The Real People Behind 10 Famous Pen Names

That guy who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is pretty famous, but a lot of people don’t know his real name. He has that in common with the woman who wrote the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey series. Do you know the real names of these famous writers?

History is full of great authors who wrote under assumed names, for all sorts of different reasons. Here are just ten such famous writers, along with their real names and stories.


George Eliot

Real name: Mary Ann Evans

Women have dominated literary awards in 2015, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, being a woman used to be a serious handicap to getting your work published. That unfortunate fact led Mary Ann Evans to write her masterful novels under a male pseudonym. Things are a little better these days, though there are still problems – publishers still sometimes ask women authors to go by their initials to make their gender less obvious to readers.


Robert Galbraith

Real name: Joanne (J.K.) Rowling

J.K. Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books brought her plenty of attention and plenty of pressure when it came time to undertake her next project. That made writing The Casual Vacancy a more stressful experience than Rowling wanted. So for her next project, a suspense thriller, Rowling published under the name Robert Galbraith. The truth didn’t come out until a Sunday Times columnist figured it out using linguistic analysis.


bell hooks

Real name: Gloria Jean Watkins

bell hooks is one of the most important feminist writers in history, but her name isn’t really “bell hooks.” Gloria Jean Watkins adopted the name bell hooks to honor her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Watkins uses the pen name to speak out about feminism and race.


E.L. James

Real name: Erika Leonard

Erika Leonard started out by writing fan fiction online under the name “Snowqueens Icedragon.” When she wrote her first “real” novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, she adopted a more professional pen name. In real life, Erika Leonard is rather shy – but as E.L. James, she’s one of the romance genre’s most daring writers.


John le Carré

Real name: David John Moore Cornwell

John le Carré doesn’t just write about spies – he’s been one. le Carré was working for MI6 in Hamburg, Germany when he wrote his first spy story, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The man who was born David John Moore Cornwell published as John le Carré because MI6 officers are not allowed to publish under their own names.


George Orwell

Real name: Eric Blair

George Orwell’s most famous novels are Animal Farm and 1984, but before he wrote those he penned Down and Out in Paris and London, a memoir of his time living in poverty. To avoid embarrassment for his family, he adopted the pen name George Orwell – “a good round English name,” he explained to a friend.


J.D. Robb

Real nameNora Roberts

At this point, most readers know that J.D. Robb and Nora Roberts are the same person, but the original idea of using J.D. Robb was to keep Nora Roberts’ real name out of the suspense genre. Roberts had long wanted romantic suspense thrillers, but her agent and publisher thought it was best for her to concentrate on just one genre. The result was this pen name. The “J” and “D” are a reference to her sons, Jason and Dan.


Dr. Seuss

Real name: Theodore Seuss Geisel

It’s no secret that Dr. Seuss is not a real name. Theodore Seuss Geisel adopted the name when he began writing children’s books. Originally, though, Geisel pronounced his pen name to rhyme with “voice.” He eventually gave in and started pronouncing it the way the rest of us do.


Lemony Snicket

Real name: Daniel Handler

Lemony Snicket isn’t just a pen name. Daniel Handler’s alter ego becomes a character in his stories, giving his Series of Unfortunate Events books another layer of detail. Snicket is both the narrator and the “author” of the books, which were of course really written by Handler.


Mark Twain

Real name: Samuel Clemens

Samuel Clemens was an aspiring reporter when he published a humorous piece under the name Mark Twain. Later, he would be far more famous as a satirist than as a journalist. Clemens named himself after the phrase “mark twain,” which is what a boat’s leadsman cries when the river water reaches a depth of 12 feet (meaning it’s deep enough for steam boats). “Mark Twain” was far from the only pen name Clemens used – scholars still have trouble tracking down his work because he published under so many different names. Along with Mark Twain, Clemens was also fond of publishing under the name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.


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