Nominal Doppelgängers

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Photo credit: Torbus (Flickr CC)

Today’s guest is Elizabeth Silver, author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, Amazon Best Debut of the Month, a Kirkus Best Book of the Summer, Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year, Oprah “Ten Books to Pick up Now,” and selection for the Target Emerging Author Series.

Elizabeth’s writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Review, The Millions, and others. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the MA program in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in England, and Temple University Beasley School of Law, Elizabeth has taught English as a Second Language in Costa Rica, writing and literature at Drexel University and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and worked as an attorney in California and Texas. Born and raised in New Orleans and Dallas, she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Between pseudonyms and bylines, writers can get so attached to names. When I learned that someone else shared mine, another writer no less, who writes quite different prose, I laughed in both jest and exasperation. When I realized that we could potentially get confused, I started looking into the topic in greater detail, and saw how rich a topic it is for exploration.”

You can connect with Elizabeth on Facebook and on Twitter @ElizLSilver. See a book trailer of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton here.

Nominal Doppelgängers

When I was in the middle of writing my novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, I traveled to an artist colony in France for an extended writing retreat in the Loire Valley at a wonderful center for creative holidays called Circle of Misse. As part of my tenure, I would have a short writing retreat and I would also teach a creative writing course.

On the first day of class, one of my students came to me, eager to show me that he’d read my work on Kindle. Confused, I inquired further. At that point, I had not sold a novel and my short stories and essays were published in small journals that, to my knowledge, had not been uploaded to Kindles or other electronic devices. It was then that he showed me my volumes of erotic fiction, sold on Kindle and perhaps in certain stores, perhaps self-published, and perhaps spectacular works of art. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I haven’t read them. What I do know now is that there is another writer named Elizabeth Silver, who also goes by the nickname “Liz,” who appears to be around my age, lives in Pennsylvania where I went to college and law school and set my first novel.

My student, eager to start the class, told me that he expected me to be…older. Politely, I told him that I didn’t write those stories and that I’m sorry he downloaded the wrong person’s work in preparation for the course, but I hope he’d enjoyed them. He didn’t seem upset. In fact, to this day, I’m not sure whether he was happy or sad that I wasn’t the same Liz Silver.

As authors, we understand the significance of our names, bylines, and the names we choose to bestow upon our characters. Although we are not merely characters in our parents’ lives, our parents spent, we should hope, at least as much time deciding our names as we put into our characters’ births, so it would seem wrong to simply change our names for the sake of a byline. These two (or three or four) little words define us, they inform our personalities, and create an identity that cannot be changed merely by a new professional identity, or in many people’s cases, a marriage.

Which is why, when my publisher first announced the deal for my novel on Publishers Weekly as “Elizabeth Silver,” I immediately gave them a call. It wasn’t that I was mimicking Jerry Seinfeld in claiming that the other Liz Silver’s work was better or worse than mine—merely that it was different. Erotic fiction—“Not that there’s anything wrong with that”—is an entirely different genre with an entirely different set of readers.

Noa Paperback USFrom that point, however, my byline has been “Elizabeth L. Silver.” My website is ElizabethLSilver.com, which no doubt, is frequently mistyped or forgotten. And in solidarity with middle initials, my titular character, Noa P. Singleton, is known as much for her middle initial as her first name. In retrospect, this was not created in a devious long-term plan of establishing unanimity with her, nor to appear pompous or pretentious. Merely, I was hoping to establish my own name in the literary community that would not get confused with another. This is done in Hollywood more often than I can count, so I couldn’t imagine it could be that different in publishing.

Names—whether authorial or fictional—are the benchmark of creation. In Judaism, the word for name is “shem.” The word for God is “Hashem,” thus conferring the task of naming a person as one of the most religious or godly things a person can do. It can be a transcendental experience, creating an identity around a new soul. Writers place as much emphasis on naming characters in our books as our parents do in naming us.

Because of my parents’ choice, I happen to be one of the privileged citizens of the world who is not alone in the world of names and nicknames. “Elizabeth” is always on a fairly common baby-name list, but never at the top, and never with generational appeal. It’s not retro or trendy, androgynous or ethnic, and there will always be at least one “Elizabeth” in your class, but likely not ten. You can trace the name to past and present monarchs and feel a sense of pride, regardless of your stance on royalty. It’s not “Jennifer” or “Jessica” for my generation,” or “Emma” or “Sophie” for the current crop of newborns. It’s no Frieda or Gertrude from my grandparents’ time, nor “Linda” from my parents’. Plus, the name luckily comes with at least twelve nicknames that I can count, split fairly evenly between the first and second halves of the name. For all you “Eliza” lovers, we’ve got, well, Eliza, Liz, Lizzie, Libby, Izzy, Lizzy with a y, and of course Liza with Z. For those hanging on to the end, you can pull variations from “Beth” including Beth, Betty, Betsy, Bitsy, Bitty, and I’m sure many more that I don’t even know. This doesn’t even include the names spawned by the 80s revisionist spelling of such an historically significant name with the letter “S.” My nominal doppelgänger also goes by “Liz,” which I learned when trying to reserve a twitter handle.

