Every two weeks for the past several months, we’ve been running short pieces by a writer who goes by the name The Magpie. The column is an exploration of what it means to write under a pseudonym, and is also a diary of noticing: As the writer goes about her life (mostly) in New York, she might be thinking about Kim Kardashian or Charlotte Brontë , encountering window cleaners or Trump supporters. The following is an email conversation I had with the Magpie about the project. Yes, she has an opinion about Elena Ferrante.
What’s intriguing to me about your writing this column under a pseudonym is that it upends a prevailing notion of writing (maybe writing on the internet in particular) as an exercise in personal branding. There’s an idea that one writes to declare to the world: This is who I am, this is my identity . I don’t have anything against this; the results of that impulse can be really valuable for both the writer and for readers. But this isn’t what’s happening when the Magpie writes. So what is at stake when the Magpie writes? How does writing as the Magpie change what you write?
I’m not terribly interested in personal branding, and I’m really not interested in whatever my own brand would be. Joan Didion was right, of course, that the phrase “why I write” has I, I, I in it—writing is certainly an assertion of one’s point of view, of one’s existence maybe. But that’s not the same thing as an identity that you can define and, perhaps, sell. When we pick up a book or an essay or a poem, we want to go somewhere, we want to see something, we want to feel something. If some myth of the writer’s identity enables that opening out, then that’s fine, but it seems to me that writing should point toward a deeper experience of the world, not back toward the personality or persona of the writer. Writing should open us up, surprise us.
I wanted to write a column under a pseudonym to see what would happen if I weren’t in some sense responding to or feeling obligated to my own name. I mean, I like my name. I’m good with it. But I wanted the freedom of writing without it. Writing as the Magpie, I feel like I’m saying to the reader, Hey, look at this, listen to this, feel this, isn’t it fascinating? Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it sad or scary or bewildering? In a funny sort of way, it’s much more vulnerable than anything autobiographical I could tell the reader. I’m not showing you more of me, I’m sharing with you what I notice. What’s at stake is whether or not the text itself is compelling rather than my ego as such. Writing as the Magpie, I’m weirder, and more wayward, and actually sweeter, I think. I’m not more provocative or transgressive. If I had anything provocative or transgressive to say, I’d put my name on it.
The idea that you’re more vulnerable with a pseudonym is counterintuitive at first, but it also makes sense: One’s name, and one’s identity, can be its own kind of protection. I also understand the vulnerability of sharing what you see and notice rather than sharing who you are. I’m reminded of that saying about how love doesn’t mean looking at each other but rather looking together in the same direction. Do you like reading other pseudonymous or anonymous writing?
I’ve been fascinated for a while with what happens when writers write under another name—for instance, when John Banville began writing the Benjamin Black mysteries, or when Anne Rice wrote the Beauty series under the name A.N. Roquelaure, or, farther back, something like Olivia by Olivia, a lesbian classic that was written by Dorothy Strachey. I love Banville’s work as Banville, but I also love the Black mysteries, which are sharper and darker, and much more political, than his literary fiction. You can tell that he was putting things into the mysteries that weren’t as present in the literary fiction, and vice versa. Once he owned up to being Benjamin Black, it was even more interesting to watch this double writing life in plain sight. Same with Rice, once she revealed that she was Roquelaure. I like the feeling that you can’t ever quite get to the end of a person, that there’s a zone of mystery, surprise, rooms we didn’t know were there. And I think that something just happens when you write under a name or persona that isn’t your own, even if you think it’s the thinnest of conceits. It isn’t at all about hiding for me. It’s about freeing, about seeing what happens when I let go of my name.
Much of what the Magpie experiences is specific to New York—a tailor’s window on the Upper West Side, a tiny museum no one’s ever heard of, the corpse flower at the Botanical Gardens. To what extent does the Magpie need a city to do its work of noticing?
The Magpie does like a city, it’s true, but that’s because the Magpie likes the way disparate elements collide and juxtapose and fall together. The Magpie favors odd intersections and “the music of the coincidental,” to quote a recent Magpie column. Cities, any city, are full of this wonderful capacity for chance and serendipity, places where the built environment and human unpredictability and maybe some unexpected natural grace get mixed up in one another. The Magpie, being a magpie, really grooves on that.
What do you think about all this news about Ferrante—the fact that this pseudonymous author’s real name has been identified? Do you have an opinion about it, aside from the general sentiment being expressed in many places about how she should have not been exposed?
I agree that she should not have been exposed, if this is indeed the correct identification. How did Gatti obtain those financial records, and why would The New York Review of Books run an article based on the theft of someone’s personal information? She isn’t, as it were, running for president. Even if Raja isn’t Ferrante, Gatti still invaded her privacy by disclosing all of that personal information. Why the zeal to name her, and why the resistance to the pleasure of the mystery? It’s also terribly flattening that what Gatti seems to be really on about is that her novels aren’t as autobiographical as we’ve all thought them to be, and that, in fact, her mother was Jewish, not Neapolitan. He also says, really oddly, that “ Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.”
That makes no sense. How has she “relinquished her right” to remain anonymous? That is her human right and certainly her right as an author; moreover, in Europe, one has the “right to be forgotten”— where a law has existed since 2006 based on the idea that people have the right to control their own public images and stories, even erase them from places like the indelible internet. There’s a strange, angry glee in Gatti’s article that seems to come from his “discovery” that she is not one with her characters, that she, in other words, created a globally compelling fiction. Ferrante, if she actually is Raja, is, as it turns out, an extraordinary novelist. Which we already knew. Gatti’s policing of her “authenticity” feels quite censoring and repressive. He’s basically accusing her of superb invention. Why is that a crime that merits invading her privacy? I thought it was called creating art.
Your latest column is about taking a drive through a red state with a Trump supporter. This is more “topical” than some of your earlier columns. As the Magpie, and as a writer and thinker and noticer in general, do you experience any tension between wanting to remark on things that other people aren’t necessarily noticing or remarking upon (i.e., avoiding the futility of “keeping up” with the news), and the desire to be informed of and engaged with and informed of what other people are engaged with? How do you reconcile that tension?
Yes, I understand that tension. Most of us feel it, and at the moment many writers and artists feel it even more deeply, of course. History is a very powerful writer, and just attempting to “read” that epic is a massive creative endeavor that, basically, you can’t even do. Given, say, the current election, it’s hard to imagine how anyone in this country doesn’t feel called to engage. The stakes are high. But to me it’s not an either/or question—just a matter of where one happens to be looking at any given moment. To me, it’s a bit like that brilliant little Woolf piece “Kew Gardens.” On any given day, everything is happening, from snails climbing up grass stalks to people falling in love to London churning away at business and politics to sound dissolving in the air. They aren’t separable, they’re simultaneous, they’re intricately connected materially and spiritually, and they all matter. The snail matters as much as the Queen and vice versa. The Magpie notices in the wayward way we all notice, and sometimes the topical as such is in the Magpie’s field of vision and sometimes the Magpie’s eye is caught by some other shiny bit. But it’s all one world. Noticing a war and noticing a baby aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, how could you live if you couldn’t notice the war and the baby? And the weird shape a ray of reflected light makes on the ceiling. And your beloved’s face. And a bar of music. It’s all there all the time, isn’t it?