Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. The world of fiction opens up to us whole new worlds, universes even, of new sights, characters, and situations. The people behind them toil away creating these places and people for our entertainment, pondering, and amusement. Yet in some cases the ones behind the veil of these creations, the gods of their worlds some might say, are just as surrounded by mystery as any of the constructs that have burst forth from their imaginations. On many occasions there have been authors that are so mysterious, so shrouded in the unknown, that they have usurped their own work to remain enigmas even more fascinating than anything they have written about. Here we will look into the often very strange world of some of the most mysterious authors that have ever been, and the stories behind them.
Some authors are mysterious in that they have published widely-read books and achieved widespread fame, yet no one really knows who they are, often not even their own publishers. One of the most notorious of these mysterious writers is the author B. Traven, who is perhaps best known for his timeless masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, widely considered to be one of the greatest adventure novels of the 20th century. Despite the book’s undeniable fame and his status as a highly respected author, almost everything about the man behind it is disputed, his identity firmly cloaked in an impenetrable veil of secrecy. For starters, B. Traven is a pseudonym, a fake name, and no one, not even his own publisher, know what his real name is. Likewise, his birthdate is unknown, as is his nationality or anything at all really. Likewise where he lives or how to find him are a complete mystery, as the only address the writer uses is a post office box in Mexico, and it is not even known which language his writings were originally published in.
Further adding to the shroud of mystery and strangeness surrounding the shadowy B. Traven is the fact that no one even knows what he looks like. His own publishers claim to have never actually met him, and attempts by others to meet the author have just deepened the enigma. When The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was in the process of being adapted into a 1948 film of the same name, director John Houston made arrangements to meet the reclusive author in order to get his input on set, but when he arrived at the meeting place he found someone else instead; a man named Hal Croves, who held the power of attorney to make all of Traven’s decisions for him. Croves would remain on the set during filming to give advice on the production, and there were those at the time who thought that he was actually secretly really Traven, although Croves always quite adamantly denied this.
Adding to the whole air of mystery was that after the film was released Croves seemed to vanish into thin air, which only served to fuel the mystery and rumors that he had actually been Traven after all. The film’s studio, Warner Brothers, actively promoted this mystery, which only added to the swirl of conspiracy and intrigue surrounding the whole thing, and of course garnered the film more publicity. The media was awash with speculation on who Traven was, and one journalist actually made an attempt to hunt down the man in order to see if had really been Croves after all. His investigation took him to Mexico, where he claimed to have followed bank information on a trail to an inn-keeper named Traven Torsvan, and discovered evidence that Traven and Croves were indeed one and the same, including royalty checks and packages on the premises addressed to a “B. Traven.” It seemed as if the mystery had been solved, but when the reporter wrote an article on his findings, Torsvan came forward to insist that none of it was true, before subsequently vanishing off the face of the earth himself.
In the 50s, the mysterious Hal Croves resurfaced again out of nowhere as if nothing had happened to open up a literary agency. He wasn’t particularly shy about being seen, as he attended several high profile events such as the premiere of a German film based on one of Traven’s works. Again, it seemed as if Croves was in fact Traven in disguise, but he once again consistently shot down these theories and continued to proclaim that he was not the elusive author. It seemed the mystery was still alive and well, and in 1960 Traven came out with another book, his last, yet the manuscript immediately was met with suspicion as it was written in a wildly different style and mood than any of the writer’s previous works, leading to the conclusion that it was either someone else or the reclusive author intentionally messing with everyone’s heads, which honestly wouldn't be much of a surprise.
To this day it is still unknown who B. Traven is, or anything about him at all really, although there have been many theories. One is that Traven was actually a stage actor who had moved to Mexico by the name of Ret Marut, a man with his own enigmas since no one can really agree on who Marut really was either. This claim was bolstered by testimony from Croves’ widow after his death. She claimed that he indeed had been Traven, who had been called Ret Marut in his younger years and that he had moved from Germany to Mexico in order to escape the Nazis during WWII. Other theories run the gamut from the weird to the truly bizarre, such as that he was really the author Jack London, who had faked his own death to write under another name, or that he was the son of German Emperor Wilhelm II, among others, but no one really knows for sure.
Another very prolific and well-known author who no one knows anything about is John Twelve Hawks, who is a widely-read science fiction author who has a large body of work but really shot to fame with his Fourth Realm Trilogy, which is being adapted for the screen, as well as his extremely popular book The Traveler. Despite his wild popularity and large fan base, almost nothing at all is known about Hawks, which is a pseudonym, and he has become known as one of the more mysterious and elusive authors working today, practically a phantom. The scant information about him has been gleaned from the handful of interviews he has given, which merely drop cryptic hints and clues and do frustratingly very little to illuminate who he really is. For instance, it has been deduced that he is a Buddhist, and that he was probably an adult before the year 1989, but that is about it.
