“What’s in a Name?” (by Charles Ardai)

Charles Ardai has deep roots in nearly every area of the mystery field: He once worked in the subsidiary rights department for our fiction magazines (EQMM, AHMM, Analog, and Asimov’s), and in that capacity he edited and co-edited many short-story anthologies. He went on to co-found his own publishing company, Hard Case Crime, which recently had a number one New York Times bestseller with Stephen King’s novel Joyland. He’s an award-winning writer of both novels and short stories in our genre, and more recently he’s moved on to television, currently as writer/producer on the series Haven.  His topic for this post is approached from a writer’s standpoint, but also from that of a publisher, and it’s worth noting, since he talks about the work of Michael Crichton, that eight long-lost Crichton novels will be published by Hard Case Crime this month.—Janet Hutchings

When he was a student at Harvard Medical School, John Michael Crichton (later known better to the world after the surgical removal of his first name—much like the process that turned John Ross Macdonald into just Ross Macdonald, except that his real name was Kenneth Millar) wrote eight novels as John Lange.

Why? I’ve heard conflicting stories, only some of them from the man himself. Wikipedia points out that Crichton was abnormally tall—close to seven feet—and that “lange” means “long” in German. Maybe so. It’s true that he also wrote one book in the same period as Jeffrey Hudson, and Jeffrey Hudson was apparently the name of a dwarf in seventeenth- century England, so height does seems to have been on his mind. But that only speaks to the choice of pseudonyms, not to the choice to use a pseudonym in the first place.

Some say that he was concerned that Harvard would look unfavorably on one of their students spending enough time away from his studies to write paperback potboilers; some, that it was the content of those potboilers that worried him: plenty of sex and violence and unrepentant criminality and other conduct unbecoming a Harvard man (or anyway that Harvard might like to think of as such).

But I wonder. In the same period, he wrote and published his first big bestseller, The Andromeda Strain, and that was under his real name. Of course, the John Lange novels were somewhat sexier than The Andromeda Strain, and there were more of them. So maybe the other explanations have some truth. You can certainly imagine an academic advisor calling young John Michael on the carpet and asking, “Twelve novels in six years? Where do you find the time?”

But what I suspect is that he simply found the practice of writing under a pseudonym liberating. Particularly in the early stages of his career, when he was first trying things out. You see elements in the Lange novels that he would develop more fully elsewhere. In Drug of Choice, for instance, he has a mysterious Caribbean island where bioengineers have developed something extraordinary and plan to use it as the basis for a vacation resort like none the world has ever seen before. Is it cloned dinosaurs? No, it’s a drug, which may be why he called this book Drug of Choice and saved Jurassic Park for another one twenty years later. But you can see the germ taking root. Could he have written his bestseller The Great Train Robbery in 1975 if he hadn’t written the heist novel ODDS ON back in ’66 or the tomb-robbing adventure Easy Go in ’68? Well, sure, he could—but those gave him a trial run of sorts, free from the burdens of authorship. It wasn’t Michael Crichton, summa cum laude Harvard man, visiting lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge, whose name was on these things and whose reputation was consequently on the line. It was this Lange fellow, and surely he was impossible to embarrass. From all the evidence he was a bon vivant playboy who dashed off his risqué entertainments between trips to the French Riviera. And even if the reality was that he was a workaday novelist in Brooklyn, tapping away at the old Remington to make the mortgage payments, at least he was his own man, and had his own reputation to establish or to burn.

This all came to mind recently not only because I was working on preparing the eight Lange novels for their first republication in decades, and their first ever under the author’s real name, but because as I was doing this the news broke about J.K. Rowling having published a hardboiled private eye novel under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith.

