Talking to Phillip Margolin
Among famous and successful RPCV writers no one has a wider readership and has been more financially successful than mystery writer Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1965-67) who came home from Africa to attend New York University School of Law, then found his way to Portland, Oregon where from 1972 to 1996 he was in private practice specializing in criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels. Since 1996, however, Margolin has been writing full-time. The majority of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. In addition to all this, his daughter grew up to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.
After turning this site’s spotlight on Phillip Margolin recently, I spoke to him about his career and his bestselling novels, how he writes, and why.
Phillip, tell us something about yourself.
Well, I grew up in New York City and Levittown, New York. I graduated from The American University in Washington, D.C. with a Bachelor’s Degree in Government in 1965. I went to Liberia with the Peace Corps that summer. When I came home I went to NYU Law School and graduated in ’70. During my last two years I attended classes at night and worked my way through law school by teaching junior high school in the South Bronx.
My first job after law school was a clerkship with Herbert M. Schwab, the Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. Then from 1972 until ’96, I was in private practice specializing in criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels in Oregon.
As an appellate attorney I have appeared before the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals.
As a trial attorney, I handled all sorts of criminal cases in state and federal court and I have represented approximately 30 people charged with homicide, including several who have faced the death penalty. I was also the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a battered woman accused of murdering her spouse.
Your first publication was a short story, right? Where was it published?
Yes, it was. “The Girl in the Yellow Bikini” a short story published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in May, 1976.
When did you start write?
I have been writing full time since 1996, but my first novel came out in 1978. Luck played a big part in my writing career. I only had one writing class, a C+ in Creative Writing my sophomore year in college. I started writing a novel in law school because I couldn’t figure out how anyone could fill up 400 pages with words. My first novel was awful, but I enjoyed the writing process so writing became a hobby.
In my thirties a magazine published a short story I’d written and I got the self-confidence to try a serious novel, but I had no idea what to do with it when I finished it because I’d never met anyone in publishing or anyone who had published a novel. I had five chapters and an outline written when Marty Bauer, a law school friend, called from New York to say that he and his wife wanted to visit Oregon on vacation. I told them they could stay at my house and I would show them the sights. When he landed I learned that he was a lawyer with the largest literary agency in the world. I told him I was writing a novel, but had no training and no idea if it was any good. I asked him if he would give my chapters to someone at his agency and have them tell me if it was worth continuing with the book or really awful. Marty took the first five chapters of Heartstone back to New York and sold it without asking me.
What’s Heartstone about?
It is a fictional version of the Peyton-Allen murder case, a famous Oregon case that spanned several decades and involved hypnosis, teenage gangs, amazing trials and fascinating forensic evidence.
How did you juggle your writing and law careers?
From 1978 and 1981 while I practiced law, I published two novels, Heartstone and The Last Innocent Man. In 1996, I stopped practicing law to write fulltime. Between 1978 and the present I have published nineteen novels, seventeen of which have been New York Times bestsellers. The most fun I had writing was publishing a middle grade novel, Vanishing Acts, which I co-wrote with my daughter, Ami Margolin Rome. Violent Crimes, my next novel, will be published by HarperCollins on February 9, 2016.
Tell us a little more about your novels.
I have been very lucky in that most of my novels have been bestsellers.
- Heartstone, my first novel, was nominated for an Edgar for best original paperback mystery of 1978 by the Mystery Writers of America.
- My second novel, The Last Innocent Man, was made into an HBO movie.
- Gone, But Not Forgotten has been sold to more than 25 foreign publishers and was made into a mini-series starring Brooke Shields. It was also the Main Selection of the Literary Guild.
- After Dark was a Book of the Month Club selection.
- The Burning Man, my fifth novel, published in August, 1996, was the Main Selection of the Literary Guild and a Reader’s Digest condensed book.
- My sixth novel, The Undertaker’s Widow, was published in 1998 and was a Book of the Month Club selection.
- Wild Justice (HarperCollins, September, 2000) was a Main Selection of the Literary Guild, a selection of the Book of the Month Club and was nominated for an Oregon Book Award.
- The Associate was published by HarperCollins in August, 2001 and
- Ties that Bind was published by HarperCollins in March, 2003.