Helping to maintain this air of mystery is that Hawks lives completely off the grid, only giving interviews online rather than in person and only talking on the phone with the use of an electronic modulator to heavily disguise his voice over an untraceable satellite line. Indeed, the author even communicates with his own publisher in this fashion, absolutely refusing to meet in person. Most of the time he only communicates through his lawyer, and at events such as publicity tours he is conspicuously absent, instead replaced by mere representatives from the publisher. For these reasons it is not even known what Hawks looks like, nor is it even absolutely certain whether he is even a man or a woman (although he has claimed in the past to be a man). The amount of total anonymity Hawks has managed to maintain despite his fame is actually rather impressive, and he has cryptically explained this desire to be invisible in one snippet of an interview with blogger Joseph Malozzi, in which he said:
My mother and the rest of my family don’t know that I have written the novels. Those people I know who aren’t close friends see me as a failure by the American standards of success. Being a “failure” in such a way has been a continual lesson. It’s helped me realize that we make quick judgments of others based on little real information. We assume so much – but don’t know the secrets held within the heart.
Of course with such an air of taunting mystery pervading the true identity of John Twelve Hawks there has been rabid speculation as to who he could possibly be. One theory is that he is in actuality Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours, Michael Cunningham, based on numerous similarities found between their works, features such as the prose, style, and wording, as well as certain story or character beats. Other famous authors who have been suspected as being Hawks are Michael Chabon and even Stephen King. One very interesting theory put forward by an article in the NY Post is that Hawks is in fact the disgraced author James Frey, best known for being publicly discredited for blatantly lying in his best-selling book A Million Little Pieces. Indeed it is often suspected that Hawks is either a famous author writing under another name or conversely an author who has failed or dropped from grace (such as Frey) who is trying to get a fresh shot at success through writing under a pseudonym. Other theories are that he is not even one person at all but rather a collaboration, or that it is all simply a marketing ploy to generate mystery which will translate to more sales. In the end no one has a clue, and Hawks manages to remain a complete cypher even as he sells millions of copies of his books.
Equally enigmatic and steeped in the unknown is the author Ann Radcliffe, known as one of the pioneers of Gothic literature, indeed an individual seen as instrumental in creating and propagating the genre, as well as turning it into a respectable form of literature when it had previously been known as basically schlocky, pulp junk food for the mind. Most of her works use very poetic, beautiful prose, and involve ghosts and various elements of the supernatural, which are often uncovered over the course of the novel to have rational or mundane explanations. Born in 1764 in London to a family running a clothing shop, she would go on to write 6 novels that revolutionized the Gothic genre, most notably her well-known The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and, well, this is just about as much as we know about her. From an early age Radcliffe was always a reclusive hermit, to the point that no one was even ever sure if she was alive or dead, and she was actually widely reported as passing away at least twice in her life. Rumors constantly swirled about her, such as that she had gone insane or had moved away from the country, none of which appear to have been true. One article from 1823 in the Edinburgh Review rather hauntingly said of Radcliffe:
She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen.
Ann Radcliffe is such an enigmatic figure that no one is even sure of what she looked like, with no known verifiable images of her available, despite the fact that she was a famous celebrity in life. She kept no known diaries and even her death has remained a mystery, although it is mostly thought that she died of asthma. There is so little information available about her that several planned biographies have had to be scrapped because there just simply isn’t enough to go on. Pretty much the only clue we have to gleaning anything at all about her life is the fact that a letter from Radcliffe's mother-in-law suggests that she based many of her characters on people she knew and herself, and situations in the books were drawn from her own life experiences. However, in the end we have shockingly little information about the identity and life of an author so influential in her genre that she is often referred to as “The Mother of the Gothic.”
A more recent entry into the annals of mysterious author no one knows anything about is the very enigmatic Elena Ferrante, who is most well-known for her 4-novel series Neapolitan Novels, which are best-sellers all over the world. Ferrante is so well-loved and popular that her books are a continuous feature of “best books” lists, and in 2016 she was even named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine, yet for all of this recognition nobody really knows who she actually is. Of course Elena Ferrante is not the author’s true name, and indeed Ferrante is known almost as much for her almost total anonymity and inaccessibility as she is for her work. For her part, Ferrante seems to want to keep it this way, once saying:
Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.
There is almost nothing at all known about Ferrante's life or who she is, with only a few tantalizing hints offered up in her very rare interviews and through letters to her editor, as well as digging through her novels for elusive clues. Some of the tidbits of information mined out of such sources are that she is likely a mother with a degree in classics, that she was born and raised in Naples, Italy, and that she is probably married, although none of this is known for sure. Of course with such mystery surrounding the international best-selling author there have been numerous efforts by both journalists and amateur sleuths to get to the bottom of it all and cast light on who Ferrante really is.