On the first day of class, one of my students came to me, eager to show me that he’d read my work on Kindle. Confused, I inquired further. At that point, I had not sold a novel and my short stories and essays were published in small journals that, to my knowledge, had not been uploaded to Kindles or other electronic devices.

This is not new, no matter how funny it may seem. The thriller writer Taylor Stephens apparently has a nominal doppelgänger in porn. Although a quick whip of the keys would tell most readers that it’s not the same person, it’s still a bit of a cackle. Mark Pryor, a friend and writer, also exists twenty years older as a politician, which at times may be worse than a porn star. And even others share such similar names that readers may confuse them via their work: I’m thinking of Adelle Waldman and Ayelet Waldman, two extraordinary contemporary novelists. Perhaps most humorous (or concerning) is the story of law professor David Sonenshein, whose name and spelling are shared with the president of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association, discovered after Philadelphia professor Sonenshein was set to give a guest lecture in Austin on the same night as the pedophile Sonenshein was arrested in Texas.

One day, I hope to meet my nominal doppelgänger and sit and share stories about our misgivings. Maybe she has no idea who I am. Maybe she’s never been confused with me. Certainly, there are worse problems for both of us to have. But in a world where naming is such a seminally defining aspect of our lives, and our lives become smaller and smaller because of the internet, it’s nice to know who else shares part of our identities. Most people probably don’t share a name with someone who shares their career, but it is likely that most people do have a nominal doppelgänger. It’s a matter of how we define ourselves as people and as characters inhabiting our fictional worlds that ultimately becomes the benchmark of our lives. And whether we are successful, respected, loved, hated, scorned, or ignored, we simply can’t ignore the significance of a name.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this too much. None of it might matter. If Fifty Shades of Grey has anything to say about this, I’m sure the other Liz Silver’s sales are much better than mine.

Do you know other writers who share your name? If so, have you met your nominal doppelgänger? If not, would you want to? How would/do you feel about another writer sharing your name?

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Comments

  1. says

    Ha ha…when I first considered starting a blog nearly two years ago I discovered that my doppelgänger was a television show. How do you compete with that? A Google search turned up a mountain of info about the fictitious Christina Hawthorne and nothing about me. Worse, it hadn’t been around long so the potential for it to haunt me for years was there. Thus was Christina Anne Hawthorne introduced to the public. Now, Anne is on most everything (website, book cover, business cards, etc.). And here I’d thought sharing a last name with Nathaniel would be my greatest challenge.
    Christina Hawthorne´s last blog post ..When the Past Steals

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  2. says

    After reading this, I decided to Google my name.

    There is another Judith Robl who lives in Rhinelander, WI. She is approximately ten years my junior.

    So I thought, okay, I’ll just use my middle initial “J”. It turns out that her middle initial is also “J”. Who knew?

    Now to plan B… Whatever that is. :-)
    Judith Robl´s last blog post ..Beginnings

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  3. says

    Elizabeth–thanks for your amusing and informed take on the importance to authors of their own names.
    Unfortunately for you, the planet it thick with Elizabeths and Silvers. But wait–is this really a negative? The name Knister is obscure in the extreme. This should set me apart, and work to my authorial advantage. I will not be mistaken for a pedophile, or the author of bodice rippers. Except this isn’t much consolation. From all the evidence I have garnered over a long life, “Knister” is un-pronounceable. When people look at me hopefully after trying out one of the infinite incorrect soundings of my name, my standard line is, “Close enough.” It leads me to visualize book buyers picking up one of my novels, silently lip-reading one or more versions of my name, putting down the book and moving on.
    Give it a go, see what you come up with: sound the K or not? Long i or short? emphasis on the first, second or, yes, in some instances the third syllable?
    Even so, I take some satisfaction in President Barack Obama having been known in younger days as the easier-to-say “Barry.”
    But when I decided to publish a series of suspense novels featuring a young woman journalist, people in the know urged me to drop “Barry” in favor of my initials. I should publish my novels as B.W. Knister, they told me. That would obscure my gender. By doing so, I would improve the odds of women readers buying stories about a young woman written by a man. And an old one at that.
    But the more I thought about this, the less I liked it. Somehow, the strategy rejected the central importance of the imagination, in favor of other considerations that seemed trivial. So Barry it is and will remain, for the five or six books that will feature Brenda Contay as her life unfolds over a twelve-year time frame.
    Thanks again, Elizabeth impossible-to-mispronounce Silver. Your post is pure gold.

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  4. says

    Even with the initial and second “e” in my surname, I have a doppelgänger in the form of John J Kelley, famous marathon champion. Later on he authored books and articles, which were well-received as he possessed a crisp, honest writing voice. Though Kelley’s biggest wins were decades ago, and he died a few years back, his legacy casts a long shadow – and internet trail.

