Sunday, June 19, 2011

Who is Stephen Harris?

Splendid chap. All three of him.

Most science fiction fans will know what authors Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Willis and E.G. O'Brien have in common. The answer is, their DNA, since all three are the same man. There are all sorts of reasons for choosing a pseudonym. If you are known specifically for one type of work, but long to try your hand at another, then writing under a pseudonym means the reader comes to this new work with no preconceptions. Thus author Jennifer Rowe continues to write her crime novels under her given name, but her children's books under the name of Emily Rodda, and sometimes Mary-Anne Dickinson.

Emily Rodda's book, Pigs Might Fly, which won the CBC Book of the Year Award in 1987. The reason I'm so familiar with it is that I came second.

She's spectacularly successful, no matter which name she chooses. Sometimes authors believe they can escape legal action if they write scurrilous material under a pseudonym. This is risky, because if the book is a real hot potato, someone will usually blow your cover. Some authors have other high profile jobs and think they might lose credibility if the public also knows them for the raunchy novels they write in their spare time. Would you trust your surgeon if you knew that he or she also wrote gothic horror stories? There's no reason you shouldn't, of course, but people sometimes get funny about things like that.

The surgeon will see you now.

Gerald Wiley was a highly successful sketch writer, a key contributor to countless episodes of The Two Ronnies, a comedy show that gave us plenty of laughs in the seventies and eighties. It's still funny. You can see some fine examples of their work on YouTube. No one realised, but Gerald Wiley was one of the show's two stars. Nervous about submitting material under his own name, and not wanting to influence the production team one way or another, Ronnie Barker invented what must be the least glamorous pseudonym in history. I apologise to any Geralds or Wileys who may be reading.

The late, incredibly great Ronnie Barker.

 As more and more of Gerald Wiley's material found its way into the show, because it was very good indeed, there was a search for the elusive Mr Wiley, who gave no home address, merely a post office box number. In the end Ronnie Barker threw a party in order to introduce his alter ego. I get the feeling it would have been a very colourful affair.

... and it's good night from him.

As a rule, don't use a pseudonym unless you really feel that you must. Fantasy writers often come up with pseudonyms because they prefer them to their own mundane names. Trust me, a publisher will look more kindly on a manuscript written by Jan Burke than one by Morgana Starshine. I apologise again to any Morganas or Starshines that may be reading. It looks even worse for you if you put one of those copyright notices on the front of your manuscript. 'Copyright Morgana Starshine' simply isn't a good look, especially as Australian law means that your work is automatically your own copyright as soon as you've written it. Putting that little copyright symbol alongside your ornate pseudonym is telling your publisher two things: (1) I think you're a thief. (2) I'm probably mental.

Don't presume all unlikely sounding names are pseudonyms. A journalist once asked musician/satirist/actor/sex-god Eddie Perfect how he came to have such a weird pseudonym. Eddie replied, truthfully, that his parents were Mr Perfect and Mrs Perfect.

Mr and Mrs Perfect's bundle of joy.

This brings me to the only time I've ever used a pseudonym, one that is listed in the catalogue of the National Library of Australia. I once had a lot of fun with publisher Jane Covernton, carrying out a correspondence in the guise of a poetic nun called Sister Madge Mappin. But of course Jane found out, because she wanted to publish the book, and the whole thing became serious business. But Jane Covernton, who is one of the best publishers in this country, produced another book for which I supplied the text in 2009.

A really good book.

It's a beautiful thing, called Ballroom Bonanza, with artwork by local legend Nina Rycroft. Nina had done pictures of animals attending a gala dance event at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool in England. Because Nina's grandfather Tommy Jones used to be the bandleader at this venue, Nina felt a particular attachment to the pictures. She went to Blackpool more than once to photograph the place, to make sure that the book was faithful to its subject matter - well, as faithful as a book about dancing animals can be. 

The only book in the world to feature numbats dressed as Tina Turner.

Even though Nina had the concept of the book in her head, she didn't have a text. Jane Covernton called me in to come up with the words. Because I liked the pictures so much, I was happy to write the text again and again until everyone was happy. I chose a pseudonym because I knew that my main publisher Penguin got antsy if I worked for other publishers.

Well, you try to think of an animal beginning with the letter U.

The pseudonym I chose was Stephen Harris. The American version of the book has a cover flap on which are the biographies of the book's creators. I had to make up stuff about Stephen Harris that was true of my own life, but that focussed on different aspects. Thus my early career in ABC radio suddenly became more important. The pseudonym led to other niggly little problems that made me wish I'd used my own name and been brave enough to stand up to Penguin.

This picture does not appear in Ballroom Bonanza.

Nina deserves a lot of kudos for the book. I hope it's one of those sleepers that will take off again one day, ensuring more fame and money for Nina and the pseudonymous, cringing Stephen.

I started this post by referring to science fiction fans. I wonder how many of them realise why I chose Stephen Harris as a pseudonym. Here's a clue.


Chris Miles said...

When I saw your caption for the first image I thought: "Oooh, Doug MacLeod must be a Doctor Who fan!" By the time I got to the end I was certain. And all along I'd been thinking the name Stephen Harris sounded familiar...

My favourite Alan Smithee of the Doctor Who world is Robin Bland of 'Brain of Morbius' fame.

DougMacLeod said...

Terrance Dicks tells the story about how Robin Bland came to be. As you know, Mr Miles, Robert Holmes had to rewrite Terrance Dicks' Brain of Morbius story, because it was going to be terribly hard to have a robot as a principal character. (God, you think he'd have learned after Tom Baker's first outing, handsome though the robot looked.) And as you also know, when Terrance Dicks saw the rewrite and didn't like it, he furiously asked for his name to be removed and for some 'bland pseudonym' to take its place. This is all well recorded. But what I find delightful about this piece of Whovian lore is that Dicks maintains that when he saw the pseudonym Holmes had given him - Robin Bland - he had a good chuckle and was completely disarmed by the joke, and he and Holmes were besties again. That a TV writer could be so affable is in itself rather disarming.

Chris Miles said...

Ha! I hadn't heard that story about Dicks and Holmes. It's very sad that Robert Holmes is no longer with us - I'd love to know more about how some of the stories from that era went from original conception to script to screen. (Though I suspect the answer is nothing more complicated than "Let's rip off [insert name of classic horror movie here]".

PS. I recently read Siggy and Amber (which is what brought me to your blog) and enjoyed it a great deal. Looking forward to reading your bodysnatcher book!

DougMacLeod said...

As a teenager I corresponded with Malcolm Hulke because I liked his stories so much. The 'monsters' always had a completely valid reason for behaving the way they did, and were sometimes more honourable than the humans, which I particularly enjoyed. Malcolm Hulke ('Mac') was extraordinarily generous and wrote quite long letters in reply to mine. We quickly got over the Doctor Who stuff, and moved on to the business of professional writing, about which he gave me a lot of advice. He had written a textbook about writing for TV, which I had read. I remember his advice about big print, making it clear and not quirky. I write TV scripts for a living now, and like to think that my big print is entirely free of quirkiness.
Then Mac didn't respond to one of my letters and I learned shortly afterwards that he had died. I'm very glad that I still have some of his letters.