One of the more extensive investigations was conducted by an Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti, who in 2016 published his findings in the Italian, German, and French press, as well as on the New York Review blog, and came to the conclusion that she was in fact a translator by the name of Anita Raja, who lives in Rome with her husband, writer Domenico Starnone. To come to this finding, Gatti spent months meticulously uncovering and following a money trail that he believed showed great evidence that Raja was the reclusive author. First of all is the fact that Raja’s has frequently translated for the publisher of Ferrante’s books, and her payment for her services was found to have been dramatically increasing in recent years, roughly in parallel relation to Ferrante’s rise to fame, which he said “appear to make her (Raja) the overwhelming beneficiary of Ferrante’s success.”
Adding to this was evidence in the form of information that Gatti dug up on Raja’s dealings in real estate, which were not modest to say the least. It appears that when Farrante’s first novel was made into a film in 2000, sure enough Raja bought a spacious and lavish apartment in an expensive area of Rome, followed by the purchase of a house in the countryside of Tuscany in 2001. In 2015, Raja’s husband Starnone was found to have bought an extravagant 11-room apartment in an elegant building in Rome that is just a stone’s throw away from the place Raja had bought in 2000, and which Gatti believes was merely purchased by Raja under Starnone’s name. Considering that all of this lush spending on such luxuries is above and beyond the means of most translators, as well as the suspicious timing that coincides with Farrante’s increasing fame, Gatti believes that this shows Raja is actually the mystery author. It is certainly intriguing, but the article has been criticized due to the fact that Raja’s life history has very little in common with the little that is known about Ferrante, and Gatti has drawn criticism for his intrusive methods, which have been called an invasion of privacy.
Another investigation was done in 2016 as well, this time by Italian novelist Marco Santagata, who carefully analyzed details in Farrante’s novels to come to the conclusion that she had lived in Pisa at one point but moved away in 1966, and that she was well versed beyond the ordinary on Neapolitan politics. It might seem like not much to go on, but there just happened to be a Neapolitan professor named Marcella Marmo who had lived in Pisa from 1964 to 1966, who Santagata believes is Ferrante. This theory is pretty tenuous to say the least, since there were likely many, many people who lived in Pisa during that time who could possibly fit the description. Nevertheless, since both Marmo and Ferrante have denied the claims (but then again they would, wouldn’t they?), we will never know for sure if he’s onto something or not.
For now the true identity of Elena Ferrante remains a complete mystery, although people continue to try to track her down and there are frequent claims of knowing who she is. Some people even theorize that she is not even really a real person at all, but rather a construct of the publishing company as a publicity stunt, with the real writing being done by one or more ghostwriters, or even the result of an unofficial collaboration with her husband, the husband of Raja, the writer Starnone. Those who want to know her identity are not likely to ever get help from the writer herself. Farrante has consistently maintained that her total anonymity is key to her work and that she has absolutely no interest in being known. She even shows an utter lack of interest at all in promoting any of her books in the slightest bit, and seems to not much care if they are successes or not. In a way, it is truly amazing that she has gotten so far in spite of her almost active attempt to not be famous, not to mention the fact that she has managed to completely maintain a secret identity through it all.
Adding to the list is the notoriously evasive author Thomas Pynchon, a world famous novelist known for his numerous best-selling books such as V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Bleeding Edge. Unlike some of the other writers we have looked at here, much is known of Pynchon’s early life, such as that he studied at Cornell University, joined the Navy, and studied under the likes of the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and additionally he is often out and about in his home turf of Manhattan, New York, but he has still managed to have remained something of a specter of the literary world all the same. Virtually nothing of present day Thomas Pynchon is known, and he has seemed to have totally disappeared from the radar, to the point that no one would really even know he existed if it wasn’t for his impressive output of work.
One of the main reasons for this is his utter disdain, some might even say fear, of journalists and publicity, to the extent that he is said to have once jumped out of a window to avoid a journalist. Not once has Pynchon ever granted an interview, and even the pictures available of him online are older ones, carefully chosen, and even many of them are disputed as to their authenticity. This is especially odd considering the legions of photographers out there who would be chomping at the bit to get an image of him, yet there are no recent photos of him. It’s almost like Pynchon is the Sasquatch or Loch Ness Monster of the literary world. One piece of footage that was captured of him walking along the street in 1997 was taken by CNN and was immediately requested to be kept under wraps by the author and his handlers. In the end the footage aired but without any indicators to show which of the many people in the film is actually him.