    One consolation is “Kelley the Younger” knew the feeling. Turns out he rose to promise in the shadow of another running legend, an unrelated man by the name of John A Kelley, who had represented the US in international competitions some years prior. Given that knowledge, I’m kind of tickled to share his name. Maybe someday I’ll write a gripping tale centered about a champion runner, bringing the connection full circle.

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  5. says

    I share a name with James Best, the actor who famously played Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. He had a long career and many fans. When I started writing fiction, I came up with the same solution and used my middle initial: James D. Best. I strived to keep us separate until I found my books listed on television and movie sites. I have to admit, I left it to the other Mr. Best to correct the erroneous attributions.
    James D. Best´s last blog post ..Working Vacation?

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  6. Deb Boone says

    What an enjoyable discussion of the importance of names. Naming characters is challenging for me, so much so that I changed the name of my current protagonist when her back story changed. She became soneone else and her name had to change as well.
    My name is Debby Boone. In the 80s, ‘You light up my Life’ was always mentioned by every clerk, bank teller etc. I changed the spelling to Debi. It didn’t help so I became Deb. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often now. This blog brought back the humorous memories of that time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on names. It is a reminder of how much of our Identity is connected to our name, and for me it’s a good reminder to remember names of people I meet and to get the spelling right if the need for corresponding arises. Names do matter.
    .

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  7. says

    Great story. To my knowledge, I have no name doppelgänger, but years ago a friend tried to register her name as website for her debut novel through Harlequin. However, she found her name was already taken by a Swedish woman who liked to post pictures of herself hiking NUDE. She had no choice but to laugh it off and make her website .NET!
    Marcy McKay´s last blog post ..Five Tips to Create the Right Writing Schedule for You

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  8. says

    This post is great! I have several name twins who are writers, as well as an adult film actress which my husband discovered when I was an extra on a flim and he looked me up on imdb, ha.

    As far as websites go, I thought about using my middle initial since there is already a DanaSchwartz.com but wondered if it would be confusing. I guess you have to pick what is available in this day and age!
    -dana
    Dana´s last blog post ..When Life Happens

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  9. says

    I haven’t found any authors using the same name as mine, although I use my initials instead of the name, Ruth. However, I get a kick out of Googling my image. My little photo shows up on a whole page of photos of – guess who? – The Donald.

    I like my hair better.
    R.E. Donald´s last blog post ..The Highway Mysteries

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  10. says

    Elizabeth, first of all, kudos to you on the impressive awards The Execution of Noa P. Singleton has picked up. I particularly like Connie Martinson’s 1.35 minute YouTube book trailer for your debut novel.

    Here in your essay for Writer Unboxed, I like your use of the German “doppelganger” in your title. I didn’t think of a woman I met as a “ghostly” double, however, but one night in Kansas City, Missouri, many years ago, my husband and I were attending a holiday office dinner when an announcement came over the public address system: “Will Barbara Whitt please come to the office?” My husband said, “You’d better go.” I said back to him, “This is one of those times when I didn’t tell a single person where we were going tonight, but curiosity has the best of me. I’m going to go to see another Barbara Whitt.” She was intrigued enough to say, “What’s your middle name? If it’s the same as mine I’ll really drop through the floor.”

    A few years later I received a phone call reminding me that I (Barbara Whitt) had a doctor’s appointment coming up. I knew I didn’t, so I gave that office my middle initial and suggested that they put one with the other Barbara Whitt’s name.

    More time went by, and one morning I saw an obituary for Barbara Whitt in the Kansas City Star. No one told me they had seen it, too.

    When I began writing for publication, I began using my middle initial. When I began writing on the Internet, I began including my so-called “maiden” name. I want people who knew me as Barbara McDowell for the first 29 years of my life to have a better opportunity of discovering me online.

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  11. says

    Interesting post and fascinating comments. Never been confused with another writer even though my surname is pretty common – with an ‘e’ or without. If I Google my name, first up is House Music producer, Roland Clark – seems Google is okay about dropping the ‘e’. {I’m 3rd after an engineer so must be doing something right.} To confuse everyone Amazon doesn’t use the ‘E’ either.

    But on Facebook I have met my doppelganger – a Canadian but not a writer, yet.

    Oh and my nickname is ‘Silver’.
    Roland Clarke´s last blog post ..The Ghostly Father

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  12. says

    I have a few nominal dopplegangers whom I’ve connected with on Facebook. When I first started writing I considered using my maiden name, Erin L. Foote, because there is already a literary Foote out there (Shelby Foote) and because it’s so fun to hear people mispronounce it. But since none of the other Erin Bartels in the world appear to be writers, I stuck with my married name. I did have to wait for an aspiring model named Erin Bartels to let her domain expire before I could snatch up ErinBartels.com, but it’s mine now! :)

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  13. says

    These are such fabulous comments! It seems almost everyone has a nominal doppelganger of some sort. Thank you all for reading and sharing your stories with me. I love reading about your “others.”
    -Liz

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