Author have chosen to publish novels under a pseudonym for many reasons—a chance to work in a different genre without alienating their existing fans; a way to test how much their fame influences their books’ reception; maybe even to evade the prejudices of their time.
Unless they are known from the outset (the name of sci-fi author James S.A. Corey, “creator” of space opera saga The Expanse, was always known to be a front for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) pen names often aren’t revealed until they’ve served their purpose, or even until the author behind one of them passes away and there’s no point in maintaining up the illusion.
But every once in a while, a pseudonym is cracked prematurely due to either happenstance or clever detective work. And then there are the aliases that have never actually been revealed, leaving us with an enduring literary mystery. Here are seven authors whose secret identities were exposed before they were ready—and six we may never identify.
Robert Galbraith (Real identity: J.K. Rowling)
J.K. Rowling chose to publish the Cormoran Strike novels under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith simply because she wanted the work to stand on its own, particularly after the scrutiny that greeted her first non-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy. It’s an understandable (and perhaps even laudable) motive—certainly she must’ve been curious as to whether she could sell a book with out riding the tails of boy wizard’s robe. We’ll never know how long she intended to keep up the ruse, because only a matter of weeks after The Cuckoo’s Calling was released (to strong reviews and rather modest sales—if respectable for an unknown debut author), the wife of a partner in Rowling’s lawyer’s firm leaked the secret to a loose-lipped friend, who subsequently blabbed to the press, and everything fell apart. Rowling initially took the revelation in good cheer amidst a surge in sales (increasing the print run from 1,500 to 140,000 will do that), but later expressed anger and irritation that her carefully constructed alter-ego had been so quickly and casually revealed. She continues to use the pseudonym for new novels in the series, and even maintains a separate website and social media presence under Galbraith’s name—almost as if Rowling is determined not to let all that creative effort go to waste (that said, Galbraith’s back-of-book author bio mentions her by name).
Richard Bachman (Real identity: Stephen King)
Stephen King created the identity of Richard Bachman in the late 1970s for two reasons: one, he was too prolific, an his publisher was reluctant to put out more than one book a year under his real name, worried about overexposure (which seems surreal in retrospect, but the 1970s were simpler times); two, he wanted to see how much the success of his new books was driven by simple name recognition after the blockbuster sales of Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. Beyond creating a fictional biography for the writer (married, an ex-Merchant Marine turned dairy farmer writing at night from his home in rural New Hampshire) King didn’t exactly put a lot of effort into maintaining the illusion—this was the pre-internet era, after all, when such schemes were a lot easier to pull off. Certainly he got away with it for a few years. In 1984, a Washington, D.C. bookstore worker named Steve Brown noticed similarities between King and Bachman’s writing and started doing some digging, eventually finding proof of the ruse in some legal documents in the Library of Congress. He sent King all of his research. King responded graciously, and agreed to grant Brown an exclusive interview about the whole thing, so he could get a little publicity for it. In the aftermath, King “killed off” his alter-ego, and Misery—originally planned as a Bachman book—was released under his own name. (Bachman did put out twi more books—1997’s The Regulators and 2007’s Blaze—the latter being a rewritten version of one of King’s earliest novels).
Murray Constantine (Real identity: Katharine Burdekin)
Katharine Burdekin found a measure of success as a writer under her own name in the early 20th century. Her books were ahead of their time, dealing with gender fluidity and sci-fi themes like time-travel; she also wrote a children’s book set in a world without gender. She was extremely productive in the 1930s, writing thirteen novels and publishing six—four under the pseudonym of Murray Constantine. It’s thought she used a male name to escape the sexist prejudice against women writers in the sci-fi genre. As Constantine, she published what many believe is one of the first truly dystopian novels, Swastika Night, which not only envisioned a terrifying future where the Nazis endured and thrived, but also serves as an early echo of The Handmaid’s Tale, describing a future where women are subjugated and treated like cattle. Burdekin published her last book in 1940, although she continued to write, and passed away in 1963, with no one the wiser that she and Constantine were one and the same—though it was a known pseudonym, at least one scholar believed the true writer to be a man—respected British sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon. But in the mid-1980s, an American scholar named Daphne Patai researching utopian and dystopian fiction put the clues together, which led to the discovery of a trove of Burdekin’s unpublished manuscripts, one of which—The End of This Day’s Business—is a mirror to Swastika Night, set in a future in which women rule the world and men are subjugated.
