In August 2011 – shortly after the publication of my third novel Fast genial – a Sunday newspaper wrote that I was born with the name Benedict von Schirach and was the brother of the philosopher Ariadne von Schirach and the nephew of the writer Ferdinand von Schirach. That is only partly correct; he is actually my cousin. The article also said I had changed my surname. That is correct.
My German grandfather Baldur von Schirach was the Gauleiter of Vienna and the Reich youth leader. He died ten years before I was born. His words make me angry and fill me with shame; I condemn his horrific deeds with all that I am. I did not want to bear the name of a person who committed such crimes and showed no remorse I consider worthy of the term. And I did not want to be judged by what my ancestors did but only as my own person, and show that I stand for something else. So I did something that seemed stronger to me than words.
After leaving school, I went to the registry office and had my name changed. That means ‘Wells’ is neither a pen name nor a pseudonym; it is my official surname. I went on to publish my books under that name, I pay my taxes under it, and if I have children one day, they will also be called Wells – provided my future wife agrees. My family has been very supportive of this decision, including my parents, my sister Ariadne and my cousin Ferdinand. My chosen name is an homage to John Irving, who inspired me to write, and his character Homer Wells from the novel The Cider House Rules.
After my birth name was made public I was asked for numerous interviews on the subject. I declined them all, wanting to remain independent as a writer. I’m very grateful that most reviews and articles refrain from mentioning my family or the writers among my relatives, and respect my wish for autonomy. However, having been asked about it a number of times abroad after my last novel was translated into various languages, I have realized I’d like to make my motivations clear in a short statement.
Changing my name is merely the tip of the iceberg, merely the visible element of my lifelong confrontation with this subject. To this day, that confrontation is one of anger and grief, and above all of questions. But there are also answers, and first and foremost the constant endeavour to put oneself in another person’s shoes, and a deep sense that we human individuals – no matter where we are from, no matter what faith we might have – are unique and yet all the same. That is what is found in many of my stories. And that is what I stand for.
Benedict Wells, October 2017