A Between the Lines Interview with Phillip Margolin
Phillip Margolin had a storied career as a criminal defense lawyer—handling more than thirty murder cases and even arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. Though he’d published two novels early in his legal career, he wasn’t looking to leave his exciting law practice. In the early1990s, however, he was at a dinner party when the conversation turned philosophical. One of the guests had a question for him: If Adolf Hitler came to you and needed a lawyer, would you represent him? “I hadn’t really given much thought to that kind of question,” Margolin said. “But I was a believer in the system, and always thought I’d defend anyone. But it got me thinking whether I would represent someone who was pure evil.” It sparked an idea for a book that became the 1993 smash bestseller, Gone, But Not Forgotten. It was about a woman lawyer faced with representing a despicable human being—a serial killer who dehumanized women before killing them.
The book was a game changer for Margolin in many ways. It was the first of seventeen New York Times bestsellers for the author, ultimately leading to his retirement from the law. It was also the first time Margolin wrote a female protagonist. Today, it’s hard to believe that Margolin, known for writing strong women characters, once had anxiety about writing from a female point of view. “Back then, I didn’t think I could do a woman character justice. But when I was writing Gone, But Not Forgotten I was working on this scene where the killer goes to see his lawyer in this tall office building late at night when no one else is around. Having represented killers—even a serial killer—myself, I had an idea that the lawyer would be on guard. But something made me think, ‘Yes, as a man I’d be cautious around this killer of women, but wouldn’t it ratchet up the suspense if the lawyer was a woman—a person like the killer’s victims?’ The story required me to make the protagonist a woman, so I did.”
To get the character right, Margolin drew on the toughest, smartest, and best woman lawyer he knew, his wife Doreen. “I decided to write all the scenes imagining the character was Doreen; what she would say, how she would act. Doreen was very feminine, but also a real tough guy.” Sadly, Doreen passed away in 2007. “She wasn’t just the best lawyer I’ve ever known,” Margolin said, “she was the best human being I’ve ever met.”
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Margolin’s latest novel, Woman with a Gun, features another strong female lead, Stacey Kim, a law firm receptionist and aspiring novelist. While visiting a museum during her lunch break, Kim is taken aback by a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph; a haunting black-and-white of a woman in a wedding dress standing on the shore at night facing the ocean—holding a six-shooter behind her back. Kim later learns that the woman in the photograph is suspected of killing her husband on their wedding night in a decade-old murder case that was never solved. As Kim looks closer at the case, she begins to believe that the woman with a gun is innocent. And the truth about the murder may lie in the photo itself.
In a case of art imitating life, Margolin came up with the idea for Woman with a Gun after seeing the real photograph depicted in the novel. “I was keynoting at a writing conference in St. Simons Island, Georgia and came upon the photo there. I was in the Palmer’s Village Café for breakfast, and went to the restroom to wash up and saw this photograph over the toilet. I was captivated by it. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on there? Is she committing suicide? Did she just kill her husband on her wedding night? Is she planning to kill someone who is arriving on a boat?’ I went to the cashier and told her I wanted to buy it. So they contacted the photographer, Leslie Jeter, and she sold it to me. It’s now the cover of the book.”
The novel is a compelling read with classic Margolin twists and page-turning suspense. At the same time, Woman with a Gun has a more noir feel than Margolin’s past work. In recent years, Margolin has in fact been branching out—from his acclaimed historical novel, Worthy Brown’s Daughter to a middle school book co-authored with his daughter, Ami Margolin Rome.
But the writer brushes off the idea that he’s made any calculated effort to change direction. “I think small. Always have. When I was a lawyer I didn’t get caught up in making law or focusing on some larger agenda. My goal was to represent my client’s interests the best I could. With my books, my focus is the same; to just write the best book I can and to not repeat myself.”
Still, Margolin acknowledged that Woman with a Gun “does have a noir tone to it. When I was writing it, I felt like it was starting to have a Maltese Falcon feel. So that’s a little different, but it’s still a legal thriller.”
What’s great about Margolin is that his decades as an author hasn’t diminished his love for what he does. “I get into the office by about seven-thirty every day and I can’t wait to start writing.” And he’s not one to get caught up in the latest publisher disputes or debates over the direction and fate of the industry. When asked about the state of publishing, his answer was refreshingly simple: “All I can say is that it’s a weird f**king business.” He chooses instead to focus on the only thing in his control: writing the best book he can. “I just feel lucky that I get to write for a living; lucky to have HarperCollins, a great publisher. Otherwise, I can’t get anxious about it all.”
If Margolin sounds like the kind of guy you’d want as a friend, he is. I’ve experienced first-hand his kindness and the support he provides new authors. But I think the first and last pages of Woman with a Gun also say something about the writer. He opens with a dedication to Robin Haggard, his longtime legal secretary and assistant, and Leslie Jeter, the photographer of Woman with a Gun. And he closes the Acknowledgements page thanking “Doreen, my muse who is gone but not forgotten.”
Phillip Margolin has written eighteen novels, many of them New York Times bestsellers, including the recent Worthy Brown’s Daughter, Sleight of Hand, and the Washington Trilogy. Each displays a unique, compelling insider’s view of criminal behavior, which comes from his long background as a criminal defense attorney who has handled thirty murder cases. Winner of the Distinguished Northwest Writer Award, he lives in Portland, Oregon.
To learn more about Phillip, please visit his website.
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