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Authors auction right to name characters

King, Tan, Chabon and others to participate
/ Source: The Associated Press

It can take years of late-night navel gazing for a novelist to name a character — or it could come as quickly as an Internet auction on eBay.

Next month, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket, Nora Roberts, Michael Chabon and 11 other best-selling writers will auction the right to name characters in their new novels. The profits will go to the First Amendment Project, whose lawyers have repeatedly gone to court to protect the free speech rights of activists, writers and artists.

“It feels a little scary for most writers because when you’re writing, you’re completely in charge — you can say this book is all mine, it’s my world,” said Chabon. “Whether giving over some of that has any monetary value or not, we’ll see.”

But bidders beware — most of the authors are clearly retaining creative control to use the names as they see fit.

King says the highest bidder will get to name a character in a new zombie novel he describes as being “like cheap whisky ... very nasty and extremely satisfying.” Cult comic author Neil Gaiman will let his top buyer select the name for a gravestone. Andrew Sean Greer promises the winner may choose the name of a “coffee shop, bar, corset company or other business in another scene,” but only “should it suit the author.”

John Grisham is one of only a handful promising to portray the top bidder’s chosen name “in a good light.”

Brainchild of Neil GaimanOn Sept. 1, eBay Giving Works, the site’s dedicated program for charity listings, will go live with the electronic auction. For the next 25 days, anyone with an Internet connection can bid 24 hours a day to insert names into their favorite writers’ heads. The event’s organizers say they believe it will fetch well over the nonprofit First Amendment Project’s goal of $50,000.

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The benefit was the brainchild of Gaiman, who approached Chabon with the idea when he heard the group was running out of money. It will now constitute the single-largest fund-raising event for the First Amendment Project, whose legal staff will gratefully leverage the goodwill of authors willing to help keep its doors open. Other writers include Dave Eggers, Dorothy Allison, Peter Straub, ZZ Packer, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Ayelet Waldman, Andrew Sean Greer and Karen Joy Fowler.

“It’s nice when people say they want to raise money for you,” said David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project, which was founded in 1994. “Because it was brought to us by the writers, it was even more special.”

Greene said that money raised by the auction will go to support the organization’s pro bono work representing clients being sued over free speech, free press and freedom of expression. One such case, over whether a high school student’s angry poetry constituted a “criminal threat,” recently went before the California Supreme Court.

Board member Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” said his own work would be meaningless without the freedoms afforded under the First Amendment.

“I don’t think anything else can be hopeful or accomplished if you have the fear that you will get arrested or prosecuted or censored,” he said. “I saw a cry for help. So it was my goal to try to get writers whose work and whose name would be meaningful to the greatest number of people.”

Snicket, who will let the top bidder determine an utterance by Sunny Baudelaire in his upcoming 13th installment of his “Series of Unfortunate Events,” said he holds the First Amendment dear because “the only trouble I should get in for my writing is the trouble I make myself.”

His only caveat: The meaning of the utterance may be slightly “mutilated.”