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Nom De Plume author Carmela Ciuraru visits Iowa City

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JUNE 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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"Nom de plume," meaning "pen name" in French, is a term many are unfamiliar with today — as are many of the writers who have used one.

Author Carmela Ciuraru hoped to inform readers of the little-known names and stories behind history's most well-known pseudonyms in her book Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

"In this country, [the term 'nom de plume'] is considered to be old-fashioned," Ciuraru said. "But 'pen name' just seems slightly less mysterious and romantic."

Ciuraru discussed the concept of nom de plume as well as other aspects of her nonfiction book during a reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday. She also described her choice to study the backstories of 16 writers' pseudonyms.

"I'm really interested in creativity and identity and how the two intersect," Ciuraru said. "I thought it would be really interesting to explore why people choose to have these secret lives."

Nom de Plume covers some of the most famous pen-names, such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and the Brontë sisters, as well as more obscure cases.

"I found an array of stories and a sort of interesting layer upon layer of motives," Ciuraru said. "Some women had to write as men in order to get published, but they did for different reasons. Some people like George Orwell felt ashamed of what they were writing about. And Lewis Carroll hated fame and really wanted his own privacy."

Ciuraru said some of the conflicts these writers faced ran so deep, it resulted in suicide.

"It was interesting to see something that starts off as playful and fun can end in tragedy," she said. "It seems like something fairly straightforward, but I have learned through my research that it's incredibly complicated."

Although Prairie Lights is known for hosting some of the Iowa City area's best authors, employee Kathleen Johnson said they welcome authors from around the world, such as Ciuraru, who lives in Brooklyn and made her first visit to Iowa City for the reading.

"It's interesting for the community to see a variety of styles," Johnson said. "People in Iowa City like to learn, [so] we look at books and try to think what would be the most different and fun for them to see."

Prairie Lights co-owner Jan Weissmiller said Ciuraru fulfilled this requirement.

Prior to the event, she said she thought Ciuraru's appearance would be "wonderfully entertaining and vibrant." "I thought, especially in the summer, something that's sort of informative and lighthearted would be fun."

Ciuraru said before the reading she was excited to visit the home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and historic Prairie Lights.

She was also made sure to clarify that "Carmela Ciuraru" was not a pseudonym.

"I suppose if I ever wrote anything really scandalous, I'd maybe consider it," she said. "My name is so hard to pronounce and spell as it is that I sort of resigned myself to it."


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