Q & A: What’s in a Name?

March 15, 2008 @ 11:31 am | Filed under: , ,

A Bonny Glen reader wrote me with a whole bunch of really good questions. Actually, I’ve had several emails come in recently with suggestions for topics or questions to answer. I’ll be tackling some of those in the days and weeks to come. But this is a lazy Saturday morning so I’m starting with the easy one.

Can I ask how you pronounce Lissa? It is like the second half of Melissa or the name Lisa?

Like the second half of Melissa. If you want the whole scoop on my name, it goes like this. Melissa Wiley is, as you know, my pen name. But the Melissa part is real. My middle name is Anne-with-an-e and that e was always very important to me as a child, so that when I first read Anne of Green Gables at age eleven, I loved her instantly and devotedly from the moment she made the big deal about having her name spelled correctly even in people’s minds.

When I got married, I kept Anne as my middle name instead of making my maiden name my new middle name as many women do. But I love my maiden name, Brannon, too.

When I was growing up, my family had two names for me. (They still do.) Well, three names if you count Melissa, which was only used when I was in trouble, usually in company with Anne. My official first name with the family has always been Missy. I am still Missy to my parents and sisters (Merry and Molly) and cousins and some of my high-school friends. And that’s fine; Missy is a comfy and friendly name, I think.

But at home, growing up, I was always Lissa too. Casually, unofficially, in a “Lissa, dinner’s ready!” kind of way. My parents would introduce me as Missy (and that’s how I signed my papers in school, and what teachers called me), but when they were just speaking offhandedly, affectionately, they usually said Lissa. So I loved that name too.

And by the end of senior year, I was tired, for a while, of being ‘little Missy.’ (I have always been the shrimpiest one in the class.) I kept meeting people with dogs named Missy. (I actually had a dog named Missy myself, when I was a baby. She was named Missy before my parents got her, and she was older than I was. They changed her name to Sissy. She was a dear little doggie.) Missy felt like a little girl’s name, and some of my drama club friends had picked up on Lissa from hearing my parents say it, so when I went to college I just introduced myself as Lissa, not Missy. And it stuck. I met Scott in college, so that’s the name he’s always known me by.

But actually he almost never calls me Lissa. He calls me L, and so do his brothers. If I call any of my brothers-in-law on the phone, or my sister-in-law Theresa, I say, “Hi, it’s L.” If you’ve known me online long enough to remember my old “tisell@earthlink.net” address, you might know that “tisell” meant ’tis L.

One thing about “Lissa” is that lots of people mis-hear it as “Lisa,” so in recent years I have introduced myself more and more as just Melissa. But it really throws me when people call me that in person. I jump, because that’s still the “teacher is mad at me” name.

Another high-school friend nicknamed me “Misery” as a joke. And it became the stuff of high-school legend one day when that friend offered me a ride home from school, and I was walking with another friend who was kind of an endearingly arrogant guy, and he assumed the invitation extended to him, and the car-driving friend informed him that no it did not. And he said, “Aw, come on, you know Misery loves company!”

She gave him a ride. πŸ™‚

It’s true, too; I do love company.

I get a lot of letters addressed to Mrs. Wiley. Once, at a conference where I was a speaker, the organizers gave Scott a nametag too: “Scott Wiley.” That made us laugh and laugh. Sometimes if he forgets to do something and I ask him about it, he says, “Go ask Mr. Wiley.”

Most of my friends’ children call me Mrs. Peterson. I am still young enough, at age 39 and coming up on 14 years of marriage, that it feels funny to be called that. In Virginia most kids called me “Miss Lissa,” and Scott was “Mister Scott,” which cracked me up and generated a lot of Star Trek jokes on my part. Alice‘s kids call me Lissa and mine call her Alice.

Here in San Diego, people startle when they hear that my husband’s name is Scott Peterson. That name will forever be linked to the wife-and-baby murderer, here and in lots of other places. But my Scott Peterson’s name was in print long before that guy started making headlines. There’s a Scott Peterson who writes books about Rwanda, too, and one who works in film production at Warner Brothers. If you see his name in movie credits, that’s not my guy. (Although his name does come up on a computer screen in the Batcave in the first Batman animated movie, and that’s a reference to my Scott.) If it’s in a comic book, that’s my beloved Mr. Wiley.

