Skip to main content
personal essay

Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story by Dushan Milic

Like a lot of people, I've often wondered what else I might have been. When I was younger, but even after I was a child, I thought Batman was the whole package. Smart, calculating, pragmatic. Depressed, but in a way women found hot. Tragic at his core and struggling with his demons while trying to save the world. (Pause for laughter.) Also, if you had a secret identity, there was a part of you no one would ever know about. It would be yours alone. That appealed to me quite a bit.

I never developed special powers and I look bad in tights, so I became a writer. I've just had secret lives by other means. Most of those lives have unfolded between the covers of my books and in my writing for the theatre. One of them, however, is still out there, living among you.

The idea of a pseudonym had been flitting around my brain for a long time, along with its cognate, disappearance. In the 1980s, I published some poems under a pen name in a literary magazine to see what it would feel like. It was fun. It was even a little thrilling. I'd had an early stint in acting school, and there was something satisfying about becoming a character, about being inside another mind that you had to create out of yourself. As I moved toward a life in writing, I found many of the things I'd learned in acting school still applied. No matter what it was, you had to salt yourself into what you were making. You had to disappear into your work.

The image of disappearance eventually came into my writing in ways I couldn't have foreseen 20 years ago. My fiction swelled with absent people and empty towns; forgetting and lying. My first novel, Martin Sloane, was about a missing man; my second, Consolation, was about a missing city. I'd already written a play about a party where the host never shows up. The teeming space of energy generated by something that had just disappeared – or was on the verge of appearing – gave me inspiration to write.

Both of my novels were full of people chasing down that missing thing. But because the culprit, in both cases, was existence (and he got away with it) people called them literary. But they were both detective novels. In 2005, I had an idea for an actual detective story. It would be about a religious murderer whose M.O. involved speaking through his victim's mouths. Literally. Pseudonymity would turn out to be a theme in The Calling, and it spoke directly to my obsession with the possibilities of the hidden life.

In his poem, Snow, Louis MacNeice writes

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

We are already so many things by the time we reach the middle of life that it is possible to see that really anything can happen, and that, by extension, anything is doable. I decided I'd write The Calling as someone else. Another writer entirely, a fictional one who would be played by me.

I saw the main police character in the novel quite clearly from the beginning. Hazel Micallef was a 62-year-old interim police chief on a small-town force, an investigator by training, who lived with her mother, the larger-than-life ex-mayor of the town. Hazel was divorced and not particularly likeable, with an imposing body that was racked by pain. She was intelligent, tenacious and, because convinced of her own moral rectitude, in constant conflict with others.

To figure out who could write such a woman, I started with Hazel. I came to imagine her writer as someone who was a little like her, but also a little like me. I gave her the name Inger Ash Wolfe after my maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Wolfinger.

It turned out that Inger was marvellously proficient. The first novel quickly begat a second – The Taken – and then it was clear that there'd be more. I can take up to a decade to write a novel, but Inger wrote three good ones in five years. I was rather amazed. She was more widely read than I, and she was earning more money than I did. She was going to have her own life and her own fate and I was very pleased.

Then, just like in the comic books, supervillains appeared. Inger was socked into a new reality. About nine minutes after the second book came out, Bear Stearns collapsed. The ripples of the ensuing crisis ate at the foundations of publishing, as well as many other industries.

At the same time, the technology of reading was changing, too. I'm not even going to talk about all the hand-held computers or the Internet. But by 2010, it became evident that Inger couldn't carry on in her happy aerie. If she wanted to keep going, someone needed to speak for her, and seeing as she was nonexistent, I got the job.

So here we are, after seven years of carrying on in private. I admit I'm a little sad about it. Inger fulfilled some peculiar longing in me when she was mine alone, but I'm letting go of her now.

Her series has five more books in it and I'd like them to get written. After all the pleasure Inger has given me – not to mention to her small flock of followers – I owe her that.

Michael Redhill's novel for middle readers, called I Saved Houdini, will be published next May. He is in the sixth year of writing Mason of Tunica, a novel. Sometimes he is on the Internet at