What’s in a Name?

J K Rowling, P D JamesThis is a crucial question for anyone in the public eye. Is it an advantage to have the same name as a famous person? If ‘Shakespeare’, that could be helpful. There are no descendants of the playwright, so another writer using the same surname could be a talking point. Also, it sticks in your mind. I wonder if Joanna Trollope has found using the same name as the famous Victorian novelist a help. I imagine it is, for the same reason. He isn’t alive. Nor is my ancestor, Sir James Thornhill, but that wouldn’t help. He painted the inside of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London and many country house interiors. No use to me, though I enjoy looking at his paintings.

I realise that a name can pose problems. When I was working for the University of California at Berkeley, as I only did a summer course for credit in Italy and some day schools, I wasn’t on the regular payment schedule. Mostly it went well, but one year no payment arrived. I chased it up. They assured me the money had been paid out. I checked whether they had the correct name – Valerie Thornhill. That was it. After much insistence and over a period of weeks they found they had paid it to the wrong person, someone with the same name in Santa Barbara! I should have taken that as a warning.

Not so. For some reason which I still can’t explain to myself, I was irritated by what I saw as an American habit of putting an initial in the middle of a name. ‘Pretentious,’ I snorted. How wrong I was! I still regret not publishing as Valerie R Thornhill as that certainly narrows down the number of people with the same name.

I’m quite amazed to find that there are three ‘Valerie Thornhill’ on Skype, or should I be? Perhaps not. Even more amazing when I first googled my name, without the middle initial, and found an amazing response. Some of it I had already generated, but not the fact that I was the main protagonist in a ‘bodice-ripper’ romance who had problems with five, yes, five men Was I a ‘grande horizontale’ or ‘une femme de petites vertues’, as the French so delicately put it? Well, not exactly. Just in great demand. By my fictive problem was how could I satisfy the fifth man who was the one I really loved?

That was the blurb. I didn’t read on.

Once you have published, the die is cast, unless you want to hide under a pseudonym to write outside your established genre. Not my problem. I never write similar books. I like, instead, a challenge. But I realised too late how wise J K Rowling, P D James and others like them were. Just initials. Mystery. A male or female writer? Whichever, and so it couldn’t colour readers’ interpretations of the book, or pander to the prejudices of those who ‘only read books written by men’, until they became known. V R Thornhill – much better, but now too late, alas.


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