Wiley was the first name of my great-great-great-great- I-can’t-remember-if-it’s-four-or-five-greats-grandfather, Wiley Tyler, who died in a Confederate prison camp. He was an Alabaman himself, and there’s a big story there, but I’m saving it for a novel. When HarperCollins, at the insistence of the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate, asked me to choose a pen name beginning with W so booksellers wouldn’t be so confused about where to shelve my Little House books (Roger MacBride’s Rose books gave them fitsβ€”shelve them with Laura’s books because they’re sequels? or shelve them under M for MacBride?), I chose Wiley in honor of my fine old ancestor, so that my pen name would be a family name too.

Although I quite liked Alice’s suggestion at the time that I choose “Willard” as an homage to Betsy’s sweetheart, Joe Willard, from the Betsy-Tacy books.

I once published a poem (and won a literary award for it) under my maiden name, Melissa Brannon. I’ve published lots of things under my married name, Melissa Peterson. Scott and I collaborated on a beginning reader science book about ants once, and we used our middle names as a psuedonym: Anne James.

There you go, more than you ever wanted to know about my name. My names. All of ’em.

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20 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Christine M says:

    I love your story about all your names. My middle name is also Anne with an E. You bet that E is important!

  2. Dixie says:

    I enjoyed reading about all your names. Our daughter’s name is Julissa Anne and she is affectionately called Lissa or Lissa Anne.


  3. patience says:

    What a great post! You certainly give me heart as I often feel guilty for calling my own daughter different nicknames (and seldom her real name). Nice to know someone could have that experience and still grow up self-confident, lol!

    And thank you for clearing up the Wiley question. I’d always assumed it was a publisher’s trick for promoting the books by keeping them next to Laura’s on the shelf.

    So will you reprint your award winning poem for us? If I sprinkle my “please” with candy?

  4. Jennifer says:

    How funny – I was just wondering the other day why “Wiley”. Interesting post! And funny of course, I told you about the time my sister quizzed me quite seriously when I received the package from a Scott Peterson in California. I think she assumed I was having some sort of long distance / prison romances. Because I’m the type, apparently. ?

  5. Beck says:

    I want a pen name. I don’t know what I’d choose, but my actual name lacks gravitas.
    I was “Becky” – speaking of lacking gravitas – for my whole childhood and since I’ve moved back to my hometown, I’ve become Becky again, which is both horrifying and endearing.

  6. Maria says:

    Very interesting! I loved your explanations and on a much, much smaller note i have been thinking about all the “names” I go by on various forums and what they mean to me and why?

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Jenn, that story cracks me up.

    Patience, depends what kind of candy we’re talking! πŸ˜‰

    Beck, LOL!

    Re Wiley: I ought to have said (and might add above) that Harper’s requirement that I use a W name came at the insistence of the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate, whose representatives, of course, had final say-so on all matters involving the books. Roger’s books caused so much bookseller confusion that when the Caroline books were underway, Roger himself, who was still alive at the time, was involved with the decision to ask the author of those books to use a pen name. The booksellers were relieved. When my editor at Harper offered me the Martha books, after telling me all about what they wanted me to do (so exciting!) she said, “There’s just one thing, and I really hope it’s not a dealbreaker. You can’t publish under Peterson…”

    Being able to pick a name from my family tree helped it feel more like mine. By now ‘Melissa Wiley’ has become such a part of me, of my family’s life (because for me writing these books has been inextricably intertwined with my own family life), that it feels like a ‘real’ name, an authentic part of who I am.

  8. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ooh, Maria, online handles: such an interesting topic. My yahoogroups username is glencaraid (after the fictional valley/estate in my Martha books). In recent years I have taken to using bonnyglen. I think that’s what I am on Flickr.

  9. patience says:

    Internet names is an interesting topic. My real name isn’t Patience, as most people would hopefully guess, but my middle name. I use it because my real name is so identifying. I have a couple of other names I use at different online places and find myself getting very confused at times as to which name I use with which people. Not to mention having to give up with certain meez accounts and photo albums because I can’t remember what user name I gave!

