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Nominal Doppelgängers

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Photo credit: Torbus (Flickr CC)

Today’s guest is Elizabeth Silver [2], 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.

[pullquote]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.”[/pullquote]

You can connect with Elizabeth [3] on Facebook and on Twitter @ElizLSilver [4]. See a book trailer of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton here [5].

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 US [6]From 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.

[pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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?