I was in the midst of writing my debut novel, The Charm Bracelet, when I was hired by People magazine to write an article revealing that Robert Galbraith was actually the secret pen name of J.K. Rowling.
Before starting the research, I gulped and opened my own working manuscript for my novel. The first page read, The Charm Bracelet by Viola Shipman. To be clear, my name is not Viola, and I am not a woman. After writing four humorous memoirs, I chose a pen name for my first novel. Or, more accurately, the pen name chose me.
The Charm Bracelet—a novel about how the charms on an heirloom bracelet reconnect three generations of women and remind them of what’s most important in life—is a tribute to my grandmother Viola Shipman. The story was inspired by her charms and lessons.
I grew up with my grandmother in the Ozarks, and the jangling of her charm bracelet was as ever present as the moan of bullfrogs, the call of whip-poor-wills, and the hum of cicadas. Through her charms I got to know my grandmother as not just my grandma but an incredible woman who’d lived an extraordinary life filled with beauty, hope, and tragedy.
My grandmother encouraged me to become a writer. She taught me to dream big but to always remember that the simplest things in life—family, friends, faith, fun, love, and a passion for what you do—are the grandest gifts. She was a seamstress at a local factory, but she dreamed of being a fashion designer. I believe, based on her encouragement, that she saw a piece of her own dreams come true through my subsequent accomplishments as a writer.
As I dug into the reasons why J.K. Rowling chose Robert Galbraith as a pen name (in the process I learned that J.K. was itself a pseudonym chosen to appeal to young male readers), as well as why other current authors made similar choices (such as Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb, and Madeline Wickham as Sophie Kinsella), I discovered that a number of famed authors from the past had written under pen names as well, including the Brontë sisters and Louisa May Alcott.
All chose pseudonyms for specific reasons: to ensure readers would buy their work, explore new genres, appeal to new audiences, and get their work published in a male-dominated world. What I didn’t uncover in my research was male authors using female pseudonyms. Was I making a horrific mistake?
I admire and closely follow the work and observations of Jen Weiner, who over the years has rightly stoked debate about the critical reception of female writers in today’s media. And to be honest, I have often felt the same way as Weiner. (Female authors and female characters, in my real life and writing, and have long been my heroes, from Erma Bombeck to my mom and grandmas.) It seems that if you’re a memoirist who happens to be gay, you are immediately compared to David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, and then you’re written off because you’re not them. (And I’m not. I’m decidedly Erma.)
My gut clenched. How would Viola fare? Moreover, I was writing a sentimental, sweet family novel at a time when fiction was becoming decidedly darker.
When I finished The Charm Bracelet and sent it to my agent, I kept the pen name and explained the reasons why. For me, the decision to use it was as simple and poignant as the foundational themes of the book: my grandma didn’t just help make me the man I am, she helped make me the person I am.
Her sacrifices and love helped propel me to this place in my life, and I felt bound to honor her and our elders not only with The Charm Bracelet but also with the series of novels I am writing for Thomas Dunne Books—all of which are inspired by my grandmother and her heirloom treasures, and all of which tell touching stories and exalt the bonds of family. (The second novel, The Hope Chest, will be published in 2017.)
I want readers to remember my grandmother’s name and, in turn, their own family histories.
So if there’s confusion, or a lack of reviews because of the pen name, so be it: my grandma was (pardon the pun) as charming as her bracelet but also as tough as the rocky, red-clay Ozarks countryside where she lived. And those traits run in the genes.
Once readers learn why I chose a pen name, I hope they will say, “Viva Viola!”
And I will continue to say, “Thank you, grandma. I’ll love you forever.”
Wade Rouse is the author of The Charm Bracelet (St. Martin’s, Mar. 2016).