    As for pen names, well trying to come up with the perfect one is such a great way to divert oneself from actually writing.

  10. Kim says:

    My boyfriend’s mother’s name is Lyssa, pronounced as the second half of Melissa. But it’s not short for it, and nor is it pronounced Lisa. She’s very finical about that. That and the fact that her last name is Andersson, with two “s”‘s, gotta remember the second one! πŸ™‚ I like your name story!

  11. christie says:

    So when will your next book be under Wiley or Peterson?

    Christie (whose parents still call her Chris and who laughs when her in-laws refer to her husband as Eddy)

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    Wiley. Wiley is who I am as a writer now. My “Melissa Peterson” books were mostly before I began Martha and Charlotte, and a few commercial, mass-market projects I took on as bill-payers during the early years of writing Little House. I was very glad to retire from that kind of work (though I’m glad to have written Hanna’s Christmas, and the Carmen Sandiego books were loads of fun). Martha and Charlotte are the books I poured my whole self into, not just in terms of immersing in the research (which was a considerable commitment), but also (and more so) in terms of connecting with the characters, working deeply to tell a layered, authentic story about real people, people I came to love dearly. They are my girls, those two. πŸ™‚ I will publish under the name Wiley to keep them in the family, in a manner of speaking.

  13. KC says:

    Great post! I’ve often wondered if I’ve been pronouncing your name correctly–I have. My whole life I’ve had people mispronounce my name and then in college I took on KC as my name. It seems that didn’t solve the confusion because most people would rather pronounce it as Casey and not KC (it’s a very slight difference) and it only makes a difference at Starbucks when they always misspell it on the cup. πŸ˜‰

  14. Amy C. says:

    Ahhh, names. As we await the arrival of our fourth child, this is a near and dear topic. We’re considering the name Alice if we have a girl, and I’ve always thought that Lissa was a sweet diminutive of Alice. So it’s funny to me that you’re such friends with an Alice . . . I’ve always linked the two names.
    Each of my three girls shares a name with at least one queen, first lady, literary figure, and hippie song. I don’t know if we can keep up the streak with #4. πŸ™‚

  15. Nancy Paulsen says:

    Hi Lissa,

    Somewhat peripherally about names: I think Henry Quiner’s middle name was Newcomb, not Newton, based on the land purchase document and what I found at this cool educational website: http://www.mysticseaport.org At that site, if you click on online collections and then select Protection Certificates, you can search by surname. There are several each of Quiner, Newcomb, and Wallis, all from the coastal MA area near Boston. Protection Certificates were issued by the new American govt to protect American seamen from impressment by the British.

    I saw “Lissa Peterson” on the acknowledgments of the Caroline book that my 7yr old son and I are reading at bedtime and wondered if that might be you. Now I know. What and when will your next book be?


  16. Laurie says:

    Hi Lissa,
    Thanks for sharing your story.
    Growing up my mother always called me Missy.
    When I was in trouble it was my first and middle name Catherine!
    I don’t know when Missy ended, if it has, I haven’t noticed, but it seems less now that I’m married w/ kids.
    I think it came from my cousin, a year older, named Melissa, who is still only known by Missy.
    See you soon.

  17. Mama Squirrel says:

    About Scott being called Mr. Wiley: I once went to a writer’s conference where Elisabeth Elliot was the speaker. She was there with her third husband Lars Gren, and she said he got called “Mr. Elliot” all the time.

  18. Silvia says:

    Thanks for all the info! I’ve always wondered. πŸ™‚ And I assumed Wiley was your maiden name that you used for your books. So now I know, and I also remember your tisell email address, so that clears that up for me also. Who knew?

  19. Lisa T. says:

    I’ve had the flu since Palm Sunday and am just starting to catch up with my blog reading, so this comment is coming way after the fact, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post, Lissa. I’ve always loved names and their stories, so it was definitely not too much information for me!

  20. Lissa says:

    I found this post while googling myself! I’m also Lissa Peterson. Peterson is my married name and Lissa is short for Melissa. I’ve always thought it was too unusual of a name for there to be many of us in the world. Oh, well. People are always pronouncing it “Lisa” which drives me crazy!