An apology to my fans

Last month when doing Month of Letters, I learned the meaning of unintended consequences. I did not expect my challenge to go viral and certainly not to be picked up by the Guardian.  I also did not expect people to think “‘Mary’ is part of a USPS marketing campaign experimenting with viral marketing.”

While I was not, and the Challenge was genuine, a reporter digging into that question uncovered some facts about me that are going public soon, and I’d rather you hear them from me. I’ve spent the past month explaining things to my agent and editor.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a pen name.

My actual name is Stephen Harrison. I teach history at Vanderbilt and am getting my PhD, and yes, I am a man. The woman that you have met at some conventions is my sister. I hired her to be “Mary the writer.”

So the question you are probably wonder is why? Why would I go to such extremes rather than simply using my own name, or gender, or having an open pseudonym? The gender question is the easiest to answer. As a writer of Regency Romances, it became clear that I would never sell a novel as a man.  There is too much industry prejudice against men in Romance. In fact, the taking of a female pseudonym is very common practice.

I tried for years to sell Shades of Milk and Honey under my own name. One rejection letter actually said, “No one buys romance by men.” Faced with that blatant discrimination, in a moment of frustration, I slapped my sister’s name on the manuscript and threw it into the mail. I can not describe the level of relief and frustration I felt when it sold immediately. On the one hand, my novel had sold! On the other, it was such a clear sign of discrimination against men.

My sister had been hearing about my flagging writing career for years and when I told her what had happened, she said, “Use it. You can even blog as me.”

She has been amazingly supportive. I can’t thank her enough for the gift she’s given me of a writing career. But I want to be clear that this was all in reaction to the pervasive prejudices against men. I was terrified that if I outed myself, people would stop buying my books. Romance? Written by a man? Feh. And yet, everything in the industry said that you had to have a physical presence at conventions to sell books. No one sells books without making that personal connection with fans.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that Mary was willing to attend conventions for me.  Her career as professional puppeteer was also a clever nod to the truth. She was not just a professional puppeteer, she was a professional puppet.

Neither of us intended for this to become so complicated and I can only apologize for the trust I have betrayed in my fans. I should have been up front sooner.

But I also hope that this serves as a wake up call for the industry and that it will stop its prejudicial practices against men. We have something to say about romance, too.

Edited to add: Since it is no longer April Fool’s Day, it only seems fair to tell you that this was a prank. Steve really is my brother, but the only writing he’s doing is on his dissertation. 

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35 thoughts on “An apology to my fans”

  1. Here here!  As a man who has written a romantic-type book, I applaud your coming out of the testostercloset and revealing yourself.  

    1. Not exactly, I’ve found. Far as I can tell, Mary really does speak on WE, but she’s a professional performer, so most of her part is scripted.

      Dan, Howard and Brandon proved over the course of several seasons that they just can’t be scripted, so they tend to be a lot more off-the-cuff. And while Mary can, I’m sure, handle improv like the pro she is, she still needs to keep in character as a writer…

      Which is why, if you turn some of the Writing Excuses up loud enough, you can hear Stephen muttering prompts sometimes.

  2. I admire your (somewhat belated) courage, sir.  But so much makes sense now.  Everyone knows that people as pretty and charming as your sister aren’t smart enough to write books.

  3. Mary Louise Eklund

    I am sorry the success of a wonderful campaign that helped me renew old friendships has turned your life upside down.  Unfortunately the publishing holds to extremely outdated stereotypes men can’t write romance, women can’t write military fiction and so on.  I think the gender and genre biases hold back discoveries of wonderful writers.  

    You are so lucky to have such a wonderful and supportive sister.  In the end may both your careers flourish and each be free to create without enduring bias.  

  4. I’m just curious. If you had to use your sisters name to sell the novel, why have you been publishing short fiction under her name since 2004? I in no way judge you for it. Just curious.

  5. Do I sense a potential story line here? Many women authors had to change their pen names to that of men (George Eliot, the Bronte sisters) to get their books published……if life gives you lemons make lemonade – could you make something positive out of this?!

  6. Edwardfmckeown

    Well I guess its not that different from Andre Norton having to write as Andrew North when she started writing SF and no one would buy that from a woman.  But who have I been corresponding with ?  You or your sister.  In short whose been my pal?

  7. I hope that you realize that sometimes April Fools Jokes get out of hand…someone is going to take this serious.

  8. Is this some April Fool’s joke for 2012 or are you really Stephen Harrison?  I thought Mary Robinette Kowal is really you with your picture in this website and not at all your sister who just wanted to pose for this website!  I look forward Mary Robinette Kowal (and not Stephen Harrison) to come out with the truth for tomorrow, April 2nd!  I look forward to that!

  9. Judging from the Facebook page, this “confession” has been a long time in the works. 😉

  10. I knew it!  And you’ll burn for posting faux apologies where you’re really not one bit sorry.


    Dr. Phil

  11. Actually, the Angelique romances were written by “Sergeanne Golon” — Serge and Ann.  They were a wonderful continuing saga.   When Serge died it was clear who had the romance in their soul.  So for me a male writer isn’t an automatic downcheck.

  12. Very amusing. So it looks like a “Buy Mary A Beard” fund will not be needed. 🙂

    In all seriousness though, I remember reading an article years ago about a male writer, of mystery I believe, who used his initials in order to come off more gender neutral and therefore attract a larger female audience.

  13. Jonathan Gabel

    Well I now know that since you had edited to add on this!  Now that is what I call an April Fool’s Prank.  My Favorite April Fool’s Prank I think is that episode on MASH which is a personal favorite of mine.  It is with Colonel Potter and his long time war friend Daniel Webster Tucker as they have done that prank in three different wars including the Korean War.  That April Fool’s episode of MASH is my favorite episode from that classic 1970’s sitcom!  Now to be more honest here, my all time favorite sitcom from the 1970’s is ALL IN THE FAMILY.  That’s no lie!  Happy Easter!

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