why a pen name?

Justin Scott at home
Photo: Thomas McDonald for The Boston Globe

When I first started writing, pen names were used so a writer wouldn’t seem too prolific. Speed was equated with hack work. Young and energetic, I turned out four novels my first year. The first was not literate. The second, barely, but attracted a literary agent who sold the third. When I handed him the fourth, he explained that one hardcover novel a year was considered a proper, stately pace.

Did I have to wait a whole year to publish another book?

With a cold chuckle for such naivety, he explained that all we needed was another publisher. He asked me my middle name and thus was born my first pen name, J.S. Blazer. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then the Mystery Writers of America nominated both Justin Scott’s first mystery, Many Happy Returns, and J.S. Blazer’s first mystery, Deal Me Out, for Best First Mystery Novel and we had to take them quietly aside and explain that one person couldn’t have written two Best First Novels, which proved easier than explaining it to the other publisher.

Several books later, I was home typing when my friend Larry Block walked into our agent’s office and heard him discussing an auction of a book called Pendragon. “The Pendragon Auction, sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel,” said Larry. “No,” said Henry, who represented Mr. Ludlum. “It sounds more like a paperback original title. If I could convince Justin Scott to write it I could sell it for more money than he is accustomed to.”

He did, but demanded that I publish it under a pen name because the only thing worse than writing too fast was writing paperback originals if you had already cracked the hardcover market. I chose my own pen name, this time, a play on one of my father’s many pen names, thus was born Alexander Cole.

Alexander Cole eventually publishedThe Pendragon Auction under the title, The Auction. Justin Scott give it a glowing blurb quote, which was featured prominently on the front jacket. Years later, Justin Scott revised Alexander Cole’s manuscript for his British publishers who issued it under the name Justin Scott. So in the end, the Pendragon Auction, a slim paperback original by Alexander Cole became The Auction, a large hardcover thriller by Justin Scott. (When Cole offered a blurb quote, the British publisher sent him packing.)

Before, during and after all that, Justin Scott broke out of mysteries and started writing big thrillers and sea stories, which required a lot of research and a year or more to complete, so my days of speed writing were over, as were my rare forays into the verboten world of paperback originals. For many books, I was Justin Scott, author of thrillers and sea stories.

Then I started the Ben Abbott mystery series. My agent demanded I do them under a pen name so as not to sully my thriller name with a mystery reputation. Nothing wrong with mysteries (most are actually more literate than most thrillers), but thrillers generally sold many more copies than mysteries and earned the author (and agent) more money. But when he read the first Ben Abbott, HardScape, Henry enjoyed it so much that he decided it was more likely to improve than wreck my reputation. So Justin Scott began the Ben Abbott series about a small town Connecticut real estate agent and private investigator.

After I established Ben Abbott, I got a yen to write a new thriller, a sea story, called Fire And Ice. “What do you think about a pen name?” Henry asked. (Actually, he didn’t have the nerve to ask straight out, but put our foreign rights agent, Danny, up to it.) “Why?” I asked. “I’m not writing too fast. And Fire And Ice is not a paperback original.”

Because now you are known as a mystery writer, again, and the publishers and Hollywood will treat you (and pay you) like a mystery writer. But the main reason is that the world has changed. Publishing is facing hard times. All the conglomerates that kept them afloat with borrowed money for so many years are beating on the door demanding their profits. Terror and fear of failure stalk their halls. Your new thriller’s best shot at enthusiastic publication will come if you agree to start over as a new, unknown writer who is not in the computer of any publisher who was ever disappointed by any of your names.”


Thus was born Paul Garrison, a first-time novelist who had never written a mystery, never written a paperback original, and had never, ever disappointed anyone.

Trade craft was required to pull this one off. The new guy had to be able to hold the copyright if we managed to sell the book to Hollywood. Henry led me to a narrow Midtown Manhattan street. We climbed a narrow staircase that led to a dusty office lit grayly by one narrow window where a copyright lawyer asked me how old I wanted to be. It seemed that the Library of Congress needed a birthday for Paul Garrison’s copyright. Shamelessly, Paul Garrison bounded down that narrow stair ten years younger than Justin Scott had plodded up it.

But it never occurred to me that Fire And Ice would do so well that I would write four more giant sea stories under Paul Garrison’s name. Or that my own name would vanish from the halls of publishing because I was too busy to write any more Ben Abbott mysteries. (Small talk among old acquaintances began to touch upon the question of my death. Those I occasionally bumped into at a party would exclaim their glass was empty and flee to the bar, afraid to ask where my career had gone.) For it had not occurred to me that unlike my earlier pen names, Paul Garrison would have to be a secret pen name. But, having swung a movie deal with a famously litigious producer, we did not want Hollywood lawyers blaming their failure to complete a picture on my author name change.

Cold, wet and lonely after writing five Paul Garrison sea stories in a row, I moved my desk inland, next to a cosy Connecticut fire, and wrote a new Ben Abbott mystery, McMansion. When the publisher sent the McMansion page proofs, I paused at the “Also-by-the-author” page with its list of mysteries and thrillers by Justin Scott and J.S. Blazer. Suddenly, I missed Paul very much.

I wanted everyone on this page, especially Paul. Enough pen names. Enough secrets. We’re all in this together. Then the darnedest thing happened. As soon as I added Paul Garrison to Justin’s Also-by-the-author page, Paul invited Justin Scott to join his website. Welcome to our website.

Justin Scott

Paul Garrison

J.S. Blazer

Alexander Cole