After writing nearly a dozen books under the tongue-in-cheek pen name of Pseudonymous Bosch, Raphael Simon has stepped out of the shadows to write his own middle grade adventure. In The Anti-Book, a 12-year-old boy is transported to a strange new world where he confronts his emotional issues while encountering warped reflections of his everyday life. PW spoke with Simon about his multiple identities, the benefits and drawbacks of playing a role, and how this new stage of his career marks a more personal approach to writing.
You’ve written quite a few books as Pseudonymous Bosch, but The Anti-Book is your first as Raphael Simon, even though you “came out” in a 2016 New York Times article. Why did you initially adopt the Bosch identity, and why write under your own name at this point?
My book career and my pseudonym began in an exchange of letters with a fourth grader named May. My first book, The Name of This Book Is Secret, was written in correspondence as part of an elementary school program called Writing Partners. It was meant to be anonymous, and she wasn’t supposed to know my real name, so that’s how Pseudonymous Bosch was born.
It just so happened that I’m a very self-conscious writer, and I found having this alternative identity to be liberating. It allowed me to enjoy writing for the first time, free of the self-censoring I was subjecting myself to before that. So out of the first book, a five-book series called The Secret Series was born. After that, I wrote a spinoff series, The Bad Books. Finally, I started a chapter book series about a boy magician, called The Unbelievable Oliver.
Bosch wasn’t just a pseudonym, but also something of a character. It was fun to be that character, but after a while he felt more constricting than liberating. You mention the New York Times piece, where I “came out” as Raphael Simon. In that piece, I talked about how, as a gay man, I began to feel closeted playing the role of Pseudonymous Bosch, who wasn’t necessarily gay or out. It felt like a step back, even though I’ve been out since the age of 20 in real life.
I asked myself what kind of book would I write—who am I as a writer? And it was about time I saw my real name on a book. I remember when I first held The Name of This Book Is Secret in my hands and went, “Where’s my picture? Where’s my name?” So it’s also a small matter of ego. I just got a physical copy of The Anti-Book and it was unexpectedly moving to see my real name on the cover.
What inspired The Anti-Book? What makes it different from your previous work?
The Anti-Book began more than 10 years ago, when I thought of the title. I asked myself what the opposite of a book would be, and I thought “Books create worlds. What about a book that made the world disappear?” The seeds of the idea have been in my head for a long time. And I’d been wanting to write from a more personal place than I had in the past. I thought about who I was, and the struggles I went through as a young person.
The Anti-Book is about a 12-year-old boy named Mickey, whose parents are going through a divorce, just as my parents did at that age. And he’s being subjected to anti-gay bullying before he’s even come to terms with his sexual identity, so he’s angry and unhappy, totally not in touch with his feelings, and just wants everything to go away. He receives a blank book which reads, “To erase it, write it,” and eventually winds up in the Anti-World after making everything he hates go away. So ultimately, it’s about a boy who is forced through a fantastical experience to confront his own feelings in order to find love for the world and for himself. My hope is that it speaks in particular to kids today who have just lived through the pain, anger, and isolation that came with the pandemic.
It’s my attempt at a fantasy book in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom Tollbooth, but at the same time it’s more personal than my other books. It addresses some of how I felt at 12, like seeing gay used as a slur, which is something I grew up with, which makes everybody feel bad about themselves. It’s a particular issue for my hero, because he isn’t being given the space to figure out who he is yet. It’s very difficult to defend yourself and define yourself at the same time about that. I wanted to confront that issue.
What has it been like to work and live during the pandemic? Has it fundamentally changed your routine/schedule/process?
I found it very difficult to write in the pandemic. I work at home, so I basically commute to my garage office. From the outside, my life hasn’t changed much. But having my husband around more than he was in the past, and having our twin 12-year-old daughters doing school at home, has disrupted my routine. I had Covid almost a year ago, and that’s given me an excuse for my lack of productivity, general distractedness, and depression. Of course, I experienced those before the pandemic, so it’s hard to know what to attribute to surviving Covid and what’s just being myself. It has not been a great year, workwise. Luckily, I was just finishing up The Anti-Book when lockdown began.
Does this mark a permanent transition for you, or do you plan to maintain both identities? What does the future hold for you as both Raphael and Pseudonymous?
I plan to maintain both identities in the short term. I’d love to write another book as Raphael Simon and continue to discover who I am as a writer and human being. Though funnily enough, a number of people have said that The Anti-Book sounds like it was written by Pseudonymous Bosch, even if the character isn’t there. I thought of it as being written in a different voice, but I guess there’s an unintentional echo anyway.
Pseudonymous and I are still working out the details of our partnership. It’s kind of an ongoing dispute, especially since he famously lives in hiding, and even I have trouble tracking him down sometimes. He might not want you to know that The Secret Series is currently in development as an interactive movie for Netflix, with me as a producer. Maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone. I’ve also been working on a series of personal essays for an adult audience, and I’m in the beginning stages of another middle grade novel in the same vein as The Anti-Book.
Who would win in a fight between Pseudonymous Bosch and Lemony Snicket?
I’m sad to say that it would probably be Lemony Snicket. Bosch has a lot of bravado, but in the end he’s more likely to be found hiding in a corner, eating a bar of chocolate.
The Anti-Book by Raphael Simon. Dial, $17.99 Apr. 6 ISBN 978-0-525-55241-3