It’s a question that may be as much philosophical as literary: Is a pseudonym really a pseudonym if there is no effort made to hide the true identity of the author? And if the answer is no, then why bother with a pseudonym at all?
I raised those questions with Lawrence Block, the best-selling author whose latest book, the aptly titled Getting Off, is due for release this month from publisher Hard Case Crime. There is no doubt that Block is the author of Getting Off—it says so right on the cover, in type as large as the book’s title—but in much smaller type is the curious notation, “Writing as ‘Jill Emerson.’ ”
What’s going on here?
“It surprised me, truth to tell,” Block said of his decision to revive the long-dormant Jill Emerson pen name. “I wrote under a slew of pen names for my first 15-plus years in the business, and one girlfriend described me and my four then-current pseudonyms as pentophrenic, which I rather liked.
“But I stopped all that in the mid-seventies, and in fact subsequently managed a certain in-gathering of pen names. When the several books I’d done as Chip Harrison and Paul Kavanagh were reissued, they had my name on the cover.
“I always liked the Jill Emerson novels, and when Jim Seels published a small-press limited edition of Threesome a few years back, I not only put my name on the cover, but my face as well. I believe that was the first time I used an open pen name—“Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson.”
The first Jill Emerson books were lesbian novels, more erotic than violent, and at the time there apparently was no suggestion that they were actually written by a man. One of the early Emerson novels, Enough of Sorrow, has been called a “lesbian classic” and was excerpted in an anthology of works all authored by women, with no hint of Jill Emerson’s true identity. Block wrote several more novels as Jill Emerson, a mix of eroticism and mainstream, before retiring the pen name for several decades of writing.
The eroticism and lesbian themes of the early Jill Emerson books are alive and well in Getting Off, along with a healthy dose of murder and mayhem. Kit Tolliver, the novel’s protagonist, spends her time going to bed with a variety of men and then killing them. A few of her lovers survived, and now she’s trying to remedy that, one man at a time. For anyone familiar with Block-as-Emerson, the pen name should be a heads-up for what’s coming, graphic varieties of sex and violence.
“With Getting Off, I had a couple of reasons for a pen name,” Block said. “One was the erotic content. A few years ago, I wrote a post-9/11 New York thriller called Small Town, a big multiple-viewpoint book in which I tried to include as much of my sense of my hometown as I could. On the whole it was very well received, but I was bothered by the number of emails I got from outraged readers who took exception to the book’s intense eroticism.
“One of the characters, an art gallery owner named Susan Pomerance, leads a rather active and imaginative sex life, and it came as a shock to those faithful fans who were hoping for another book about a lovable burglar and his stub-tailed cat. Their reaction didn’t make me regret writing it the way I did, I was fine with that, but I regretted having ambushed those particular folk, and didn’t want to do it again with Getting Off. I figured the pen name and subtitle (‘a novel of sex & violence’) would warn them off. Of course that was before I saw the cover Charles Ardai came up with, which does the job and then some.
“But that wasn’t the only reason for the pen name. I made the decision long before the book was completed, and I think it freed me in a way that’s hard to define. Every book just tries to be its own self. I never consciously wrote Getting Off any differently once I knew it would have an open pen name on it, though it may have freed me unconsciously. I have to believe that ‘Jill Emerson’ is more than a convenience, that Jill is another aspect of self, and that I access that part of myself when I write.”
It’s a safe bet that “Lawrence Block” wins out over “Jill Emerson” in the name recognition race, though, and the “writing as . . .” strategy has an undeniable economic aspect.
“From a commercial standpoint, it’s important to have my name on the cover,” Block explained. “And I want it there. I can’t recall ever having had more fun writing anything than I did with Getting Off, and I don’t for a moment want to hide the fact that it’s my book.
“And I have to say I like open pen names. Within the past year, Open Road has brought out 40+ of my early novels as eBooks—indeed, it’s the afterwords I wrote for those editions that coalesced into Afterthoughts. Many of those are early Lawrence Block crime fiction titles: After the First Death, Deadly Honeymoon, Grifter’s Game. Others were once pseudonymous but have been under my name for a while now: Such Men Are Dangerous, No Score. But others, like the seven Jill Emerson titles, and books written under names like Sheldon Lord and Andrew Shaw and Lesley Evans and Anne Campbell Clark, are now listed with open pen names: ‘LB writing as . . . .’ It just feels right to me that way.”
Block has been busy at his craft, 50 years writing professionally, more than 100 books, nearly all of which still are in print. He attributes his prolific output to a trait not usually associated with hard work.
“I don’t have a writing schedule,” he explained. “It varies, depending on the circumstances and the book and a hundred other variables. I usually make writing the first thing I do in the day, but even that is subject to change. If I’m working all out on a book, and nothing gets in the way, it takes a month or two. If all goes well.
“And how do I get so much done? Well, I can answer that, but people will think the answer’s ironic. I’m as productive as I am because I’m lazy. And that drives me to find the quickest and most expedient way to get something done. That’s my secret, if you want to call it that, and I suspect it’s destined to remain a secret, because nobody’s going to believe it.”
Block has collected numerous honors along the way: a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of the United Kingdom, the title Grand Maitre du Roman Noir in France, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and four Edgar and Shamus Awards. He also has written several non-fiction books packed with advice for authors.
His advice to other writers:
“You mean besides taking everything I’ve done as a powerful negative example?” Block said. “Because there’s a lot to be said for that. I’m sure I could have had far more commercial success if I’d done things very differently. And no, I won’t bother pointing out all the wrong roads taken, or not taken.
“On the other hand, this way I’m still writing after more than fifty years in the business, and still enjoying it, and just about everything I’ve written is in print even as we speak, and all of that is enormously satisfying to me. If I’d made some of those smarter commercial moves over the years, my guess is I’d have long since burned out and given it all up. So I’m pleased things have gone exactly as they have, although it’s not the road others might opt for.
“So, what advice for someone who’d like to go and do likewise? Write to please yourself. Write what you want to write, and write it the way you want to write it.
“Have I always done so? No, not always. But when I haven’t, I’ve almost always regretted it.”
Lawrence Block has won life achievement awards in France, the UK, and the US and has written well over 100 books under his own name and others. Getting Off, his eighth book as Jill Emerson, is his first pseudonymous venture in 35 years.
To learn more about Lawrence, please visit his website.