by A.B. Jewell (aka Matt Richtel)
When my editor at Harper Collins asked me to pick a name for my latest novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, I had the reaction you’d expect: Is Studs Bestseller already taken? My editor is very supportive and he offered a slight revision, suggesting Perennial Midlister. And, with that, the name was afoot!
Picking a new name is hard. A name is pregnant with meaning. The moniker Red speaks to hair color or temperament, Stone is hard, Hitler or Peter hearken to genocidal despots. So when my editor, Peter, asked me to pick a pen name, I was left feeling like Blaze, hot, dangerous, and with a burning sensations when I urinate I’d rather not get into.
When I thought about it, I realized it was a lot easier for me to choose a pen age, which is 25. My pen height and weight is 6’2” and 190 pounds, but I could honestly stand to lose five pounds. The best names for who I am at my core come from the Marvel universe. Initially I chose Thor. But it just didn’t feel right to me and so I considered an alternate suggestion, “Cease and Desist.”
Before I explain how I got named after a water treatment plant, which is not a pen story but a real one, I feel I should let you know why Peter asked me to change my name. Why did my Harper Collins, which is majority controlled by He Who Shall Not Be Pen Named, ask me to relinquish my identity and assume a new one that would capture my essence while also leap out and grab readers by the throat at the two bookstores?
At first, Peter was opaque and I assumed he’d been talking to Ryan and Goebbels in marketing. We don’t want to confuse people about your brand, he said, which he described as “tech thrillers,” and “under-performing.” But the new book is a comedic detective story. I took his point — directly to my agent, Out-to-lunch. She was in. But not taking calls, her administrative assistant told me, from the pen hours of 9 until she goes home. I left her a message demanding she have it written into my contract that I could keep my own name or choose Neil Gaiman or Michelle Obama.
In the old days, your parents selected your name by picking up the Old Testament, giving it a spin, seeing what page the book opened to and then picking the first name they saw that wasn’t Sodom. My given name, Gomorrah, required a second spinning, and my ultimate given name Matt obviously derives from the biblical king, Chuck. His friends and The Lord knew him as Matthew, or Charles. But my parents didn’t know me. They didn’t name me for my personality, looks, nature, vertical leap, or anything else to guide their decision. But I have the benefit of knowing I’m magnetic and in many ways untouchable, so I’m toying with Sticky Leper.
There are so many well-chosen pen names now synonymous with work and style: George Elliot, John Le Carre, George Orwell, Anonymous. How to bear the weight of my own christening? I gathered the family around the pen hearth (the TV) and solicited their ideas. My son and daughter favored T-rex, hamburger, and you’re blocking my view. My wife wanted a name that that sounded like someone playful but who could also follow a Google calendar, and be sexually aware. She joined others in favoring Cease and Desist.
The name, I realized, would have to capture the essence of my comedic detective novel, which in its essence is genre-curious and not “all over the place,” as the pen named “Kirpus Reviews” more or less described it in a “rave.”
In the end, I chose the pen name A.B. Jewell. This came from the initial of my daughter’s middle name, Anne; that of my son’s middle name, Benjamin, and the full of my wife’s middle name, Jewell. She spells it with one “l,” but I realized that adding an extra L to the name was my way of making this clear statement: I initially wrongly typed the name and then in the frantic 24 months before publication just couldn’t find a second to change it.
That’s when I got the news. It came in an email from my father, “Murray,” which I put in quotes even though it is his actual name because, are you kidding me? My dad discovered on the Internet that the city of Tulsa is home to the A.B. Jewell Water Treatment Plant.
What are the odds?! What serendipity? What an omen.
Me, choosing a name of a place that speaks to clarity, purity, and a total treatment capacity of 220 million gallons a day. It was Kismit, my lawyer, who told me I’d probably need to Cease and Desist.
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, by A.B. Jewell, waaaaay less expensive than a water treatment plant, and much funnier. Get it here.