Episode 8: Under the Cover of Words

Time-Stamped Show Notes

[0:00] – ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill.

[0:40] – SEGMENT ONE: Writer Catherine Nichols describes how a manuscript she thought was “the one” was rejected by all 50 agents she queried. In response, she decided to requery the manuscript under a male pseudonym. 

[4:33] – INTRO: In this episode of From the Margins, we hear stories that explore the use of disguise, whether through pseudonyms, ghostwriters, other languages, or the sheer power of passion.

[6:50] SEGMENT ONE, continued: Catherine Nichols explains the results of her malepseudonym experiment.

  • [7:00] – “Mr. Catherine” (she hasn’t revealed the actual pseudonym she used) received a much more positive tone of critique than Catherine received.
  • [8:27] – After her experiment, Catherine published an article about her results in Jezebel. The piece went viral.
  • [9:07] – Although Catherine received a lot of positive attention from her article, she realized it pointed to a larger gender bias in publishing that left her unsettled.
  • [11:32] – Catherine thinks that in the publishing industry, women are expected to write on smaller canvases and that this is a systemic problem that every individual must keep in check.

[12:15]SEGMENT TWO: Julie Phillips shares how author James Tiptree, Jr. helped reshape how people view the science fiction genre, in terms of whether works can be considered inherently male or female.

  • [13:12] – James Tiptree, Jr. was known for writing female characters well. However, the name was actually a pseudonym used by Alice B. Sheldon.
  • [13:35] – Julie wrote the biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.
  • [14:23] – According to Julie, Alice (nicknamed “Allie”) didn’t decide to write under a male pseudonym; it just happened. And because she kept that cover, people began speculating who James Tiptree could be.
  • [15:35] – People brushed off the theory that James was a woman for many reasons: his writing was masculine, he seemed to be fairly masculine in the way he regarded women, and he had a lot of insider information about masculine institutions.
  • [16:43] – A pseudonym can be a useful tool for an author. For Allie, it gave her freedom in her writing and in her writing career.
  • [17:18] – Under pressure from the feminist movement, Allie decided to create a female pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. However, this persona was overshadowed by James Tiptree, Jr.’s popularity.
  • [18:47] – In 1976, Allie’s mother passed away, and Allie wrote into a fanzine that she couldn’t answer any correspondence for a while. Through information in her mother’s obituary, Allie’s identity was discovered by Jeff Smith.
  • [19:56] – After Jeff Smith’s discovery, Allie decided to publicly reveal her identity.
  • [20:12] – Her reveal sparked discussion on gendered writing.
  • [20:35] – Allie had a difficult time writing as herself after the reveal. She didn’t know how to write as herself.
  • [21:13] – Allie continued to write as James Tiptree, Jr. for another decade, but her final years were troubled because her husband’s health was deteriorating.
  • [21:41] – When her husband was 84 and she 71, they made a suicide pact.
  • [22:45] – The legacy of James Tiptree, Jr. still inspires the science fiction community by showing what can happen through a change of identity.

[24:21] – ADVERTISEMENT: Visual Quill (custom book trailer).

  • [25:12] – Visual Quill ad that supplies a special offer code for a free consultation.

[25:41] SEGMENT THREE: Pike Place Market fishmonger Anders Miller, project manager Bryan Jarr, and Girl Friday cofounder Leslie “Lam” Miller discuss the process of ghostwriting.

  • [27:00] – Anders says it was a longtime dream of the Pike Place Fish Market’s crew to publish a cookbook of all the recipes they recommend to customers. But as fishmongers, they had little time in their busy days to go home and work on a cookbook project.
  • [27:40] – Bryan Jarr was hired to manage the project, and as he collected recipes, he realized they still needed a person who could actually write the book.
  • [28:40] – Bryan and Anders decided to host a write-off to find the right ghostwriter who could embody the spirit of the market.
  • [29:57] – Lam, who turned out to be that ghostwriter, explains the difficulties of ghostwriting, as well as what a ghostwriter needs to do to make the writing feel authentic.

[34:17] – SEGMENT FOUR: Trilingual writer Octaviano Merecias discusses how translation can shift the intended meaning in writing.

  • [34:45] – Octaviano Merecias writes poesia mixta, which is a mix of three languages: Mixtec, Spanish, and English.
  • [35:32] – The Mixtec language is an ancient, spiritual language, so Octaviano writes in Mixtec when he wants to convey ideas of the soul, spirituality, family, old customs, and a deep connection to his roots.
  • [36:03] – Mixtec is also a communal language. The pronoun “I” is rarely used; “we” is used instead.
  • [36:44] – Octaviano moved to the United States when he was sixteen years old and was overwhelmed by learning a new language at that age.
  • [37:49] – He uses writing to console his younger self with meditative pieces about healing and reconciliation.
  • [38:00] – As part of the faculty at Oregon State University, Octaviano helped students learning English. Now, he is the manager of policy and civic engagement at the Latino Network in Portland, Oregon.
  • [38:34] – Octaviano says that English is the language of business for many migrants, since they depend on learning that language to find work.
  • [39:27] – Because Octaviano speaks and writes in three different languages, he feels that he lives in three different realities.

[43:42] – SEGMENT FIVE (LAST SEGMENT): Meera Subramanian tells the story of the vulture decline in India, and shows us how we can use the cover of words to capture a reader’s interest.

  • [44:42] – Meera spent ten years writing her book A River Runs Again, which focuses on three species of Gyps vultures based in South and Southeast Asia.
  • [45:30] – Although vultures aren’t very favored in western culture, they have strong cultural and spiritual ties in India.
  • [45:53] – People slowly started to notice the declining vulture population in India.
  • [50:12] – Meera captures the reader’s attention by weaving fact into strong storytelling.
  • [53:00] – Meera also details the human-impact story in her book, such as how the vulture decline affected the Parsis, a small ancient religious group.
  • [57:07] – The vultures provided an amazing lens through which to understand how appearances can be deceiving.

[61:48] – Closing credits.

Key Points

  • Catherine Nichols’s pseudonym experiment sheds light on a potential implicit gender bias in the publishing industry.
  • Julie Phillips explains how Alice B. Sheldon is still celebrated as a renowned science fiction writer who illustrated the power of a change of identity.
  • Leslie “Lam” Miller, Anders Miller, and Bryan Jarr explain the process of ghostwriting.
  • Octaviano Merecias describes how he is able to live in three different worlds through writing in three different languages.
  • Meera Subramanian’s writing about vultures exemplifies what it takes to pique a reader’s interest.

Find Out More About the Writers and Guests

Catherine Nichols

Jezebel article

Leslie “Lam” Miller


Bryan Jarr


Meera Subramanian

A River Runs Again

Anders Miller