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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Interview with Phillip Margolin Author of Supreme Justice


Visit Phillip Margolin's Official Website Here


Phillip Margolin is an ex-criminal defense attorney from the New York School of Law. He has had nearly a quarter century of experience working as defense attorney in Portland, Oregon and has all sorts of criminal cases appear 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. He was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women's Syndrome to defend a abused woman. Two of his books and a short story have been made into movies.

He is the author of Supreme Justice (Read FBC's review here) and Executive Privilege, along with a dozen other novels and short stories. All of his novels have been New York Times Best Sellers.

Fantasy Book Critic's Mihir Wanchoo was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Phillip Margolin.

A big thank you goes out to Phillip Margolin for taking the time to answer our questions.

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You debuted in 1978 with the publication of Heartstone. It’s been nearly 22 years since then. How do you view this journey from the debut up until now?

The journey has been bizarre, unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable. I wrote my first novel, Heartstone in 1978 and had some minor success when it was nominated for an Edgar Award. My second book, The Last Innocent Man was published in 1981, but I didn’t publish my third for 12 years. In between I did have a movie made of The Last Innocent Man and got a chance to be in it, so that was very exciting. When I finished writing my third book, Gone, But Not Forgotten I had very modest expectations. I was just hoping that my agent could find a publisher for it. The next thing I knew it was an international bestseller and it had been on the New York Times Bestseller List for 10 weeks, getting as high as number 3. All of a sudden I was a bestselling author. Since then every one of my books has been a New York Times bestseller, including my first two when they were reissued as a paperback. I never thought that I would get published, let alone have the type of success I have had with 14 bestselling novels.

What point of time during your professional career did you decide to become a writer? What made you choose to write in the thriller/mystery genre?

I decided to become a professional writer when my third book became a bestseller. Before then, writing had just simply been a hobby. My main interest in life had always been being a criminal defense lawyer and I was very happy doing that. The choice of thriller/mystery genre partially came from the type of books that I like to read and have been reading since I was in elementary school – Perry Mason mysteries, Ellery Queen mysteries. Also I was a criminal defense lawyer for 25 years, so they say write what you know and I handled 30 homicide cases, including several death penalty cases and argued in front of the Supreme Court so I have a wealth of background that helps me make my books believable.

All your stories have been set in Portland, Oregon, is there a particular reason for it to be so. What is particularly fascinating about this city?

The city in my personal opinion is the best place in the United States to live. It is beautiful, it is sophisticated, it is really easy to get around; so why not set my books in the city. Also, by setting it in my hometown, I don’t have to do a lot of research, I can just look outside the window if I want to set a scene.

Supreme Justice will be releasing this month and it features the same cast as Executive Privilege. What made you take this step as previously the only sequels you had done were the Amanda Jaffe series. Can this book be read as a stand alone or should the readers acquaint themselves with Executive Privilege first?

I did a sequel to Executive Privilege, which was intended to be a stand alone, because I loved the characters and it made sense to follow Brad to the U.S. Supreme Court which is where Supreme Justice is set. Also I had never written a sequel. The Amanda/Frank Jaffe novels feature the same characters, but they don’t necessarily go in order and they can be read alone. Supreme Justice can be read without reading Executive Privilege, but it will be more fun for the reader to read Executive Privilege first because it gives a little bit more background about what happened to the characters before Supreme Justice starts. Supreme Justice starts roughly six months after Executive Privilege ends.

To any reader who hasn’t read one of your books, what would you say to them to give one of your books a try?

I love to read thrillers and mysteries and love to get fooled, I like books where there are twists and turns and surprises. I try to keep my books moving at 100 miles per hour from start to finish and the books are loaded with surprises. They all have surprise endings that hopefully fool the reader, so the readers have the fun of trying to figure out whodunit. But in addition to that I try to put into the books moral and ethical problems for my main characters and I think it’s fun for my readers to try to figure out what they would do if they were an attorney faced with this moral dilemma. So the books combine non-stop action, credible characters, lots of twists and turns, a surprise ending and then the added bonus of the ethical and moral dilemmas that I give to my characters.

Who are your favorite characters from your books and why?

My favorite heroine is Betsy Tannenbaum from Gone, But Not Forgotten because she is modeled after my wife who passed away in 2007. When I was writing the book I had never written a book with a main character who was a female and it made me really nervous because I wasn’t sure I could write a convincing female character that would carry an entire book. So I thought to myself, who is the toughest guy you know. Betsy’s a lawyer and my wife was an attorney and very attractive and very smart so I thought I’ll just imagine Doreen in every scene that Betsy is in and just try to write the scene the way I think she would react if she was in it. I think about Doreen whenever I reread the book and Betsy is a pretty compelling, pretty strong female character.

