The Name Is Not the Thing — or Is It?

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

The Name Is Not the Thing — or Is It?

I had a meeting last week with my publishing team at Picador, an imprint (at the end of a long string of imprints) of Macmillan, which resides in the iconic Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue.

On the way up in the elevator, the doors opened and a nattily dressed gentleman got on. He turned out to be Steve Rubin, who’d been my boss 25 years ago at Doubleday.

Steve, who hadn’t seen me in years, placed my face, said my name, and asked in typically direct fashion, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m on my way up to see Stephen Morrison,” the publisher of Picador, I replied. “He’s publishing a book of mine.”

Steve is one of Stephen’s bosses—the kind who resides on a different floor. Even with the book coming out this summer, I wasn’t insulted that he didn’t know about my book, because it’s a big outfit but also because the book is being published under the pen name Dana I. Wolff. There was no reference to my real name in the catalog.

The pen name is no big secret, however. And if you didn’t know, now you do.

Those few friends who’d already gotten an inkling as I’ve dribbled out news of the coming book release have posed the question, a little skeptically, “Why the pen name?” As if I were doing it to put one over on them.

Their question makes me wonder in turn: “Am I my name?”

Is anyone?

The banal explanation for the pen name is that the new book is a different genre for me—horror, when I’ve been known for writing thrillers up until now. And, well, as I’ve gone through life I’ve felt less attached to my name.

As I’ve used my initials on my books for the past few years, radio types would occasionally ask what to call me: J.E. or…what? Well, I know you have to call me something, but I don’t care all that much whether it’s J.E. or Joel or Mr. Wolff.

In fact, I wish I had half a dozen names that I could put on and take off as the occasion demands, like a finely rendered costume. One for the tennis court and one for business meetings and one for resort visits and one for my daughter’s friends and one for when I attend the theater.

Don’t we take on roles wherever we go, like it or not?

Shortly after David Bowie (not his real name!) died, I heard an NPR interview with a jazz musician who had played with him later in life. He told the story of how a go-between reached out to him and told him Bowie would be attending his performance at a small club in downtown New York. But the musician, not wanting to make people nervous, didn’t even inform the rest of the band.

Between sets, a waitress approached the musician and said, “Doesn’t that guy at Table 3 look just like an older version of David Bowie?”

That’s immortality, folks—the “real” David Bowie frozen in her mind.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, maybe Dana I. Wolff is a newer version of J.E. Fishman, who was a newer version of Joel E. Fishman.

I went to a book signing in West Chester, PA, recently to support fellow author and up-and-coming thriller writer Jon McGoran. When Jon heard the pen name, he immediately asked, “Did you choose that name because it’s sexually ambiguous?”

Pretty shrewd. Both the protagonist and the antagonist in The Prisoner of Hell Gate are women.

Each of those women has two names. The young woman Karalee Soper is sometimes called Kiki by her father and her boyfriend—a diminutive that says as much about the men in her life as it does about her.

Mary Mallon, much to her consternation, had the name Typhoid Mary imposed on her—leading to the loss of her independence.

If anyone ever called you by a name you didn’t like, you know how both of these women felt: hurt, diminished, angry. Maybe it got so bad that you couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe it led you to consider murder.

Yours in words,

Joel

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