festival a female literary agent said to me, as we stood a distance off a scrum that had formed around the poor girl, ‘Don’t you wish you had tits like that?’

Well, no, not really. And even if I did, tits generally aren’t very good at holding a pen.

Scroll forward about fifteen years. Small Life is now titled Jarulan and sent away to my agent in Sydney. Jarulan is an Aboriginal name for the type of fire started by hunting birds, as described above. I was worried, perhaps unnecessarily, that publishers would not look at the book if they knew the author was a New Zealander resident in her homeland. So I came up with a bio: ‘Born in Broken Hill, Lily Woodhouse is married to a New Zealander and lives on the Gold Coast where she and her husband manage a hotel. Jarulan is her first novel.’ The New Zealand husband was necessary to explain Lily’s apparent familiarity with tikanga Māori and Rotorua in the 1930s. I didn’t give Lily an age, but I hoped publishers would assume she was young. (And beautiful).

All went along very well for a while, until my clever editor smelled a rat. She already suspected it was a pseudonym perhaps, but the ‘first novel’ was a mistake. She didn’t believe it was a first novel and put pressure on my agent – who is she? At first, my agent held back and wouldn’t divulge. She knew how keenly I wanted to remain anonymous. Other writers manage it, most famously Elena Ferrante. Nickki Gemmell, an Australian, managed to maintain her anonymity for months following the publication of The Bride Stripped Bare in 2003.

Publishers don’t like pseudonyms because it makes it hard for them to get any traction in an already difficult market. When New Zealand writer Greg McGee published his crime novels using the pen name Alix Bosco, he was protected by his agent, Michael Gifkins, and only came out of hiding when he won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award. A watertight pseudonym makes it very difficult for the publicists to do their work. Any media has to spin out from the book itself. They call this ‘book-led publicity’ as opposed to ‘author-led’ and it’s a fairly rare beast. Reviewers read the books they review – or at least we hope they do. A journalist, trying to provide copy for whatever publication or site, may not have the time or the inclination to read a novel. Much easier to interview the writers, or get them to answer set questions about their influences, their daily routine, their inspiration, bra-size, or whatever.


Photo on Foter.com


I started to feel very guilty, as though I’d perpetrated a crime, a rort, even though the taking of pen names is a fine literary tradition. The idea was floated that the publishers would not go ahead with the book unless they knew Lily’s true identity. My agent caved. I was distraught when she told me she’d let the cat out of the bag, even though the response was good. The publishers knew of my work under my real name. It wasn’t that they thought little of it. Negotiations ensued – publicity would be book-led, I wouldn’t have to do interviews, and the secret would be kept between only those who needed to know.

But it wasn’t to be. An article for The Australian needed a photograph. I found an ancient one. No one will recognise me, I thought. I was panicky a lot of the time, not sleeping. I couldn’t understand why it had to be this way. I had chosen ‘Woodhouse’ as Lily’s second name: this is my husband’s name and he had his chest puffed out a million miles. It now struck me as a very stupid choice. I tried to change the surname, but the publishers wouldn’t allow me to. They liked the ring of Lily Woodhouse. I had to re-think it all and convince myself that it didn’t matter if I was uncovered. It would only be in New Zealand that it made any difference. In early July, a week or so after the book was published the telephone rang. It was David Herkt, asking to speak to Lily Woodhouse. I’ve known David for years. He wanted to write an article for The Sunday Star-Times. I pleaded with him not to write it, just to let me enjoy this for a bit longer. He persuaded me by saying that if he didn’t write the article someone else would, and that he had loved the book. We did the interview and he wrote the article, which was very kind and generous, but still I felt sad that this intoxicating sense of starting all over again was at an end.

Jarulan by the River – the novel’s final title – is the story of a rural family in northern New South Wales. It begins in 1917 and finishes now, as the family’s fortunes wax and wane. In 1917 a son, Eddie, has been sent as a remittance man to New Zealand and has married a Māori woman. In the 1930s, a son from that union, Irving, comes to Australia to take over the farm. He falls in love with Rufina, his grandfather’s much younger German widow. So the novel is a love story. It’s also a story about race and class, sex, music and inheritance. It’s a big book. It starts at the beginning and finishes at the end. It is, as I’ve said, an attempt to write a commercial novel. It’s full of ghosts, babies, wonderful Australian animals and beautiful frocks. It unashamedly aims for a female readership.



But what, exactly, is a commercial novel? I think it’s a novel that makes few demands on the reader in terms of structure, or keeping up with the writer’s conceits. In an interview (yes, I did them, plenty, and mostly with an Australian accent) I used an architectural metaphor. If a very literary novel is an architecturally designed house with astonishing angles and expansive, cold surfaces, a house where you can’t find the loo or a cosy corner, a commercial novel is a comfortable, welcoming house where the reader sits by the fire, sips Scotch and puts on slippers. Here, says the author, who is well concealed behind a screen, sit down. Make yourself comfortable. I’m going to tell you a story. In  literary novels the author is often too close for comfort, displaying so many clever tricks so that you find yourself marvelling at their language and inventiveness even while you’re getting out of their way while they perform cartwheels on the polished concrete floor. Literary novels win literary prizes. Commercial novels generally do not. Readers give literary novels a lot of largesse. A very smart woman I know once told me that it took her over a hundred boring pages to get into a certain Man Booker Prize-winning tome. I asked her – why did you persist for that long? She said – because it won the Booker. It was if she expected to be bored and irritated. A literary novel is not afraid of boring you to tears. A commercial novel won’t take that risk.

Many novels, of course, occupy the middle ground. They can be well regarded by critics and also sell in satisfying numbers. These days, as many writers in the ANZL know, the only novels that are really selling are tie-ins with film and television. In Australia the big sellers are Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies her most famous) and Jane Harper. The latter is a new, exciting crime writer, who recently published her second novel. I’m sure she will sell the film or television rights any day now, if she hasn’t already.

So – I suppose the question remains – was it worth it all for Jarulan  by the River? Did it catch fire? Well, yes and no. It was everywhere in Australia, with major window displays in over thirty independent bookshops. There were piles of it in the airports. It was well reviewed. In New Zealand it sold badly. On my agent’s urging I went to some Auckland bookshops around Christmas time to introduce myself and ask how the book was selling. In one famous independent bookshop the bookseller, with whom I have had a long, albeit distant association, said ‘But it’s an Australian book.’ Eh??? She knew very well who had written it. I am not Australian.

Writers my age and older will have had the experience, as younger writers, of being asked, ‘How much money do you make?’ or the question’s ugly twin, ‘Do you make any money?’ ie at all? And we may well have answered, just as the publisher said, ‘We don’t do it for money.’ We are our own worst enemy.

Now, as mostly mediocre self-publishing proliferates and clogs up the libraries (anyone wondering why their public lending right recompense is diminishing steadily?) the opportunity for real income seems to have lessened even further.

The thing is, I enjoy reading good commercial fiction. And Lily likes trying to write it. I’ve just sent away her second novel, Thistle. Fingers crossed my publishers will take the punt. Meantime, Lily has left the building and I’ve started work on a novel under my own name. At least I think it is. Lily might get impatient, barge into my study and take over.



Stephanie Johnson will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on 18 May, in conversation with Terese Svoboda and in the ‘Call On O’Connell’ street event.



'There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process' - Tracey Slaughter

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