I am often asked this question: “All of your nonfiction (magazine features, essays, memoir) were published under your real name. Why did you choose to write fiction under a pseudonym?” It’s a simple answer, and yet quite a complex one. The more I’ve pondered on the subject, the more the real answers rise to the surface.
My knee-jerk response is, “I work for a prestigious university, and am often cited on scientific journal papers and grant proposals. My fiction has to be under a different name.” This seems logical. But honestly, what are the chances that a high-brow research scientist reading a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology will see my name in the credits and think (lips pursed, shaking their head), “Oh, I know her! She writes sexy romance, too. Tut-tut.”
Possible, but not likely. I know, I’m probably profiling here, but most of the research professionals I deal with on a daily basis don’t have time to read fiction—nor the interest. Their idea of recreational reading—if they’re in the mood for a sexy read—is to pick up the Journal of Genetics.
So no, I don’t keep it a secret from my colleagues that I write, as they would probably call it, “smut.”
What are the other reasons I decided on a pen name? And why did I pick the particular pseudonym that I did?
I’ll answer these in reverse order, because there is a very logical reason I chose to write romance as Claire Gem. First name: when I was a teenager and throughout my early twenties, I encountered three men—three different men, in entirely different professions, and in two states hundreds of miles apart, who insisted on calling me Claire. It’s as far from my real first name—Frances—as it can get, yet these men would repeatedly refer to me as Claire. When I gave them a funny look, they would slap their foreheads and say, “I don’t know why I keep calling you that. I don’t even know a Claire. You just look like your name should be Claire.”
Perhaps in one of my former lives . . .
Last name: Gem. This one has an equally bizarre explanation. I used to raise and show Persian cats. The name of my “cattery” was Gempaw—why? Honestly? It was the only one I could come up with that wasn’t taken. You have no idea how many catteries have names registered with the Cat Fancier’s Association. So my original Yahoo email address is email@example.com. I discovered that firstname.lastname@example.org was also available. How convenient. Voila. Claire Gem.
But now, I will try to explain the psychological basis behind choosing a pen name, at least for me. In reality, it could have been any pseudonym, as long as it was completely different from my own. And therein lies the key: completely different from the real me.
I grew up a sheltered, introverted Catholic girl. Smart, but shy, a bad dresser, and fat. I thought of myself as the brainy, ugly duckling in my class. When I shed my plaid uniform and was plunged into junior high school with all those thin, cool girls, I was convinced this was true.
Over the years I have gained an admirable amount of confidence, thanks to my supportive husband, good friends, and just plain life experience. But mostly, to a fictitious woman by the name of Claire Gem.
I learned that instead of dreading public speaking situations, I actually thrive on them. Gradually, being myself—as long as I was Claire—didn’t seem like something I had to rehearse. And wearing purple—even red? Yes, I can wear these colors, even though there was a day I was convinced I never could. Because although Frances doesn’t look good in purple or red, Claire definitely does.
The most “coming out” I’ve ever done has been since Claire became a part of my life. A big part. The other half, actually.
Why? Because Claire is confident, talented, sociable, and fun. We both may be inching closer to turning sixty, but she’s sexy. She’s not afraid to wear standout colors or fashions. She’s not afraid to talk about her writing as if it’s a talent, a craft, and not simply a useless hobby. Claire is, truly, my alter-ego. Everything I’ve always wanted to be.
Now, sometimes, this mental immersion goes a bit too far. I was recently scheduled for a minor procedure at the local hospital, and since we were temporarily single-vehicled, my husband dropped me off early (he had to pick up our son at the airport). I brought along my laptop and used the extra hour or so constructively, editing my manuscript and doing a little social media marketing. When the nurse came around the corner with her clipboard and called, “Claire?” I slammed my laptop shut and was almost to my feet. Until I noticed her smiling and heading down the hallway clutching the elbow of the frail, white-haired lady whose name really was Claire.
When I don my lab coat day after day, I am Frances. But when the lab coat comes off, Claire comes out to play. When I sit down at the keyboard to write, or sit behind a table of books at an author event, I’m not Frances at all. I’m Claire Gem. I don’t just go by Claire Gem. I am Claire Gem. And let me tell you—I really think—if you knew both of us, that you’d think Claire is a whole lot more fun than Frances!
Am I the only author whose pseudonym represents a freeing alter-ego? Surely not. Tell me in comments if you write under a pen name, and why. How did you choose your pseudonym? Do you feel different when someone calls you by your pen name?
I know I do.
Claire Gem writes contemporary & paranormal romance, as well as romantic suspense & women’s fiction. Her debut paranormal, Phantom Traces, was released from SoulMate Publishing in 2015. You can find out more about her at clairegem.com or at www.emotionalcontemporaryromance.com.