What's in a name?

Antonia Chain is a pen name, and I also write in my own ‘passport’ name of (Dr) Lel Meleyal. Up until now, I have kept writing in each name distinctly separate. Here I explain why I am ‘coming out’ about my use of both names in my published writing.

Famously, the relevance of a name is central to the love between Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s impassioned speech (Act 11, scene 11) argues that it should not define, Romeo agrees. Nevertheless, the audience is left in no doubt, even at this stage in the play, that the names of Montague and Capulet have far more power and significance than either of the young lovers tragically appreciate.

In a conversation with author William Ryan (The Holy Thief; The Bloody Meadow), he strongly advised against using a pen name. Matthew Hall, author of the Jenny Cooper, Coroner, novels agreed and urged me to write crime fiction in my real name – though Hall acknowledged that he had chosen to market his books as MR Hall to mark him out from other writers with the same name. Ryan was of the view that unless writing material where one’s identity must be hidden – for example, those by Cathy Glass who writes of her direct experience of fostering children - there is little practical reason to use a pen name. Hall concurred and said that a published writer had earned the right to use their name. ‘I am proud to see my name on the front of a book’ he said.

Despite the established credentials of these two successful authors, I was unsure. My experience of working in a library added to my doubts. Many years before I worked as a library supervisor in the Hull Library Service. I recall one person coming in asking for ‘that book, that famous book – the one that won a prize’. It was not unusual for staff to be asked for the red book, or the one about the horse, or the one by ‘that fella’ and sometimes we could even lead the person to it! However, on this occasion, I was stumped. ‘It is about Indians’ she said. Still, I had no idea. ‘I think her name is Ruth….’ and then the borrower hesitatingly and quietly mumbled a collection of vowels and consonants in no particular order. When I continued to be perplexed, she became frustrated and told me to forget it. Despite it being a most excellent book which left the shelves almost as soon as we had put it back out, no one again ever asked for what I eventually realised was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s *Heat and Dust. *I don’t know whether a lack of confidence about pronouncing the surname had anything to do with the absence of book reservation requests but this experience resonated with personal experiences relating to confusion about the spelling and pronunciation of my name.

While working in the library I also noticed how many writers were grouped by genre and very often around a leading author in that genre. A particular example was Catherine Cookson. Cookson was a hugely popular and prolific author at the time. Every new novel generated dozens of reservation requests and her extensive back catalogue of books barely spent a nano second on the shelves before they caught the attention of the next reader. Her space on the alphabetised fiction shelves was often scant, but browsers would always find something similar in the same location because there appeared to be many authors of historical family based fiction set in harsh, poverty stricken environments with names alphabetically close to ‘Cookson’. I noted this was also the case with other popular authors at the time, Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, PD James and others. Were the similarity of genre and alphabetical placing near to established authors a coincidence?

There is a long list of authors who have chosen to use pen names, for example, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Dean Koontz, Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters. ‘Nicci French’ is the pen name of married co-authors Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. A key theme running through reasons given by each pseudonym user is that a pen name gives a degree of privacy, from gender, from past success, from association with a particular genre, and sadly, from trolls. The name one uses as an author matters. For me, it was to ensure a delineation from my personal and professional life.

My pen name came into being when I was about nine years old. I was a voracious reader and imagined that I would one day become a writer - Antonia Chain. The image I had, at the time, was influenced by the many Agatha Christie novels I had already enjoyed. Antonia smoked cigarettes in a long elegant ivory holder and dressed like a 1920’s flapper. She was droll, with swan-like elegance, dished out withering put downs and was utterly fearless. I liked her.

As I grew up, Antonia became a distant cousin remembered well but rarely played with. Writing was an infrequent hobby as I developed my career in social work and latterly in social work academia. Writing for publication was a requirement of my academic post (there are few things more likely to remove a passion for writing than a target that one does it). Moreover, we were encouraged to use our published work to inform our teaching with students. I had a particular interest in teaching first year degree students – individuals who were on the cusp of a transition from young student, often leaving home for the first time, to beginner professionals. Focus on social work education courses at this stage develop the individuals’ identity – that is the boundaries and links between their personal, private and professional selves. Another key element of social work training is in supporting students to see, and themselves support, the best in humanity even when in the most complex of environments such as child protection and mental health settings. This is where my personal boundaries became complicated. In my fiction work, I often write about social work settings or mental health issues and I hope my writing remains firmly rooted in value for goodness and humanity. However, I also write in the darker sides of humanity with a focus on the harms people can do to each other. I recognised a confusing degree of mismatch between telling students ‘draw out the best in human beings’ while I write about the the kind of beings for whom it is challenging to see the ‘best of’. I chose to keep the two elements of my writing distinctly separate. However, time moves on and having decided to leave academia and exclusively focus on fiction writing, the need to keep the separation feels less relevant. I will still use both names but largely, my fiction work and writing about the act of writing crime fiction will be under the name of Antonia Chain. Writing related to social work, to professionalism, regulation, disability and education will largely be under my passport name, Lel Meleyal. I have added a selected publications list featuring both on this website.

Lel Meleyal does not smoke but aspires to have the swan like elegance of Antonia.

#antoniachain #lelmeleyal #pennames #pseudonyms #academicwriting #crimewriting