Un­der­cover au­thors

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - DEB­O­RAH HOPE

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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