In the basement of a Unitarian church in Portland, author Chuck Palahnuik is addressing a large number of people seated on folding chairs. There are framed photos of Albert Camus and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the wall. I’m standing in the back, by the refreshment table, and scanning the crowd. I recognize several of the attendees: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abraham Verghese, Eoin Colfer. This is a meeting of Great Names and Works, or GNAW – a support group for writers whose names are frequently mispronounced.
Palahniuk is a natural choice for GNAW group leader, not just because he once held a job driving people back and forth to support groups much like this one, but because his own name is so frequently mangled. I spoke with him earlier on the phone, when we arranged for me to cover a meeting. “You pour your heart into your work, for days, months, years, and you’re thrilled with the end result. You win awards, become a best-selling author, date models. And then someone undermines it by getting your name wrong,” he tells me. “You are your work. And if people can’t even pronounce your name correctly, what does that say about you? It’s so frustrating.”
I listen as the writers go around the room introducing themselves, enunciating their names carefully for the others, and then sharing stories. ”I was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature,” says poet Wislawa Szymborska, “and still they cannot pronounce my name correctly.”
“That buffoon Matt Lauer totally botched my introduction on national television,” says Slavoj Zizek. “It took everything I had not to throw my mic down and walk out of the studio.”
This is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s first GNAW meeting. “I’m kinda new to the level of exposure I’ve been getting, with winning the Pulitzer. It’s just comforting to know I’m not alone,” he says.
There is one interruption, when a kind-looking man with white hair opens the door. “No, no, DeLillo,” Palahniuk says. “You want ROSA, in the next room.” DeLillo thanks him, and closes the door. (“ROSA?” I ask Palahniuk later. “Run-On Sentence Addicts,” he explains.)
I mingle with the writers after the testimonials. ”People have been subjected to this for as long as there have been writers,” Raefel Yglesias tells me.
“Like Ayn Rand?” I ask him.
“We don’t talk about her,” he whispers.
One member, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he’s jealous of authors with easy last names, like ‘Waters’ or ‘Roth’. “Joe Hill? I mean, come on – his whole name is only two syllables,” he scoffs. “And Sara Gran? Sure, her work is great, but she doesn’t know what it means to suffer!”
“If it’s so frustrating, why not just change your name?” I ask him, and the room instantly goes deathly quiet. The group stares at me as though I have just asked to urinate on their beloved family pet. Chris Bohjalian actually sneers. No one else speaks to me the rest of the night, and the meeting breaks up shortly after. Which is good, because I think someone has spiked the punch. My money says it was Duane Swierczynski.