By Any Other Name: the secret lives of romance writers

Why do so many romance writers choose pen-names? Danielle Binks looks into what happens when authors' covers are blown.

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Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot to ensure her work would be taken seriously. JK Rowling’s best-kept secret was writing as Robert Galbraith to separate her work for adult readers from her Harry Potter books. And now, a hunt is underway in Italy to uncover the true identity of publishing juggernaut Elena Ferrante. Pseudonyms are funny things – another fictional dimension to the lives of authors who already work in the unreal.

But there’s one particular genre in which pen-names are particularly widespread and closely guarded. For writers of romance novels – particularly those who write sexy stuff – there can be serious personal consequences if their identity is revealed.

I didn’t want to be known as that guy who wrote those dirty books.'

John Purcell

Eden Summers (not her real name) lives in regional New South Wales and is the author of popular self-published rock romance series Reckless Beat, and  the new Vault of Sin series with ebook publisher Samhain Publishing. Summers started out guarding her privacy fiercely, with few but her husband and mother knowing her publishing history. ‘I come from a place where there’s no six degrees of separation,’ she explains. ‘And knowing that my books would contain sexual content meant I not only had to think about how I would be judged locally, but how my husband, kids and extended family would be affected.’ While being published only in ebooks helped maintain her anonymity for a time, after six years and 15 books Summers is now more relaxed about a few work colleagues and local friends knowing her secret. ‘I grew more confident in my writing – and in myself – and the more locals who found out, the more support I received.’

Australian author John Purcell, famous for the Secret Lives of Emma books, wrote that series under the moniker Natasha Walker. In an interview on his publisher’s website, he revealed similar reasons to Summers for choosing to write under a different name and with a different gender: ‘I didn’t want to be known as that guy who wrote those dirty books … I was being asked by my publisher if I wanted to publish erotica under my own name. To protect my family, my job and my future professional reputation I said no.’

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But both Summers and Purcell were right to start their romance writing careers paranoid. There was an unsettling case in America five years ago that remains a haunting cautionary tale within the romance/erotica-writing community.  

In 2011, Pennsylvania television station WNEP ran a story about a local high school English teacher who had been writing erotic fiction under the pen-name Judy Mays. ‘I was sort of collateral damage,’ Mays explains. ‘A woman from the community was hell-bent on causing as much trouble for the school district as she could, and this was the third incident of the year she’d incited … Yes, she was a former student.’

Mays says she first became aware of the story when she saw it on the evening news. ‘WNEP aired my picture followed by a cover of one of my books, Undercover Heat. My first thought was that I could not afford publicity like this.’

The story was picked up by the Associated Press, and ended up airing on news bulletins across the globe.  

‘I know I made the six o’clock news in Romania and was in a British newspaper the same day as the royal wedding. I received emails from all around the world.’ And while many of those emails were fortifying in their support, there was also plenty of backlash. ‘At the urging of the superintendent, the school board ended up reporting me to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) for writing erotic and pornographic literature,’ Mays says. In the end – international news headlines aside – it was a non-event. PDE informed Mays that her secret second life did not actually breach rules or warrant investigation.

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Author and blogger Sarah Wendell remembers the Judy Mays ‘scandal’ vividly.  Wendell, author of Everything I Know about Love, I Learned from Romance Novels and co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com covered the events on her blog. ‘I definitely recall that entire awful incident, and I think about it a lot, especially since attitudes toward sex and towards women's sexual agency haven't changed much in the time since – unfortunately,’ says Wendell. ‘Culturally and socially, we don't always find rational acceptance when a woman embraces her sexuality, whether it’s through writing erotic fiction or reading it.’

While Mays is keen to stress the silver lining to the pseudonym drama – ‘My royalties went up, which meant my son didn’t have to borrow any money for his final year of college!’ – she shudders, like Wendell, to think of other authors living through similar circumstances.

'If I’d been a young teacher, the news story could have ruined my career – because of public opinion not because of the law.'

Judy Mays

When the story broke, Mays had been teaching for more than 30 years. ‘I was very lucky not to lose my job. After my story broke, I received emails from other teachers who kept their writing secret, asking my advice. If I’d been a young teacher, the news story could have ruined my career – because of public opinion, not because of the law.’ As a very experienced teacher, however, Mays was able to play down the situation. She did so, she says, to save the school district from embarrassment. As for herself: ‘I wasn’t embarrassed in the least,’ she declares. 

Let's Talk About Sex: Sex in Words

Indeed, there’s a strange contradiction at the heart of life for many romance authors. Writing romance suggests a certain liberty of spirit, but at the same time, authors are often keenly aware of how the pursuit comes across to others. The irony is not lost on Wendell: ‘There's often a rather jarring disparity between how we interact with sexuality within the genre community, and how we interact with any mention of sexuality outside of it.’ Because, she says, outside of the romance community, ‘women are routinely shamed for liking sex, wanting to have sex, learning about sex – and writing about sex.’ Remember last year, when a Christian sex education programme was found to be telling schoolgirls that too much sex would break their ‘chemical bond’? Wendell goes on to say; ‘One of the greatest strengths, I think, of the romance community is that by reading and writing and discussing romance, we're repeatedly practising empathy.’

Three years after her identity was revealed, Mays decided to retire from teaching. ‘I left on my own terms,’ she says, ‘not theirs’. And if she has any regrets they’re not to do with her writing, but rather in declining to endorse an ingenious protest campaign proposed by her publisher. ‘My publisher volunteered to bring male cover models to picket bare-chested in front of the high school in my support,’ Mays laughs. ‘That would have been highly entertaining, and I’d have relished every minute of it.’ 

Portrait of Danielle Binks

Danielle Binks is a writer and reviewer at Alpha Reader. You can tweet her: @danielle_binks.

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