I was exposed as an impostor by a very nice lady in a summer frock. It was a beautiful day at a literary festival in the Lake District and Will Davenport had just finished his first public appearance. He hadn't a care in the world. Then she asked him - that is me - to sign her copy of The Painter.
My autograph, that is my real autograph, before there were two, starts with three legible initials, J W D. You can tell the surname starts with L but years of abuse have turned the rest of it into a near-death ECG read-out. It is however, plausible. It has a well-worn look. Faced for the first time with the vast undulating length of the surname "Davenport", my brain-hand coordination gave up about a centimetre in. The poor woman took back her book with a worried expression. She clearly thought I had damaged its secondhand value.
There is a certain irony in this. The Painter, my new novel, is about the crisis of identity so many men pass through as they fail to find any joy in ageing, told through the change in Rembrandt's self-portraiture following his trip to Hull in 1662. You didn't know Rembrandt went to Hull? Oh, come now.
My first inkling that it might lead to my own identity crisis came from my American publishers. It seems there is another James Long over there, and in an attempt to "differentiate my genre" they had somehow labelled me as a writer of women's romance. I was appalled and then even more appalled by their solution. I could start writing women's romance, they suggested, or I could change my name. This was an easy decision to make.
There are many pitfalls in this pseudonym business. I arrived at a busy book event to find they had thoughtfully coned off a parking space and marked it "lunchtime speaker". As I got out, the doorman intercepted me. "I'm James Long", I said. He shook his head. "That space is for Mr. Davenport, sir. I'm sure you'll find parking somewhere up there." He waved a hand towards Scotland. Worse followed. By the time I checked in for the night, I thought I knew the game. My publishers had taken this Davenport business seriously. I confidently announced myself to the hotel reception manager, was rewarded by a smile of instant recognition and blithely handed over my credit card: "Just a formality, sir. Only an imprint." He looked at the name on it and his expression changed to that of a man who wished he had enough arms to grab me, phone the police and cut up the card all at the same time.
It was a subtle difference in genre that produced the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine duo and a less subtle one that put the middle initial "M" into Iain Banks. Julian Barnes, Joanna Trollope and even Charles Dickens have all done it and now the pressure is on because brand-naming has invaded fiction. Publishers seem to think that they can't trust the intelligence of book-buyers. They have an absurd belief that readers follow particular authors not for their style and approach, but entirely for the type of plot they write. Story-telling, which for me is the entire purpose of writing, has been carved up into genres imposed as arbitrarily as the internal frontiers of the former Yugoslavia. It is very difficult to be a Kingsley Amis these days and wander at will into comedy, crime or sci-fi. One of my contracts actually contains a claustrophobic clause saying the contents of my next book must appeal to the same readers as my last. I hadn't changed genre. Like Ferney and the other books immediately before it, The Painter belonged to the dual-time-scheme, not precisely a thriller, semi-historical, mildly erotic genre - you know the one. That's another thing. Not being able to define your genre in three words also makes your publishing life difficult these days.
Karen Hayes had to change names when the wittiness present in Still Life on Sand and her other novels spilled over into outright humour in Foreign Fields. She hung on to "Karen" and changed "Hayes" into "Nelson", meaning she can have sensible conversations with people at literary events without thinking they're talking to the person behind her. She has had one of the better pseudonymous moments. Tutoring an Arvon Foundation writing course at Totleigh Barton, she surprised one of the students reading her second Karen Nelson novel, Tea and Tiramisu. The poor student was embarrassed: "I'm so sorry, I know I should be reading one of yours, but I'm enjoying this one so much, I had to finish it first."
A pseudonym also obliges you to decide whether you really want anonymity. Mary Jane Staples, the prolific best-selling author of cockney sagas such as Appointment at the Palace is reclusive for a good reason. He's really a T-shirt manufacturer from Caterham called Reginald. An old, slightly pseudonymous friend of mine, now greatly missed, had sold umpteen million novels when, in a spirit of amiable malice, she booked herself as a participant on to a Ways With Words writing course I was to teach in Umbria. She promised to stay in the swimming pool but 15 minutes into the first of our sessions, she appeared at the back of the room in disruptive mood and started complaining that she couldn't hear me. It was no use reminding her that she was going deaf. On the second day, I told her she could only attend if she sat next to me and helped conduct the class. At the end, one of the other participants, a straightforward Yorkshirewoman, came up to her. They'd been talking at dinner. "I didn't know you were a writer, Mary," she said. "What's your surname, love?"
"Siepman," was the unhelpful though truthful reply. The Yorkshirewoman shook her head. "I'm sorry, love, I've never heard of you." My old friend, playing the game like a pro and waiting to savour the moment of revelation, said "...but I write under the name of Wesley." "Mary Wesley," said the Yorkshirewoman slowly, then she shook her head again. "No, love. I've still never heard of you."
My decision to become Will Davenport on this side of the Atlantic too was a slightly rash experiment prompted by the internationalisation of Amazon.com which makes it harder to have one book under two names. That was another idea which didn't quite work. I hadn't realised that my publishers had already been trailing The Painter by James Long on the website. When it abruptly changed authorship, three loyal readers sent me warning letters. Did I know someone had pinched my title, they said, and my plot too? Hadn't I better do something?
The re-birthing moment of choosing a new name is testing. It is of course important that you should be able to remember it yourself. Karen Hayes chose "Nelson" because it was a much-loved godmother's name. Christopher Hart, author of the dark and intense literary novels The Harvest and Rescue Me, needed a fresh identity when he branched out into more lucrative sword-and-sandal Roman epics to underwrite the literature. He says it's already quite weird enough spending all day on your own, writing down what the voices in your head are saying, but wearing two masks turns it into a multiple personality disorder. He kept it in the family by choosing his two middle names but now they're taking him over. "William Napier" took off when Orion signed him up for a three-book Attila the Hun deal. "Christopher Hart" may have to fight for his survival.
I took the same middle-name route, helped by a glisten of snobbery on the brow of my mother who had decided at my birth that I was destined to be a consultant surgeon and might therefore need a double-barrelled name. James William Davenport was quite a mouthful to go before Long, but it was at least better than "Miles" which is what she nearly called me.
You won't find an author picture inside the jacket of my new book. Like Rembrandt, who painted himself as a bit too good-looking at first, a bit too prosperous later and only finally, and best of all, in the honesty of age, it would be tempting to pick someone a bit fresher from the photo-library, a pseudoface for my pseudonym. In my mind, though, Will Davenport will always be 10 years younger and three stone lighter than James Long.
Will Davenport's novel 'The Painter' is published by HarperCollins at £6.99. Both James Long and Will Davenport will be appearing at the Ways With Words Literature Festival at Dartington Hall, 11 -21 July.Reuse content