Pen Names and How They Can Kill You
As I start sending out my novel to literary agents, I’m frustrated by having to submit an author name. I have been through so many iterations of my name that I hardly know who I am anymore.
When I was a little kid, despite its cool pantheistic origins, I loathed the name “Milda” because in Texas it set me off as an immigrant (never mind the fact that we also spoke a different language at home).
“Milda? What kind of name is that?" teachers and church ladies would ask, and their tone did not imply that they were interested in learning about Lithuania’s complicated political situation as an illegally occupied Soviet satellite. Instead, their tone oozed irritability, as though my name being unusual had added an unwanted burden to roll call, as though I had volunteered, not just my name, but that the public sink was clogged and overflowing sewage.
That was just my first name - Milda - one that my mother had chosen specifically because it was both truly Lithuanian and preposterously easy for Americans to read and pronounce correctly. (For comparison, other typical Lithuanian girl names are Juratė, Živilė & my actual middle name, Juzė, so my mom was being quite kind to her new countrymen in naming me Milda.)
Even if they could get past my first name, “Motekaitis” stopped every Texas teacher in their tracks. I learned to give them a mnemonic so as not to be called “Monsivais” like the kid in the alphabet before me. I cheerfully said “like a disease” as though that was a good thing. “Like bronchitis or laryngitis? Motekaitis.” This couldn’t have been healthy for my self-esteem.
Mean Texas kids called me Mildew of course. They thought they were very clever. All two thousand of them who came up with the exact same nickname, Mildew Moldy-kaitis, were certain that they were the first and the only.
The Invention of Milda De Voe
I moved to NYC in the early 90s, learned that when you join the actors’ unions, you have to choose a stage name, and it doesn’t have to be your real name, but it has to be unique to you. I started trying out new names that I could enjoy.
Met this guy at work. His last name was De Voe. “Milda De Voe,” I said aloud. “That sounds awesome. Can I have your name?”
“Uh…sure?” he said. I put it on my headshot and resume that night. A year later we got married, but I wasn’t planning to change my ethnic name for his. I was going to stay Milda Motekaitis, because that’s how my high school and college friends knew me, and because it was my name, after all. (Also because my mother had said that Milda DeVoe sounds like a stripper.)
In the 90s, if you applied for a marriage license on Staten Island, there were no lines. We took the ferry and the lady behind the window refused to let me keep Motekaitis as my legal name. “Oh honey,” she said with her Staten Island vowels, “he’s not gonna like that.”
“I don’t mind,” protested my husband.
“You will,” she said. “Trust me, honey.” She filled out the form with his name, putting Motekaitis as my middle name. “You’ll thank me some day.”
(To be honest I was glad to lose Juzė. It was a burden. But I was disturbed to make my stage name into my legal name, it felt somehow like cheating on my true self.)
And then I went to gradschool. Columbia was full of fearsome writers making statements, and I wanted to make one of my own. The publishing industry had just discovered that women could read and were busily printing books with pink covers and cursive writing and some jackass had coined the term “chick lit” and that was pretty much what every female in my program was either frantically writing or studiously avoiding.
Me, I wrote in various styles that defied category. “Experimental fiction,” my teacher called it (my teacher being Michael Cunningham, one year shy of winning the Pulitzer-Prize, I believed him). I wanted to be all things and every thing. I was a pan-fiction writer.
Too Ethnic, Too Female
We were also advised against framing ourselves as “too ethnic” — you didn’t want to be pigeonholed into writing about your nationality unless you were planning to write nothing else. (Salman Rushdie was in the news, Arundhati Roy was the next big thing…meanwhile, my thesis, a gay coming of age novel about expat Lithuanians set in 1980s Soviet Russia and framed as a forgotten folk tale, was sent back to me with a note from a huge agent, “This is very well written, let me know when you have something more American. We already have a Lithuania novel.”)
She was referring to The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, set partially in Lithuania, which he mocks as a crime-ridden hellhole. Franzen gloated to the press that he’d never set foot in the country, which the Lithuanian government invited him to tour all expenses paid. He declined.
I knew that I had to avoid being asked to write chick lit, I wanted to avoid being penalized for being Lithuanian, so I wrote every sort of experimental fiction, and I created my pen name, the gender-neutral, CS Lewis, AS Byatt, TC Boyle, and coming-soon JK Rowling - styled initials: M M De Voe.
My pen name’s preferred pronouns would have been they/them had that been an option. I wanted to be judged based on the writing of each individual piece, not on my overall bio.
The world being what it is, my first book was not any of my “very well written” novel manuscripts. It was nonfiction, called Book & Baby, a how-to writing manual for people who have kids. Naturally, my publisher put my whole legal name on the cover. Computers having taken over the world, initial names have fallen out of vogue - it is too difficult for the old programs to properly alphabetize or search by author name (add the dots? remove the dots? use a space? no space? put a space in the last name? Take it out? each will give you an entirely different search result—different published stories, different podcasts, poetry, science fiction, human interest articles, realistic flash…)
What do I do with my name in this pre-AI, post digital age?
M. M. De Voe
MM De Voe
Milda M. DeVoe
I feel like a teenager, practicing my signature. If I could, I’d just sign my books MM and be done with it. I like the combo: 13th letter of the alphabet, perfectly centered, two thousand in roman numerals, the sound you make when you try something delicious.
But we are bound to our histories, are we not? We can’t just take on new names and toss around identities. Thirteen-year-olds who have barely passed puberty are asked to announce their pronouns and they gleefully, wildly do.
Me, I’ve been around half a century and am still searching for the perfect proper noun.
Photo of Milda De Voe by Luba Grosman Photography