A commenter on my last post (hi Diana) mentioned that Joyce Carol Oates also writes under the name Lauren Kelly, so her prodigious productivity is actually greater than it appears. I think she also writes under yet another name, Rosamund Something, does she not? (Wikipedia says Rosamond Smith.) The other day I was putting some thriller titles into our database and I thought the names seemed wonky, like "Douglas Preston" and "Gwen Hunter" and "Manning Coles." I thought, Who are these people really? Does Thomas Pynchon write thrillers between literary block busters? Or maybe Stephen King -- we know about Richard Bachmann, but are there other personalities? Maybe there are only a handful of super-productive writers out there, each with a list of aliases as long as their arm.
This might be truer than one would think. I once read an article about a science fiction writer who couldn't sell any more books because her sales figures weren't so great. So she added an initial and sent the book out again. Apparently, publishers would look up her name on a database, see the sales figues and pass, but the system considered a name with an initial a whole different name. So she got a fresh start and sold the book. And three books down the line, had to change her name again. Still!
I've often thought I'd like to write under a different name. Would my writing be noticeably different, I wonder, if an alter-ego were writing it? It would be nice to dodge the burden of who I think I am. Unfortunately I can't think of a good name. The easy way to go would be to take my middle name and my husband's last name: Margaret Lennon. Not terrible, but a bit drab. She's too much like me. How about Penelope Vinewinder?
No, I would definitely pick a man's name. Not a tough guy name (not Brad Gunn or Ted Armantrout) but a sensitive guy's name: Elliot Sands. Timothy J. Fern.
Small pet peeve: why do book jackets so often reveal the true identity of an author's pen name? Well, obviously, it's to have it both ways: get the name recognition of the established author without the expectations. Still, I think a pen name should have to go the distance. An alter-ego should have to struggle like any other new writer, not float in on the reputation of someone else.