There are lots of reasons to adopt a pen name. Women who write under male pen names are more likely to get published, which makes me sad. Read Catherine Nichols’ experiment at Jezel here; very telling. Maybe you think it “sounds cool”, a la Mark Twain. Perhaps you write erotica and you just don’t want your grandmother to find out. That’s fine. But as a white heterosexual cis-woman, I can’t imagine the necessity of using a pen name because exploring the subject of same-sex relationships makes me legitimately concerned for my safety.
This is an incredible interview with author Alma Routsong about her first novel Patience and Sarah, which she originally self-published under the nom de plume Isabel Miller. She says,
“Before Patience and Sarah, I had started several books about myself and my friends, but I became overwhelmed with guilt and couldn’t finish them… I couldn’t find any that included erotic relations with other women. When I was keeping a diary, before I came out, I didn’t say anything about that subject either. I was afraid.”
So she used the name Isabel Miller. The former is an anagram of Lesbia, the latter, her mother’s maiden name.
Patience and Sarah is an honest, simple, and touching work about a young female couple in the early 1800s. Patience White is a spinster living in a small cabin on her brother’s homestead. Her late father made arrangements in his will for her living expenses so that she need not marry to secure her future. To pass the time, she paints and helps her brother’s sickly, meanish wife with the many children. She catches the eye of Sarah Dowling, a young farmer who delivers wood to the White household one chilly day.
Sarah is a bit of a local “oddity” because she wears trousers and works as hard as a man. Patience is intrigued, attracted, and absolutely overcome with the need to take care of her new friend. When Sarah tells her of plans to move west and buy her own farm, Patience sees an opportunity for a new future and seizes it.
The original title of Patience and Sarah as published by Miller (Routsong) was A Place for Us, which conjures Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from West Side Story, which in turn references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is apt. When Sarah’s father finds out about her relationship with Patience White, he beats her savagely and forbids any further contact. Patience feels herself forced to lie, convincing those around her that it was all a joke. It breaks Sarah’s heart. The most chilling thing about this is that in 1816 New England, that’s absolutely what would have happened.
I don’t know what it’s like to need a pen name for safety’s sake. In much the same way, I can’t imagine being literally afraid to embrace someone I love, or to tell the truth about my feelings. But I can imagine ending a relationship to mollify those around me. I’ve done it. It sucks. I was such a coward, I couldn’t handle a relationship that didn’t delight everyone in my immediate circle. That part of Patience and Sarah made me cry.
Here’s to Alma Routsong and Isabel Miller. Here’s to Patience White and Sarah Dowling. Here’s to telling the truth in all things, and to living your convictions.