- My tenth novel, Sleeping Beauty, was published by HarperCollins on March 23, 2004.
- Lost Lake was published by HarperCollins in March, 2005 and was nominated for an Oregon Book Award.
- Proof Positive was published by HarperCollins in July, 2006.
- Executive Privilege was published by HarperCollins in May, 2008 and in 2009 was awarded the Spotted Owl Award for the Best Northwest Mystery.
- Fugitive, was published by HarperCollins on June 2, 2009. Willamette Writers awarded me the 2009 Distinguished Northwest Writers Award.
- Supreme Justice, was published by HarperCollins in May, 2010.
- Capitol Murder was published by HarperCollins in April, 2012.
- Sleight of Hand was published by HarperCollins in April, 2013.
- Worthy Brown’s Daughter was published by HarperCollins in January, 2014.
- Woman with a Gun was published by HarperCollins in December, 2014.
- Violent Crimes will be published by HarperCollins on February 9, 2016.
Vanishing Acts, a young adult novel written by me and my daughter Ami Margolin Rome was published in October, 2011 by HarperCollins.
In addition to my novels, I have published short stories and non-fiction articles in magazines and law journals.
- My short story, “The Jailhouse Lawyer,” was selected for the anthology 1999, The Best American Mystery Stories.
- “The House on Pine Terrace,” was selected for the anthology 2010, The Best American Mystery Stories.
- “The Adventure of the Purloined Paget” written by me and my brother Jerry Margolin was published in A Study in Sherlock in October, 2011 by Random House.
Tell us a little about your Peace Corps tour?
I was in a special public administration project that was designed to provide middle management in Liberian government agencies. During my first year I was the Administrative Assistant to the Liberian Director of Foreign Trade. During my second year I worked in the National Planning Agency as a transport economist attached to the Harvard Advisory Group. Any RPCV will know that my titles were way more grandiose than the work I did, but they look great on a resume.
Have you been back to Liberia?
No. By the time I could afford to go it was in the grip of decades of revolution and civil war. Now it’s Ebola.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
Roughly a year and a half.
Getting an idea that is complete enough to fill a book is the hardest part for me. Once I have an ending and a rough idea of the plot and characters, I spend one to three months writing a lengthy outline. After that the rest is easy. I turn each paragraph in the outline into a chapter. That takes six to eight months. Then I spend months editing for quality before sending the book to my editor at HarperCollins, who beats me up until the manuscript is ready for publication.
What is Violent Crimes about?
In my fifth Amanda Jaffe novel, Amanda is defending a radical environmentalist who is seen running from the scene of his father’s murder covered in blood who then confesses to the murder. The father is a senior partner in a large law firm from which another partner was recently murdered. Although the case seems open and shut, Amanda thinks that something is not right.
How much research do you do? Or let me ask: what % of time is spent on research for any given novel?
Every book requires a different amount of research depending on the plot. Researching weird stuff is one of the things that makes writing so much fun.
Do you spend a lot of time on the language of your books? The individual sentence, etc.?
I constantly self-edit. Every day I edit my previous days work before starting new material.
What do you think is your strength as a novelist? For example, some novelists are great prose writers, others are strong on plot, or character development?
I am a decent writer and I try to create three-dimensional characters, but my plots are the best part of my books.
Do you draw on your experience for your novels, or research new situations?
Both. I write thrillers with lawyers and I used to try murder cases, but I always try to create unusual situations which often require research.
In your books what is most important . . . plot? . . . characters? . . . language? . . . atmosphere?
My books are all plot driven with a lot of twists and surprises.
What RPCV writers have you read and enjoy? (If any)
My two favorite writers from the Peace Corps would be Kinky Friedman and Paul Theroux.
What else fills up your time?
From 1996 to 2009 I was the President and Chairman of the Board of Chess for Success. I am still heavily involved in the program and I returned to the Board after a one year absence in 2010. Chess for Success is a non-profit charity that uses chess to teach elementary and middle school children in Title I schools study skills. From 2007 to 2013, I was on the Board of Literary Arts, which sponsors the Oregon Book Awards, The Writers in the Schools program and Portland Arts and Lectures.
Thanks, Phillip, for the interview and good luck with Violent Crimes.
You’re welcome, John.