By all accounts, Pynchon absolutely loathes publicity, and has successfully managed to completely avoid it, although he has made a few very rare appearances in one form or another. For instance, his voice can be heard in the background of a piece of promotional material for his novel Inherent Vice, and he has famously and rather oddly appeared twice on the animated show The Simpsons, where he voiced himself and is portrayed as wearing a bag over his head with a huge question mark scrawled over it. Amusingly, he is depicted on the show as being a conceited, arrogant publicity hound hungry for attention. He has also on very rare occasions signed books, or on some occasions instead of an autograph doodled pictures of pigs upon the pages. This impenetrable wall of mystery has led to all kinds of strange conspiracy theories related to him, such as that he was in fact a bag lady living under a bridge in California, that he is a pseudonym being used by the other famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger, or even that he was the Unabomber.
Other authors are mysterious for reasons other than their ability to hide or remain phantoms, and thus is the case with the very strange and gruesome saga of Polish writer Krystian Bala. It is a chilling tale that blurs the line between reality and fiction, combining crime fiction with real-life murder, and which has propelled him into the pantheon of mysteries of the literary world. In 2000, the naked body of a man named Dariusz Janiszewski was found sprawled out in a stream near the city of Wroclaw, Poland with a noose around his neck and his hands firmly tied behind his back. Autopsy reports showed that the man had been extensively tortured before being left for dead in the frigid waters of the stream, with the cause of death being either drowning or strangulation, no one was quite sure which. The finding of the body was a major media sensation in Poland at the time, yet authorities were unable to find any leads at all on the crime and it quickly became a stubborn cold case.
Then, in 2003 a book called Amok came out from a photographer, writer, and self-proclaimed intellectual and philosopher named Krystian Bala. The book is chillingly about a character who commits the torture and murder of a young woman without being caught, and it might have just remained one of the many such titles out there if a police detective by the name of Jacek Wroblewski hadn’t started to notice some disturbing trends. Wroblewski, who had been hard at work trying to crack the cold case of the Janiszewski murder, was first drawn to Bala for a totally different reason, which was that the dead man’s cell phone had somehow come under the ownership of Bala. Seeing this as suspicious, but not particularly hard evidence, he started reading Bala’s novel looking for potential clues, and apparently found plenty of them.
Throughout the pages were found to be many uncanny parallels between the fictional murder and the real one, including the method of torture and murder and the details, as well as similarities between the book’s main character and Bala himself, and details of the real murder contained within the pages that only the real murderer could have known. There were so many strange coincidences and similarities in these pages, in fact, that Wroblewski enlisted the help of other detectives to help him go through the novel to build a potential case against the writer. It was found that the book seemed to be almost a fictionalized version of the Janiszewski killing, with various undeniable hints that Bala was behind the murder. At the time Bala was out of the country and they couldn’t do much, but there seemed to be enough to consider suspicious and when he returned to Poland he was arrested.
Bala was accused of orchestrating and carrying out the killing of Janiszewski, who was found to have possibly been sleeping with Bala’s ex-wife, making it seem to be a crime of passion. The writer was said to have been incredibly jealous and possessive, a controlling tyrant really, and the wife herself admitted that she had met Janiszewski but had not slept with him. It was all circumstantial and Bala was released on a lack of evidence, with only the information that he had indeed known the victim serving to bring him back and keep him in custody until he could be put on trial.
Throughout the trial Bala claimed that he had been tortured and mistreated by police, and that he was completely innocent. He claimed that he had only added details of the real murder into his book from reports of it he had seen on TV, and that he was being wrongly prosecuted for a work of fiction. Mental health experts agreed, warning the court of the danger and potentially bad precedent of convicting a man based solely on what had been found in a fictional novel he had written. Of course sales of Amok skyrocketed at this time, as the media and public went crazy over this story of a murderer caught because he had written about what he had done. Despite the fact that there was no real evidence other than what he had written of in his novel, Bala was nevertheless ultimately convicted of murder. This verdict would be overturned and then he was found guilty yet again after a second trial and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
After the verdict, the judge admitted that there was nothing solid to conclusively prove Bala had committed the crime, but that there was strong enough evidence that he had had some hand in it, saying: “The evidence gathered gives sufficient basis to say that Krystian Bala committed the crime of leading the killing of Dariusz Janiszewski.” Bala will probably continue to try and appeal the sentence and has remained adamant of his innocence. Amazingly, he has said that he will write a second novel called De Liryk. Was this a writer emulating in his work a real crime committed by someone else or did he in fact carry out this cold-blooded killing for grim research in order to spin it into a grisly story later on? It is unclear if Bala was really the killer or not, but it certainly makes for a spooky story.
Authors pride themselves on crafting new worlds and birthing new characters, it is what they do. Yet in some cases it seems that these often wondrous and mysterious realms of imagination they churn out can be overshadowed by the mysteries surrounding their creators. What is the story behind these enigmatic individuals and will we ever know the truth? How can they remain so hidden from understanding even as their books fly off of shelves and they amass legions of adoring fans? The literary world has its share of mysteries, and these authors are bound to continue to elicit speculation and rumors that will doubtlessly endure for as long as their works.