WHO is Torsten Krol? According to Michael Gifkins, the writer’s Auckland literary agent, Krol, author of The Dolphin People , published last year, and Callisto , released in Australia last month, is simply someone who is serious about his work and ‘‘ just wants to write’’. But that’s not answering the question. Gifkins, admits freely that Torsten Krol is a pseudonym. He claims Krol’s Australian publisher, Pan Macmillan, doesn’t know his client’s identity, and will confirm only that Krol lives in Queensland.
Reviewing Callisto in Review ’ s books pages last weekend, Nigel Krauth argued the novel was far too assured for a new writer. Krauth, who also lives in Queensland, suggested Torsten Krol might well be a seasoned author moonlighting under a pen- name.
Set in Kansas, described as a fast- paced tale exploring ‘‘ America’s dark heart’’ and, according to Krauth, combining everything from terrorists and torture to body parts in the freezer, Callisto is already acclaimed in Britain and in continental Europe, where it has been released in Italy, Spain and France. Whatever way you look at it, this spells success.
But when I rang Gifkins seeking an interview with this new player on the literary stage, he told me this was impossible.
A phone interview? No. An email exchange? No way. Why not? Apparently Krol just wants to be left alone to write.
In theory, adopting a writing persona liberates the imagination. This was certainly my experience when I wrote a column under the pseudonym Alice B for three years. In practice, writers use pen- names for a range of reasons.
Eric Blair didn’t want to embarrass his parents when Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. According to one version of the story, Blair gave his publisher four pennames to choose from, indicating he favoured George Orwell. George Sand and George Eliot, Aurore Dupin and Mary Ann Evans respectively, adopted male pen- names ( and in the former case a male identity) hoping their work would be taken seriously. Joseph Conrad is catchier than Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski; D. B. C. ( Dirty But Clean) Pierre more memorable than Peter Finlay.
Then there is marketing. Only cynics would suspect expatriate Australian writer Nikki Gemmell of commercial motives for adopting Anonymous as the pen- name for her erotic novel The Bride Stripped Bare . Ditto for Joe Klein, who turned out to be the anonymous author of Primary Colours , a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign. At the same time, did the initial mystery surrounding the authors’ identities and the publicity surrounding the race to out them sell more books? You bet.
Google Torsten Krol and you will find stories about the mysterious writer in a dozen languages. Krol may well be just a talented if reclusive author trying to remain private. Or Torsten Krol could be the pseudonym chosen by a group of authors who have combined for maximum storytelling oomph. No matter which is the case, there’s little doubt that, as with Gemmell and Klein, the mystery surrounding the pen- name has helped oil Torsten Krol’s success.
Not every story associated with a pen- name has a happy ending. Laura Albert is also known as J. T. Leroy, pseudonymous author of the critically acclaimed debut fiction Sarah ( according to The New York Times , ‘‘ a novel of truckstop prostitution set among the diesel fumes of a West Virginia highway’’), but the persona that launched her into literary stardom took over her life and ultimately landed her in a New York court for fraud.
‘‘ He was my respirator,’’ she told the jury last month. ‘‘ He was my channel for air. To me, if you take my J. T., my Jeremy, I die.’’
As The New York Times ’ s Alan Feuer tells the story, Albert was a woman with a troubled past, living in obscurity in Brooklyn. She had never been to West Virginia and was ‘‘ a writer of such reclusive instincts she required not only a pseudonym but another personality to write’’.
At one level, according to Feuer, the case is a simple legal argument over a contract: ‘‘ A film company has sued Ms Albert saying that a contract signed with J. T Leroy for the rights to make a feature film of Sarah should be null and void for the simple reason that J. T. Leroy does not exist.’’
In broader terms, the trial ‘‘ has been an oddly highbrow exploration of a psycho- literary landscape filled with references to the imagination’s fungible relation to reality and the bond that exists between the writer and the work’’.
The curious Krol affair brings to mind the long- running puzzle over the identity of US author Thomas Pynchon, hilariously described by CNN as ‘‘ an enigma shrouded in a mystery veiled in anonymity’’. The obscurity of Pynchon novels, including Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 , and the fact that the only published photographs of the author are decades old, contribute to the mystery.
Pynchon’s determination to ‘‘ let his novels speak for themselves’’ has led to endless speculation about his identity. According to CNN, only Theodore Kaczynski’s arrest ended the outlandish rumour that Pynchon was the elusive but deadly Unabomber.
‘‘ Not bad. Keep trying,’’ he is said to have written to Manhattan’s Soho Weekly News after it carried the theory Pynchon was J. D. Salinger. Pynchon even appeared on The Simpsons wearing a bag over his head.
The truth about Pynchon is disappointingly mundane. He was born in New York in 1937, was one of three children of Thomas Ruggles Sr and studied at Cornell University in the 1950s before turning his hand to fiction. In other words, there is no mystery to the mystery.
‘‘ My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists, meaning ‘ doesn’t like to talk to reporters’,’’ he told CNN, rejecting the recluse label. In 1997 the news service managed to film Pynchon in Manhattan, but at his request agreed not to identify the author in the footage.
According to Pan Macmillan’s website, Callisto , published under the Picador imprint, is a ‘‘ blackly funny novel of our times’’ that follows what happens when the central character, Odell Deefus, ‘‘ takes a wrong turn on the journey of his life and crashes into a world of oddballs, misfits, drug dealers, religious fanatics and crooked cops, hypocrisy, torture and bloody murder’’. It sounds like a supermarket checklist for a bestseller.
And what of the author? The site says only, ‘‘ Torsten Krol lives in Queensland. This is his second novel. The Dolphin People , his first, has been widely reviewed.’’
review@ theaustralian. com. au