Is The Cuckoo’s Calling any good? Yes. It’s a first-rate crime novel. Certainly nothing to be embarrassed by, nothing an author should feel the need to hide. And Rowling is anything but a first-time author, taking her tentative first steps into the world of publishing. But isn’t that precisely the point? As J.K. Rowling she has a reputation, and people have expectations about her books. The pressure involved must be crushing, and if there’s one thing that inhibits creativity it’s performance anxiety. What will people think? can be a paralyzing question even when you’re no one at all and not a living soul cares a whit what you do or don’t write. Now imagine if every reader on the planet knows your name and most of them have an opinion about your work. Imagine that you’re a lifelong fan of mystery novels but have never properly written one yourself (some of the Harry Potter books have elements of mystery fiction to them—but that’s not the same as an honest-to-God mystery novel). You want to write one, but you know the scrutiny it will be under. Apart from the question of whether the book will get a fair shake, there’s the question of whether you can put pen to paper and write it at all. I doubt I could. It would feel like having a roomful of people staring over my shoulder, muttering while I tried to decide between “he said” and “said he.”

So: Galbraith is born. A bluff and hearty sort, thoroughly male, military veteran, and unimpeachably not J.K. Rowling. And suddenly Jo Rowling is free! To write what she will how she will, and if it falls flat on its face, so be it. To mix metaphors, it’s Galbraith’s face the egg will land on, not hers. The consequence: a book that might easily have been strangled in its crib (or read as if it should have been) comes out beautifully.

I myself have had this experience. My first novel, Little Girl Lost, was nominated for the Edgar and Shamus Awards; its sequel, Songs of Innocence, won the Shamus; and I didn’t write either of them. I couldn’t. I tried—but I hit a wall after the first chapter of the first book, and ten years passed while I stared at those three pages and found myself unable to add a fourth. So what did I do? I farmed the work out to an unsavory fellow named Richard Aleas. (What’s that? His name is an anagram of mine? So it is.) He seemed to be the worst sort of workaday hack, the kind who’d write anything for the price of a pack of smokes and a pint of Makers Mark. And the book wasn’t going anywhere in my hands, so why not let Aleas take a crack at it?

Well, let me tell you. Old Aleas really tore the place up. And why? Because he had nothing to lose. He could write freely, unafraid of the consequences. So your book isn’t Ulysses, so the prose isn’t deathless, so the Nobel committee won’t leap to the red phone in Stockholm and shout the Swedish equivalent of “Stop the presses!” So what? The job of writing is writing, putting one word in front of another, and Aleas could do that.

And, as it turns out, he did it well. At least he did it well enough. And he had fun doing it, and learned a lot, and taught some of what he learned to that sluggard Ardai, who trailed along in his wake trying to keep up.

Michael Crichton went on to write better books as himself than he did as John Lange. But the Lange books are great fun, and he was justifiably proud of them. They gave him a priceless apprenticeship, and he wouldn’t have become the writer he became without them. Just like Lawrence Block, who started out writing as Sheldon Lord and Andrew Shaw and Chip Harrison and Lee Duncan; just like Donald Westlake, who was Alan Marshall and Tucker Coe and Richard Stark; just like Evan Hunter, who was Richard Marsten and Curt Cannon before he became Ed McBain (and who was actually born Salvatore Lombino); just like Martin Cruz Smith was Simon Quinn and Stephen King was Richard Bachman; just like all those others, Crichton was able to learn his craft and experiment with a wide variety of topics and themes and styles, all with the liberty that comes from having a disposable second identity. You don’t have to own up to the work now or ever—and that frees you to do good work.

When I launched Hard Case Crime and approached Michael to ask him about reissuing the Lange books—something he’d refused to do previously—I didn’t have high hopes. But he saw what our books looked like and what sort of stories we were telling and he got caught up in the spirit of the thing. His one request: We could reprint the books, but while he was alive we weren’t to breathe a word to anyone about who the author really was. This freed him once again to have some fun. No one was more surprised than me when, while we were working on re-editing Zero Cool, he emailed me a new pair of chapters he’d written to bookend the old story. It was the first new writing John Lange had done in 36 years, and Michael was tickled to death to have done it.

When does a Michael Crichton get to just play? A J.K. Rowling? To sling words without a care, to write for writing’s sake? Answer: When they’re starting out or starting over. When they’re able to shed who they are and be someone else.

As writers, we create characters—it’s what we do. And we should never forget that the first one we create for any book is the one whose name appears on the spine.

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This entry was posted in Anthologies, Books, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Novels, Publishing, Thrillers, Writers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “What’s in a Name?” (by Charles Ardai)

  1. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Having written under different configurations of my name with different experiences, I found this quite interesting!

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