I also like Amanda and Frank Jaffe from the Jaffe novels. It’s fun to write about a father/daughter criminal defense team. My favorite bad guy has got to be Martin Darius from Gone, But Not Forgotten. He is a very, very creepy, scary character and I have a little bit of affection for Martin Breach too, the psychopathic crime lord who appears occasionally in the Jaffe books. I shouldn’t leave out Dana Cutler and Brad Miller who are in Executive Privilege and Supreme Justice. Dana is tough as nails, a former policewoman, she is very comfortable with a gun. She can be very violent and she is very bright, very smart. Brad Miller is sort of the opposite. He is an average joe who keeps on getting thrust into these national cases involving Presidents who might be serial killers and assassination attempts on Supreme Court Justices so he is totally unfit to deal with action situations. Dana is the flip side she is sort of an action junky.

What are your influences—in thrillers, in mystery and in the so-called mainstream literature – and who are the authors that have influenced you the most?

I actually don’t have any influences per se. I write my own style and I never try to imitate anyone. But I did grow up with Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books. That was my inspiration to go to law school and practice criminal law. The influence that Ellery Queen had on me and later Ross McDonald is that they had books that had clues in them and if you could figure out the clues, you can solve the mystery. Not all of my books can be solved with clues, but many of them do have a clue seeded somewhere in the book that would help you figure out who actually did it. So I guess in thrillers and mysteries I’d say Ellery Queen and Earl Stanley Gardner, the Perry Mason and Ellery Queen mysteries which I started reading in elementary school.
Among your books, The Last Innocent Man and Gone, But Not Forgotten were made into an HBO film and TV series respectively. What was your involvement in both the projects and also your thoughts on Angie’s Delight which was made into a short film?

With Angie’s Delight, I thought they did a great job. It’s on my website you can actually see it. I’ve only written four short stories. I have a hard time writing them and I thought they did a terrific job turning the short story into a little film. I had no involvement whatsoever in Gone, But Not Forgotten. I think it’s a pretty good movie. I give it a B+. There are some things I would have changed or done a little different, but basically I thought they did a very strong job with it, but I really had no involvement. The Last Innocent Man I had a lot of involvement. I was in it. I had two lines. I was the jury foreman in the big murder case. I was consulted on the trial scenes and anything to do with the lawyer. I got to take Ed Harris, the star, over to my law office and talk to him a little bit about what defense lawyers do. So it was a wonderful experience. The producer let me listen to the sound equipment. I was involved with some story conferences. I got a chance to see Dailies. I was always welcome on the set even when they weren’t filming something I was in. So I would say The Last Innocent Man, and Ron Silverman, the producer and Ed Harris, the cast were very nice to me, Roger Spottiswoode, the director was great. That was just a fabulous experience.

Your first book was published in 1978, the second one in 1981 and the third one in 1993. However after 1993 you have written books every 1-2 years. What was the reason for such vast periods between each of the earlier three books and a visible difference in the latter period.

I always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer not a writer. I never thought I could be a writer and Heartstone was published by sort of a fluke and then The Last Innocent Man was published. I was very young, I was in my mid-30’s and the same year in 1978 when Heartstone was published I argued in the United States Supreme Court and in between the publication of my first and second book I started doing major murder cases, I was the first lawyer to use the battered woman’s syndrome to defend a battered wife who killed an abusive spouse. I represented one of the lead defendants in the largest federal drug conspiracy case in Oregon history. So in between the publication of Heartstone and The Last Innocent Man I started doing all of the things that I’d always wanted to do since I started reading those Perry Mason novels. So I just put the writing on the back burner and concentrated on my first love which was the law. Then in 1991 I got an idea at a dinner party for my third book and much to my shock it became an international bestseller. By that time I’d been practicing for 25 years and decided to see what a change in career would be like and started writing full-time in 1996.

You have once stated that “you never start writing until I have figured out who the bad guy is and how the bad guy is caught.” How do you go about the story details with your intricately plotted novels then and could you tell us more about your writing style and daily schedule?

