Author and former criminal defense attorney Phillip Margolin will speak in Central Oregon. This is a piece that appeared today (September 1, 2009) in The Bulletin by David Jasper. It is an interview with Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1966-68) one of the more successful RPCV writers.
“Good afternoon, law offices,” says a receptionist for author Phillip Margolin, focus of Deschutes Public Library’s Celebrate Oregon Author series for the month of September. The Portland-based writer of 14 best-sellers may have stepped away from a 25-year career as an attorney back in 1996, but that didn’t mean he was going to surrender his office.
“I just kept my old office,” says Margolin, 65. “I like having a place to come … to. For me, it’s nicer to have an office. There’s just a lot of stuff I do downtown. I work out downtown … take coffee breaks and snacks and lunch.”
He’ll break from his work routine to read Sept. 18 in Bend and Sept. 19 in Sisters, and local theater group Buckboard Productions will also host a Mystery Theater production based on his popular tales of intrigue during the month.
Margolin says he knew since seventh grade that he wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer.
“That was really the only thing I was interested in,” he says. It probably has a lot to do with reading a lot of Perry Mason books.
“I was a voracious reader from elementary school on, and I was just in awe of writers, (but) it never entered my head that I would ever be able to write a book or any fiction that would be published.”
After college at American University, he volunteered with the Peace Corps and spent two years in Liberia. When he returned, he went to New York University’s School of Law, where he graduated in 1970.
“I worked my way through law school my last two years by teaching junior high in the South Bronx,” he says. “I was really busy, with full-time teaching and a pretty heavy load at night in law.”
However, by his last semester in law school, his wife was working, and he’d already lined up a job.
“I just had to take a few courses; I didn’t have to do very well in them,” he explains. “So I decided to try to write a novel in my spare time” just to figure out the process.
“I never had a chance to ask anybody how to do this stuff,” he says. “I was just totally self-taught.”
The novel, based on his Peace Corps experience, didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable as the process of writing it had been. So he tried writing another one “that was pretty awful.”
Margolin moved to Portland in 1972. When he was in his 30s, he landed a short story in a magazine.
His self-confidence up, Margolin decided to write a more serious book based on the Peyton-Allen murder in Portland in 1960.
“That was probably Oregon’s most famous murder case, and in my opinion, it’s the most amazing murder case in American history. I’ve (defended) 30 homicides myself and read some of the true-crime books and have never come across anything like it, period.”
He decided to fictionalize the case. When he had an outline and five chapters written, he happened to hear from an old law school friend who was coming to visit Portland – and happened to be a lawyer for International Creative Management, a major literary agency.
“I had no idea what you did with a book when it was finished,” he says, “and I asked him to show the five chapters to somebody at the agency” and assess whether Margolin should continue on that track.
“He took the five chapters back to New York and, without telling me, sold the book,” Margolin says. “I was in trial, when I came back to the office, everyone was sitting around with champagne. I said, ‘What happened?’
“They said, ‘Your agent called and he sold your book.’ And I didn’t even know I had an agent.”
And then Margolin stopped writing for 12 years.
“I’d always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer,” he explains. “The same year ‘Heartstone’ was published, I argued at the U.S. Supreme Court.” Along with defending major murder cases, he was the first Oregon lawyer to use the battered wife defense for a client accused of killing an abusive spouse, he says.
In 1991, he got into a discussion at a dinner party that led to an idea for a third book.
“I wrote this book in roughly six months and I had no expectations for it. All I wanted to do was see if my agent could sell a third book, so I’d have three books published,” he says. “And it was right when legal thrillers started to get popular, but before a lot of lawyers were writing them.”
Publishers were “willing to give their right arm for lawyers who had written a good, publishable book,” Margolin says. “They were specifically interested in criminal defense lawyers, and here I was a criminal defense lawyer with a finished manuscript.”
Margolin received a large advance and can rattle off some of the stats: More than a million copies sold. Number three on the New York Times Best-Sellers list. Published in 27 countries. A miniseries in 2004.
Since then, all of his books have been New York Times Best-Sellers. Even the original two, which had gone out of print but were reissued as paperbacks, were on the Times’ Best-Seller list six weeks each.
“It’s been a weird career,” he says. “It’s sort of strange. It’s not your typical writing career where a guy suffers.”
He would still be a practicing attorney, he says, but for one thing: book tours.
For the publication of “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” the DAs and judges were accommodating.
“But I realized you could do that one time,” Margolin says. “You can’t ask the judicial system to shut down because you’ve got to go sell some books in Denver.”
“I loved my practice. I basically wanted to always be a criminal defense lawyer, and never even thought about writing as a career. The writing thing just sort of fell on my head.” He decided to stop taking cases, and by 1996 he had no cases and could focus solely on writing.
He handled the pressure of being a criminal defense attorney well, he says, but “there’s no question that law is more stressful. Writing’s not stressful. It’s just all fun. The worst thing that happens to me is I have a crappy review.”
He still devours several books a week but says he sees his own writing process more like a puzzle to be solved than an artistic pursuit.
“I like puzzles. And so to me, a book is a puzzle. I’ve got all these ideas, and all these characters, and how do I mush them around, arrange them, so they’ll make a fun story.”
He loves book tours, but the traveling they require can be grueling.
That said, he’s looking forward to his September trip to Central Oregon, his first trip back to his second home in Black Butte Ranch since his wife died two years ago.
“It’s sort of tough to go out there,” he says. “I’m going to stay at the house. I haven’t really done that in quite awhile. I’m going to play golf. I haven’t played golf out there since this happened. It’s the first time doing a lot of this stuff in a long time.”
Margolin immersed himself in his work after his wife died, he says.
“Yeah, that was sort of helpful,” he says. “It was a distraction. I spent a long time working on a book, and it sort of helped out.”
The thrill of being a best-selling author hasn’t worn off for Margolin.
“I still am thrilled when someone asks me to autograph a book for him,” he says. “If people come out to hear me, I encourage them to ask questions they’re curious about. For me, that’s where the most fun is.”
Mystery Theater — Experience a mystery theater production based on the popular tales of intrigue by Phillip Margolin, presented by local theater company Buckboard Productions.
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, Redmond Public Library, 827 S.W. Deschutes Ave.
4:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18. Brooks Room, Bend Public Library, 601 N.W. Wall St.
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, Sisters Public Library, 110 N. Cedar St.
3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, Sunriver Area Public Library, 56855 Venture Lane
Phillip Margolin reads from his work. Books available for sale at both readings.
6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, Bend Public Library, 601 N.W. Wall St.
1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, Sisters Public Library, 110 N. Cedar St.
Noon, Monday, Sept. 21, Sunriver Area Public Library, 56855 Venture Lane
6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, Redmond Public Library, 827 S.W. Deschutes Ave. Contact: 541-312-1032 or www.dpls.us