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Margolin explores new frontier

Legal thriller author pens book about slavery in 1860s Oregon


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Acclaimed author Phillip Margolin, who has written 17 New York Times bestsellers, draws much of his content for legal thrillers from his days as a defense attorney. If Im writing a scene in a murder trial, Ive actually done this stuff, he says.Phillip Margolin is a bit of a rock star in the publishing world, with 17 New York Times bestsellers to his name.

Margolin, who keeps an office in downtown Portland, is a former defense attorney who parlayed his law expertise and love of literature into a wildly successful career as a novelist.

Margolin’s latest novel “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” is a departure for him. Based on an actual case in the Oregon frontier in 1860, “Daughter” is the story of Matthew Penny, a recently widowed Oregon attorney who attempts to help Worthy Brown, a newly freed slave, rescue his 15-year-old daughter, Roxanne, from their master.

As with all of Margolin’s books, “Daughter” has been met with critical acclaim. Booklist calls it “a compelling portrait of small town justice done right.” Library Journal says, “Margolin’s fans might be surprised by this one, which strays from his normal modern thrillers, but the lively narrative will keep readers engrossed.”

Margolin will make several author appearances over the coming weeks, including at Jan’s Paperbacks (7 p.m. Jan. 23) and Annie Bloom’s Books (7 p.m. Jan. 27).

The Portland Tribune recently caught up with Margolin, a native New Yorker, to discuss his historical novel and what it is like to be a novelist and lawyer in the modern world:

Portland Tribune: How did your career as a lawyer influence you as a writer?

Phillip Margolin: I’m really unsophisticated and simple. I just like to write. ... But, you’re trained to be very objective and unemotional about your work when you’re a lawyer. That’s really fabulous for editing. You learn to take stuff out. Being a lawyer also helps you be organized. I spend months on outlines and sometimes think for years before I put pen to paper. And, of course, there’s material. I (defended) 30 homicides. So if I’m writing a scene in a murder trial, I’ve actually done this stuff.

Tribune: Does defending people charged with homicide and several who faced the death penalty make you more empathetic to the accused in your novels?

Margolin: I wouldn’t make that connection at all. I’m sort of a mechanic. I won a lot of cases. When I was representing clients, I got along with the guys great. I was only fired four times in 25 years. But, I was able to realize that this guy who I’m enjoying spending time with just killed three people. One part of my brain is relating on a social level and another part is saying, “He did this.” It was like working on a puzzle.

Tribune: During your career in law was it difficult to keep Phillip Margolin the lawyer separate from Phillip Margolin the writer? Were there ever times when clients, judges or other attorneys referred to your writing?

Margolin: I compartmentalize really well. When I was working on law cases I wasn’t thinking about books and vice versa. There were times where the judge or DA had read my book, but I never got any slack. It would’ve been nice. I wouldn’t have had to work very hard. I had a lot of very complimentary prosecutors and judges, but I don’t think I ever got an inch because of my writing.

Tribune: How was writing “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” an historically based novel, different from writing other novels set in modern times?

Margolin: You still have to tell a story. From that standpoint, this book and my other books are very similar. The big difference is that with this, it’s almost like science fiction — like you’re writing about a different planet. You didn’t have a telephone, how do you get in touch with people? Where do you get your water from? Did people brush their teeth? It’s finding out these really basic things about day-to-day life that we take for granted. The most interesting thing for me was, if I was a lawyer in 1860, what would I do? Then I found out there were no courthouses. Oh, my goodness. So where would you try your cases? That was the really difficult part.

Tribune: “Daughter” is loosely based on the case of Holmes v. Ford, which took place in the mid-1800s. How do you go about creating a fictional story based on actual events?

Margolin: That’s the easy part. You don’t write about the real thing. You’re inspired by the idea. In this situation it was, what would it be like if you were an illiterate black man in an area where white people didn’t like you and someone stole your kids? That’s the emotional component and then you just make up characters and situations and you tell your story. I always joke that when I was a lawyer and I lied in court, people would threaten me with contempt and jail time and disbarment. Now, (as a writer) I make up stuff and I lie all the time, and people send me letters saying how much they like my lies.

Tribune: While the primary goal of a novel is to entertain the reader, what else do you hope your audience gets from “Daughter”?

Margolin: (I’ve said before) my goal is to get you from Portland to New York on a plane without realizing you took the trip. This book is a little different. It has really serious themes. My wife passed away seven years ago. We had a phenomenal marriage, and I was really (messed) up for a couple of years grieving. In the book, the wife (of Worthy Brown) dying explored how you deal with losing someone you love so much. I also talk about what is the effect of being told you’re subhuman?

Tribune: Do you envision writing more historically based novels in the future?

Margolin: If I get an idea, I write it. Writing, for me, is very easy. Getting an idea is very hard. So if I got an idea for another historical novel, I’d write it. It’s just where am I going to get the idea for something that gets me excited enough to do the work?

Tribune: You began thinking about writing “Daughter” in the early 1980s. Did so much time passing between the inception of the idea and publishing the novel make for a better book?

Margolin: This is where it helps to have a fabulous agent. The intent was to write a real serious book. It was a brilliant idea with real (lousy) execution. My first drafts were really bad. ... If you saw the old drafts, they’re only a feint resemblance to what you would read (now).

Tribune: Your law career was inspired in large part by your love of “Perry Mason” books. Was it inevitable that you would eventually become a writer?

Margolin: No, it’s actually the opposite. My career has been bizarre. When I was in seventh grade, because of the “Perry Mason” books, I decided I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer and that’s all I wanted to do. I’ve been a voracious reader since like first grade. I was always reading, so I was in awe of authors and it never, ever occurred to me that I could do something as big as write a book.

Tribune: What do you think about being viewed as one of the kings of the legal thriller genre?

Margolin: I never intended to be a writer of legal thrillers. When I first published (my first book) “Heartstone” that terminology didn’t even exist. That term came about after “Presumed Innocent” and “The Firm.” Before that, a book with a murder and a lawyer was called a murder mystery and it didn’t get reviewed in the New York Times and it didn’t get on the bestseller list. I mean, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is really a legal thriller if you want to get technical about it. All I was trying to do with my first book was write a novel, period. I was making my living as a lawyer. I didn’t consider myself a writer. It was just a hobby, basically.