James Tiptree, Jr. (Real identity: Alice Sheldon)
It’s common knowledge among modern science fiction readers that James Tiptree, Jr. was a pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon, the truth having been revealed decades ago at this point. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Tiptree name is not how long Sheldon kept it secret, but the fact that for many years, seemingly everyone in the sci-fi community knew it was a cover, but assumed the person behind it was a male writer hiding his identity. Hugo-winning author Robert Silverberg even publicly declared he found suggestions Tiptree might be a woman to be “absurd,” because the writing style was “superior in masculinity” to Ernest Hemingway—whatever that means. It was especially ironic (or perhaps appropriate), as Sheldon chose a male pseudonym because she didn’t want the attention of being a prominent woman in what was then a male-dominated field. Sheldon kept the ruse going for more than a decade before slipping up by making a reference to her mother’s death while “in character” as Tiptree. Her secret revealed, Sheldon gave up and admitted everything—though she continued to publish under the Tiptree name until her death a little over a decade later. Today, the James Tiptree, Jr. award is given annually to speculative works that expand or explore concepts of gender—though that may soon change. Earlier this year, a movement to change the name of the award gathered steam, with proponents suggesting honoring Sheldon in that way is inappropriate, given the fact that she murdered her infirm and ailing husband before killing herself—an act many in 2019 see as a clear case of caregiver murder. The issues involved are complex and heartbreaking—evidence suggests the couple had shared a pact to die on their own terms—and you can learn more of the sad details here.)
Anonymous (Real identity: Joe Klein)
If you’re old enough to remember Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in the early 1990s, you might recall the furor over the release of the 1996 novel Primary Colors, a lightly fictionalized account of Clinton’s campaign that made everyone involved look pretty sketchy. The anonymous identity of the author was immediately a point of interest (and an incredibly effective marketing gimmick) that saw literary detectives poring over the book for clues. Surprisingly, it didn’t take too long to crack the case: journalist Joe Klein was quickly and correctly identified as the likely culprit early on because of the writing style “Anonymous” employed. Klein nevertheless denied it publicly several times, until The Washington Post hired a handwriting expert to analyze notes written on the manuscript pages. When the Post revealed the expert’s analysis revealed the author had to be Klein, he came clean. A sequel to Primary Colors, The Running Mate, was published in 2000 under Klein’s own name.
Trevanian (Real identity:Rodney Whitaker)
Literary writer Trevanian was an enigma for decades—a man whose bestselling novels varied so much in subject and style that some people suspected he was a group of writers sharing a pseudonym. The fact was, Rodney Whitaker was one man writing under several names, only the most famous and successful of which was Trevanian. His first hit, The Eiger Sanction, was intended as a spoof of spy thrillers, and Whitaker was irritated that everyone seemed to take it seriously (he doubled-down on the spoofiness in the sequel, even giving it the title The Loo Sanction). Whitaker kept his true identity secret until 1998, when a reporter in Austin somehow discovered the secret via an examination of school records and published Trevanian’s true identity. Whitaker no longer lived in the United States by that time and wasn’t terribly bothered by the outing; he published two more novels under the name, including Crazyladies, which is a largely autobiographical work that offers plenty of insight into the unusual mind of one of the most successful writers of the 1970s.
K.J. Parker (Real identity: Tom Holt)
Like most names on this list, everyone knew K.J. Parker’s was a pseudonym—but for 17 years, no one was certain who was using the name to publish excellent fantasy novels and short stories which were praised for their wit and historical verisimilitude. In a delightfully modern comparison to the hullabaloo surrounding Tiptree, Jr., many people were pretty convinced Parker was a woman using a vague pen name to write that sort of grim, dense fantasy that were the domain of the male author. In 2015, British satirist Tom Holt outed himself as Parker, surprising the heck out of a lot of people. Holt, best known for his silly and pun-laden (if creative and cleverly constructed) speculative fiction, seemed like the least likely candidate for the job—especially when you start to add up the sum total of Parker and Holt’s output and realize that one mortal producing that many novels so quickly probably means Holt sleeps about a minute a day. While Holt’s secret identity was voluntarily surrendered rather than “cracked,” it still caused a minor stir.
