I’ve made up plenty of pen names for myself, though I never plan to use them. This is part of me being a planner, a just-in-caser. I’ve used family names, my kids’ middle names, names I never named my children. Seems like it would be freeing and fun—maybe also confusing.
Today, Sarah Stonich aka Ava Finch shares the story of her pseudonym with us!
What would you do? What’s your maybe pen name? If you use a pen name, how do you handle it?
Please welcome both Sarah and Ava to WFW today!
by Sarah Stonich/Ava Finch
Since adopting the pen name Ava Finch, readers often ask me why, sometimes with a bit of a look, as if I might be cheating on myself – as if there exists some moral code for authors about being true to thine identity, or genre. Or something. Fellow writers are more curious, How does that work? Is it a secret? Does your publisher know?
When I first dangled my manuscript of Fishing With RayAnne to a few connections in publishing, they loved the premise of a camera-shy host of the first all-women’s fishing talk show on public television, and related to the strong, funny female characters. Still, I was advised to drop the alias. Editors don’t like it. Again the suggestion that adopting a pen name is a subversive, or even dishonest act.
I’m not hiding behind Ava. I am embracing her, albeit from behind.
I found a publisher that understood I wanted to write something different, with broader appeal – something approaching chick-lit, but not the sort with champagne flutes or shopping bags on the covers – I want to create feminist chick-lit, which needs to become a thing.
When musicians flip styles or delve into other genres they are lauded – Beck was awarded Grammy for becoming unrecognizable. When a visual artist tosses aside her brushes and takes up a paintball gun to create your portrait, that’s considered growth. So why is playing around the fringes suspect for writers? I’ve had friends be dropped by publishers for edging outside their established oeuvre, their brand – the takeaway being that sameness is valued over versatility, with publishers opting for predictability.
Experimentation should not feel sneaky. It shouldn’t.
No one blinked an eye when JK Rowling used an alias, and it’s a given for genre writers – the guy in the next cubicle doesn’t want coworkers to know he penned a trashy pirate-rom com called Seaman’s Kiss, and so Alan Gunderson becomes Alonzo Gunns. Romance novelists are expected to have pen names worthy of the engorged, moist-looking fonts on their covers. Crime and thriller writers adopt dark monikers like Dion Sharp or Harry Strange. Plenty of literary writers generate income producing genre fiction under pen names. After winning The Man Booker prize, John Banville didn’t need to seek critical acclaim – still, he writes crime under the name Benjamin Black, perhaps for a lark, definitely for the money. William Kennedy got in touch with his feminine side writing in the guise of a woman, and Joyce Carol Oates wrote a mystery under Rosamund Smith – perhaps weary of seeing her own name on so many book jackets.
As Sarah Stonich, I have a readership, moderate sales and a book club following and am considered established at least in states beginning with M or W and a few Canadian provinces. I could have published Fishing With RayAnne under my own name, except I didn’t write it.
Writing as someone else has been eye-opening. To me, Ava Finch is as much a character as those populating my novels, and so naturally she writes differently than I do. She’s faster, more confident and has more fun. My journey in her shoes has opened new doors in the process – rabbit holes, actually, because if one can create characters that can write…well, imagine.
Since I got to build Ava from the ground up, I made her edgier and more daring than I am – she has red hair and is Canadian (affording her an island of calm during this election-year lunacy) It’s easier for her to be outrageous because the stakes aren’t as high. When I sit down to write as Ava, she simply takes over. Because she’s a decade younger than I am, she has a different take on feminism – initially she was ambivalent, but when she writes about RayAnne grandmother, she becomes stirred by inequalities not much changed since Dot’s day, or even her mother Bernadette’s era, the 1960s. In RayAnne’s realm, she comes to understand the battles going forward will rage in arenas of equality in society, be more about opportunity and access, less about women vs men. Such observations influence Ava’s writing – not overtly, but in tone.
If Ava fails as a writer, might it sting less because I, Sarah Stonich, am less invested? Probably not. When my son was little he had an imaginary twin, Max: ‘Max told me to crawl into the pipe’. ‘Max peed in the umbrella stand.’ I imagine using such excuses in the face of bad reviews, ala ‘Ava wrote the dystopian interplanetary romance!’ Nobody’s being fooled, not least myself.
My book events and reading groups have gotten much more interesting as talk of pen names lead to discussions of genre and publishing. In addition to Ava, I’m testing out a male identity to write crime. With a few chapters under way, I’m already finding that between the gender and genre shifts, there’s much shedding of literary sensibilities. ‘Len’ as I’m calling him, embraces structure, sticks to the plot and tones down descriptions and observations in favor of moving the plot forward. In writing as Len, I’m pretty much rewiring my writer’s brain. I wonder, once ‘he’ is out there, will he benefit by the gender disparities of publishing? You know, the one in which male authors garner more marketing attention, more review inches, and bigger advances?
Choosing a pen name is half the fun. I considered the ‘mouth-feel’ of names, number of syllables, mellifluousness; onomatopoeia-ishness. For Ava, I tossed around various characters and titles from books I’ve admired – Finch came from Scout Finch, and my initial choice for a first name was Ada from Nabokov novel of the same name – until I realized that when paired with Finch and rehearsed aloud a few times that Ada Finch has just dined on songbird. So, I settled on Ava because I’m an Ava Gardner fan, having watched her portray numerous literary characters in film. And as biographies suggest, the actress was quite bookish herself – and maybe she could have written a few good novels herself if not so preoccupied marrying the wrong men. Plus, the URL was available. And so Ava Finch was born.
Naming my crime writer was a different process since he was going to be a man. By thinking like one, I would employ a market-driven strategy, adopting a vaguely ‘other’ sounding-name. Len Lehana might be Scandinavian, or Hawaiian, but the name is just unusual enough to remember. The kicker or course being that his books will appear on the shelf next to Dennis Lehane’s.
Male or female, since taking on these identities I’ve gained a lot of respect for writers of genre fiction – it’s not as easy as it looks. Writing ‘in character’, I have more options, the hope being my readers will have more options as well. Also, I’m having a lot of fun.
Sarah Stonich is following up her critically acclaimed novel Vacationland with Laurentian Divide in 2017 with The University of Minnesota Press. Her first novel, These Granite Islands was a Barnes&Noble Discover Great New Writer’s pick and published in eight languages.
Len Lehana’s crime series will be titled with collective nouns for birds – the first, A Deceipt of Lapwings is in progress, alongside the television pilot.
Novelist Ava Finch is the from Sechelt British Columbia and lives in Minnesota, where she works in advertising, collects vintage fishing lures, swims in Lake Superior, and, trains agility dogs. Fishing With RayAnne (Lake Union, ’15) is her first novel, originally written as a screenplay, she is now adapting it to television as well as writing the sequel, Reeling. Her Twitter handle is @ava_finch and you can find Ava on Facebook.