I kept my law office and I come down to my law office at 7:30 in the morning. I’m not practicing anymore. I haven’t practiced since 1996. I get to my office at about 7:30, I do the crossword in the New York Times, get a Grande non-fat caramel latte at the Nordstrom coffee bar, check my emails and then get to work. I usually work until about 10:30 or 11:00 and then workout a couple of times a week and then come back in the afternoon and do some more work on either that or some of the non-profits that I’m involved with. The first thing I do is when I’m plotting out a book is think for as much as it takes me to get some general idea of the plot and characters in my head, but that can be quite a long time. Executive Privilege, I got the idea in 1995, but didn’t start writing until 2005 when I’d figured out the ending. Fugitive, my most recent book before Supreme Justice, I started doing drafts of that in the 1980’s. I didn’t like them, put them away and then came back to them much later. I liked the idea, but the execution back then was pretty bad. So it will sometimes take me many, many years between getting the idea and starting to write. I won’t start to write until I get the ending. I think the ending where you tie up everything is the most important part of a book. Then I do a very extensive outline. My outlines are between 25 and 60 pages and they usually take me a month to three months to write. Once I’ve got the outline written everything is pretty easy, I just take each paragraph and turn it into a chapter and then spend months and months and months rewriting for quality.

The Amanda Jaffe series has a great protagonist but what makes the book even more enticing for me are the side characters that are present in each book, especially the sociopath Martin Breach who has a thing for garish clothes. It is particularly fascinating reading about him. How did the character of Martin Breach develop? How about other side characters? Are these characters influenced by real-life incidents?

With the exception of my wife Doreen who was the inspiration for Betsy Tannenbaum, the characters come out of my sick imagination. I’ll just get the idea for the book and then I’ll start thinking who would be the characters that would work well here. And as I’m thinking about the book more and more and spending all day long on the outline and the plots, characters just sort of pop into my head. So some of my characters look like real people, but their actual characteristics are just stuff that I makeup as I go along.

In The Associate, the main character Daniel Ames was an amalgamation of the names of your children Daniel and Ami? Are there any other characters that you have modeled (loosely or otherwise) upon real-life family or friends?

As I said before, the only one is Betsy Tannenbaum in Gone, But Not Forgotten, who is modeled after my late wife Doreen.

One of my favorite authors, David Gemmell had an interesting take on some of his characters “When authors talk of great characters, what they really mean is easy. Some characters are tough to write. The author has to constantly stop and work out what they will say or do. With the great characters, this problem disappears. Their dialogue flows instantly, their actions likewise. A friend of mine calls them Rick’s Bar characters, from the film Casablanca. Some characters you have to build, like a sculptor carving them from rock. Others just walk out of Rick’s bar fully formed and needing no work at all.” Do you have any such characters that fit the description of Rick’s bar characters as given by David Gemmell?

The question is whether I have any characters that are easy to write. I don’t know how to answer that question because the characters in my books are developed as I write the book. I’m not a character driven writer. I’m a plot driven writer. So as I go through the book I keep on building the characters. They are neither easy nor hard they are just whoever I invent to fill in the spaces where characters are needed in the plot.

On your website you have a section wherein you give your picks in books and movies so which movies have recently impressed you the most? What are you currently reading? What titles and movies are you most looking forward to?

I just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel which won the Booker Prize and I think the New York Book Critics. I thought it was fabulous. It’s about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII’s attempts to get rid of his wife Katherine who is the Queen of England so that he could make Anne Boleyn his Queen. It’s beautifully written. I found the story really moved. I don’t know a lot about English history so for me a lot of this stuff was pretty new. I saw “The Ghost Writer” recently. I thought that was very good, the new Roman Polanski thriller and I’ve read the book and I thought they did a very good job with the movie.

Have you decided on what you are going to write next and if yes then what could you reveal about your next book at this point?

I’m thinking about working on a sequel to Supreme Justice to complete the Washington D.C. trilogy. Executive Privilege has to do with the executive branch. The question is is the President of the United States a serial killer. At the end of the book Brad gets a job as a Clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Justice is set there. I need to set a book in the Senate to complete the trilogy.

This is a question most writers dislike to answer, but fans are ever more curious to know, you have often given examples of multiple ideas collating into a single plot (e.g. The Associate) or your previous courtroom experiences (e.g. The Burning Man) so could you elaborate on where you get your inspiration for your books?