Still a Mystery
You might think that the true identity of Elena Ferrante, author of the Neopolitan Quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend (which was adapted into a successful TV miniseries) has been solved; there were a flurry of articles a few years ago that certainly gave that impression. The problem is, the three people who have so far been named as credible candidates—Marcella Marmo, Anita Raja, and Domenico Starnone (as well as Raja and Starnone together) have all denied it. There’s no hard evidence, and “Ferrante” continues to have nothing to say on the subject. The attempts to find the truth have elicited accusations of sexism and mean-spiritedness and led to questions about what an author “owes” their readership—and none of it has gotten us any closer to the truth.
Literally every detail known about the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is disputed on some level. From his name, to his birthplace, to whether or not his writing was initially published in German or English, no one can state with certainty a single concrete fact about the man—except that he wrote some of the most popular adventure novels of the early 20th century. In 1960 Traven submitted his final novel to his publisher, but the style and subject matter were so different the publisher rejected the book, believing that Traven had passed away and someone was attempting to use his name. One candidate for Traven’s true identity is German actor Ret Marut—but that name is also suspected to be a pseudonym. With every year that goes by, the likelihood that we’ll ever know for sure grows slimmer.
Let’s just get it out of the way: My Secret Life, published between 1888 and 1895 in seven volumes that eventually amounted to over a million words, is a terrible book. As a memoir it meanders, repeats itself, and, despite the racy subject matter (covering affairs with prostitutes, serving girls, and just about anyone else who was willing), is written with all the style and literary talent of a shrub. The reason it’s still a notable work is simple: it details the sex life of a gentlemen in the Victorian era, a time when such matters weren’t discussed much, making this a valuable historical document. Adding to the intrigue, the identity of its author has never been convincingly proved. Since Walter’s escapades are not always complimentary (a fact that argues against this being a work of fiction or plain old erotica passed off as a memoir), it would be interesting if Walter turned out to be someone of prominence, but chances are we’ll never actually know.
John Twelve Hawks
Sci-fi author Hawks’ has maintained near-perfect anonymity, despite seeing his novels sell millions of copies around the world. He wrote that he decided on the pseudonym while working on his first novel, The Traveler, partly because he idolizes George Orwell (a pseudonym, in case you didn’t know), and partly because the novel focuses on a future society where the citizens are accustomed to being watched and monitored at all times. He felt it would be hypocritical to seek publicity after writing a story warning against a loss of privacy. The very small amount of information we have about Hawks has been gleaned solely from his interviews and writings, making him one of the most mysterious working authors today.
Church’s detective novels are set in North Korea and crammed with enough detail to convince you that he was, as he claims, once an intelligence agent who worked or works in the East Asia—and who must remain anonymous because he still travels regularly to North Korea. His novels follow the investigations of a North Korean policeman named Inspector O and detail the struggles of the inspector to solve cases while living under a repressive and often dangerously paranoid totalitarian state, and have been praised for their combination of great storytelling and presumed accuracy. Whether there will ever be a time when it’s safe for Church to reveal himself remains to be seen—if in fact his identity isn’t considered some sort of state secret, never be revealed at all.
We end with the troubling case of Bandi, the unknown North Korean writer who smuggled this collection of short stories out of his native country under the nose of an oppressive regime but continues to live and work as a writer there. Details in the stories that might be used to identify him were deliberately altered by the publisher to protect him, and while the defector who helped him smuggle the stories out in the first place found ways of letting him know the book had been published, she also admits she hasn’t been able to get in touch with him since 2018. While there’s no reason to believe anything has happened to the author, the circumstances are certainly a bit ominous. This is one mysterious pseudonym we don’t want cracked—at least not until the writer is safely out of danger.
Pseudonyms are always tantalizing little mysteries. Did we miss any that haven’t been figured out yet?