Q & A with Philip Margolin
Elise Cooper: You seem to have two careers, as a criminal defense lawyer and a legal thriller writer. How did you decide on both?
Phillip Margolin: When I was twelve, after watching Perry Mason, I decided I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. Yet, I was also a voracious reader who loved writing. I was in awe of writers. Eventually, my last semester of law school, when I had some time, I started to write. My first short story was sold when I was in my thirties. A few years later, in the same year I had my first book published, I was given the privilege of arguing a case before the US Supreme Court. Because, in the 1970s, I was working on some important murder cases I decided to put my writing on the back burner and concentrate on my other passion, practicing law. From 1972 to 1996 I handled all sorts of criminal cases in state and federal court. I was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a woman accused of murdering her spouse. I took up writing again in the 1990’s and in 1993 I hit it big with my first best-selling novel, GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. I have been writing ever since.
EC: How did you come upon the idea for WORTHY BROWN’S DAUGHTER?
PM: About thirty years ago I read about this Oregon case from the 1840s, Holmes v. Ford. Colonel Nathaniel Ford brought a family of slaves from Missouri to Oregon. He promised Robin and Polly Holmes that he would free the family if they helped him with his farm. Ford ended up freeing the parents but kept several of the children. They found a white lawyer who took their case and in 1853 won a judgment from the Oregon Supreme Court that ordered Ford to return the children, although one child died while in his custody. I was inspired by this case to write a novel.
EC: Why did it take you thirty years to write it?
PM: I think I became too emotionally involved. For six years I did research to find out what that period was like as well as what it was like to be a lawyer back then. My first drafts were horrible and very depressing. I had one main character, Worthy, commit suicide; and the other, Matthew, completely depressed. I put it in my drawer and wrote some of my other novels. After several attempts at it and being told the way it was written was not publishable, I tried again three or four years ago. I totally re-wrote it and utilized my strength as a storyteller.
EC: How much of the story did you change from the original case?
PM: I took the general outline and changed specific facts. The real case took place in the 1840s, when Oregon was a territory, and my story takes place in the 1860s, when Oregon became a state. I also changed the family dynamics to just a father and daughter. Yet, I kept the true-life emotional impact of a father who is kept from his daughter because of his color. Being illiterate he had to find a white man to defend him. I hope my readers will understand that Oregonians voted overwhelmingly, by 70%, to not have slavery when Oregon became a state. Yet, by about that same percentage they voted to exclude blacks from living in Oregon unless they were there before the Constitution was passed.
EC: What about the sub-plot involving the mistress Sharon Hill and Judge Jed Tyler?
PM: That was based on the life of US Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field. He was the first appointee from the West and the only justice ever arrested for murder. Fields heard the case involving a woman who was the mistress of a wealthy businessman. After he died she did not receive a penny of his fifteen million dollar fortune, so she forged a document saying she was married to him. I don’t want to say anymore or it will spoil the plot.
EC: There is a powerful quote in the book, “death did not part people who truly loved each other. A person was not only a body. The body was a vessel that contained a person’s soul. The way a person looked did not define her. It was her personality…” Please explain.
PM: I was married for thirty-eight years to an astonishing woman who passed away January 8th, 2007. I dedicated this book to my belated wife, Doreen. I started thinking about what distinguishes one human being from another and found it to be their personality. I realized Doreen would live as long as people who loved her lived. Her body died but she lives on. There is this emotional element in the book which is me trying to handle her death. When you are madly in love with someone and they die it’s the worst possible scenario.
EC: What do you want your readers to get out of this book?
PM: I hope they see it as a literary novel. I thought about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and felt it is really a legal thriller. It involves a lawyer representing a guy charged with rape. In WORTHY BROWN’S DAUGHTER what distinguishes it from my usual Perry Mason type novels is the seriousness of the themes. That is why I consider it a literary novel because of the themes involving slavery, abuse, and the guilt of finding someone else to love after losing your soul mate. I hope readers will see the complexity to the story-lines.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
PM: It will be called WOMAN WITH A GUN I got the idea while in Georgia when I saw this amazing photograph in the bathroom of all places. You can’t see her face but she is wearing a wedding dress, standing on the edge of an ocean, looking out to sea. Behind her back she is holding a six-shooter, a Wyatt Earp type of gun. I started to think, ‘what is this photograph supposed to represent?’ I ended up buying it so I now have the cover and title for my next book. After spending a couple of years trying to figure out a plot from this photograph I finally came up with a story. The main character is a woman who writes a brilliant short story, but really wants to write a book. Seeing this picture in a gallery she comes up with the idea for a novel. While researching what the picture represented she finds out about an unsolved ten-year-old murder and decides to write a fictional account of that case.