Sunday 25 March 2018

Unravelling the mystery of the latest chapter in JK's life

Harry Potter's creator is the latest in a line of writers to adopt a pseudonym

A blazed trail: JK Rowling is not the first famous author to publish under a pseudonym
A blazed trail: JK Rowling is not the first famous author to publish under a pseudonym

Sameer Rahim

When The Cuckoo's Calling was published in April it fared decently for a debut crime novel. Though not much noticed in the papers, author Robert Galbraith got good reviews on Amazon and from established writers such as Val McDermid and Peter James, who praised the novel as "compelling". It sold around 1,500 copies in hardback – nothing special, but not bad.

Late on Saturday night, it was revealed that Galbraith, far from being an ex-military police officer as advertised, was the pseudonym of none other than Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Given the extraordinary attention she gets when she publishes a new book – her first adult novel The Casual Vacancy received mixed reviews last year – it's understandable that she wanted to try something without that burden.

"It had been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name," said Rowling in a statement.

She took the anonymity seriously: the book was passed round publishers, at least one of which rejected it. Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion, admitted she had turned down what she described as a "well written but quiet" book and invited other publishers to confess doing the same.

JK Rowling is by no means unique in blindsiding the literary world with an assumed name. The history of literature is replete with authors resorting to nom de plumes for a variety of reasons.

In the 19th Century many women resorted to male pseudonyms to get their work regarded seriously – the three Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte and Emily were, respectively, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, and George Elliot, author of Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, was actually Mary Ann Evans.

In the 60s, when science fiction was seen as a male preserve, DC Fontana, who wrote many of the original Star Trek episodes, was actually Dorothy Catherine Fontana. Originally series creator Gene Roddenberry's secretary, she also wrote many more episodes using the pen names of Michael Richards and J Michael Bingham.

But it wasn't only women who opted for a different character.

Prize-winning French author Romain Gary used no less that three other pen names to keep his work fresh. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was actually a renowned Oxford University cleric and mathematician called Dr Charles Dodgson, who wanted to keep his twin careers separate.

More recently Richard Bachman, who wrote a series of well-received SF novels including Rage, was revealed to actually be prolific horror maestro Stephen King. Inspector Wexford creator Ruth Rendell publishes darker psychological thrillers under her pen name Barbara Vine.

It's debatable how long Rowling's disguise would have lasted, as it's been suggested that anyone reading The Cuckoo's Calling can find small clues to the author's identity.

It opens with paparazzi photographers snapping the lifeless body of a model, Lula Landry, who has fallen – or been pushed – from her open window. She is objectified in death as she had been in life – an innocent hounded by the tabloids. Rowling, who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, has made little secret of her loathing for the tabloid press.

Our hero is Cormoran Strike, an ex-soldier who lost a leg in Afghanistan and is now a hard-drinking private investigator with a complicated private life. His secretary Robin is a spirited woman who joins him from a temp agency. Cue some low-key sexual tension between them. Strike investigates various disreputable friends to build up a picture of the dead girl.

Rowling has never been a stylist and there are some terribly clunky sentences. This is typical: "Hope, so briefly re-erected at the news that he might have a client, fell slowly forwards like a granite tombstone and landed with an agonising blow in Strike's gut." The dialogue is creaky, though it does zip along easily enough. When the inevitable television adaptation comes it will make enjoyable Sunday-evening viewing.

The more interesting mystery is how deliberately Rowling planned her exposure. She says she hoped it could have been concealed for a little longer, but there's a possibility that it may have been a PR manoeuvre. Publishing anonymously allows her the satisfaction of seeing her work judged on its merits – but then she can't be displeased to see The Cuckoo's Calling shoot straight to the top of the Amazon chart, moving a whopping 5,000 places

None of us can know what it's like being the most famous living author in the world. It's clear she thinks of the unfortunate Lula as a kindred spirit: "Her refusal to feed her fans' ravenous appetite for personal information seemed to have inspired others to fill the void. There were countless websites dedicated to the reproduction of her pictures, and to obsessive commentary on her life."

Jo Rowling the writer managed to escape the burden of being JK Rowling for a little while – but not for long. Sameer Rahim and Myles McWeeney

Irish Independent

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