I give talks on that. The inspiration comes from all over. Heartstone and The Burning Man are both based on real cases. The Burning Man is based on a murder case that I actually tried in the mid-80’s. It is heavily fictionalized as is Heartstone. That is based on a case I was not involved in, but it is a famous Oregon case that I fictionalized. Gone, But Not Forgotten, The Last Innocent Man and some of the other books are based on moral or ethical dilemmas that criminal defense lawyers face. For instance, everyone always asks me how I can represent somebody if I know they are guilty and I used the novel The Last Innocent Man to discuss that issue. Sometimes the inspiration just comes out of thin air. I was walking down the street in Seattle during a book tour when the phrase “the courthouse athletic club” popped into my head and I thought wow that would be a pretty cool title for a book and so I spent a couple of years trying to figure out what a book with that title would be like and it ended up being about a conspiracy between courthouse figures, judges, lawyers and police officers who were involved in a criminal conspiracy. That’s one of the Amanda Jaffe books.

You are also the President and Chairman of the Board of Chess for Success, could you elucidate about your role and your thoughts on chess and the unique role your organization plays in bringing children and chess together?

I’d love to answer that question because my real passion is the Chess for Success program in Portland, Oregon. We are now in 87 Title I elementary schools in 17 school districts in the State of Oregon and we have one or two schools over in Washington so we are in two states now. This program is incredibly successful. We got an award from Portland Monthly as the non-profit that does the most with the least. The reason for that is that the U.S. Congress funded a two year study of our program that was conducted by the Northwest Regional Education Lab, a very well-respected educational testing group and they concluded that 93% of our students who are in the poorest schools and are not supposed to be achieving like this, met or exceeded the math standards compared to 88.6% of children who are in the school, but were not in the program. 91% of our kids met or exceeded the reading standards compared to about 86%. Both of these are statistically significant differences. But what makes the program so unique is that it only costs $75 per child per year. Nationally the average cost of an after school program for one child is $1,000 ours is $75 and that is intentional. We developed a system that really enables us to help these kids academically for very little money and the program doesn’t cost anything to any of these kids. We bear all the cost of this program. What we do is we pay a school teacher at the school to run an after school chess club twice a week. Most of our teachers don’t know a lot about chess so we have lesson plans and in-service training to bring them up to speed. It’s not a chess program. It’s an educational program that uses chess to trick kids into learning study skills. If you play chess properly, you sit with your feet on the floor, you can’t be talking and moving around, you have to focus unemotionally and objectively on the problem on the board which is what move to make next. After a certain number of moves in a game of chess the actual possibilities are astronomical. Now, in real life there are usually only a few possibilities that make sense, but with a lot of kid games like Candy Land or something like that you spin the dial or you throw some dice and you don’t have to think about how many moves to make or where to move. With the game of chess there may be several very viable moves that aren’t necessarily exciting. The benefits may not come until several moves down the line. The child has to sit quietly and think and can’t rush the answer and then he has to recheck his conclusion once he decides what the right move is. Now this is what an elementary school student has to do to read a book with comprehension, solve math problems, take a test successfully, anything that you encounter in school or life that involves problem-solving your chance of getting the right answer goes way up if you sit quietly with your feet on the floor, focus all of your attention on the problem and slowly and methodically go through all of the possibilities. So basically what we are doing is we are using the game of chess to trick kids into learning these very valuable study skills that translate into the classroom.

Thank you very much for your time, in the end the readers would like to know your thoughts on your growth as a writer? What still challenges you? And lastly, what would you like to accomplish as a writer?

I’m totally self-taught. I had one writing class when I was in college. I got a C+ in that. I just started writing because I could never figure out how a person could write 400 pages of anything. So, I basically have been learning on the job. If I didn’t have a lot of terrific, strong editors, my books probably would never have gotten published because I didn’t know what I was doing. And over the years slowly, but surely I started to learn my craft and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun, I love doing it. Writing for me is like the biggest joy in the world. I would like to be a competent writer eventually. I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing at times. When I was asked to write the sequel to Executive Privilege, I’d never written a sequel before and this is an example. There are three main characters in Executive Privilege. I thought if each one of them was in the book for 60 pages they’d have to be in 60 pages in the sequel. My agent said no, no, no, you can have new characters, you can have some of the people from the first book who aren’t in as much and I said oh, I didn’t know that. It sounds pretty stupid but like I say I didn’t have any formal training and so I’m still learning as I go. One day I would like to feel like okay I got through the whole book and I sort of know what I’m doing so that’s my goal and the other thing is to just keep on writing. I love writing. It is just so much fun. I would like to keep thinking up really neat story ideas that people love to read and just keep on going. There’s no reason to stop while I can still do it.


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