The New York Times bestselling author discusses his latest novel, why it took 30 years to get it out, and reflects on what it takes to reach your goals in this business.
Larry: Your new novel, “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” is a departure from your usual genre, though it’s still a “legal thriller” (this one set in the mid-1800s, making it a “historical” in terms of categorization). Can you tell us how the idea came to you, and why it took you 30 years to get from there to here?
PM: Sometime in the early 1980s I ran across an article about Holmes v. Ford, an 1853 case from the Oregon Territory. Colonel Nathaniel Ford brought a family of slaves – Robin and Polly Holmes and their five children – from Missouri to Oregon. He promised to free them if they would help him establish a farm in the Willamette Valley. They kept their promise but Ford only freed Robin and Polly and a small child and kept four children as his servants. Oregon was very racist in the 1800s. Our Constitution barred free Negroes from Oregon if they weren’t living in Oregon when it the constitution was passed. These two illiterate, impoverished ex-slaves had to find a white lawyer who would help them get their children back. In 1853, George Williams, the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court ordered Ford to return the children but one child died while in his custody.
I thought this story was heartbreaking and I was inspired to write a novel based on it but I didn’t know enough history to do that. I spent the next six years doing research on the period and, more specifically, on what it would have been like to practice law in the Wild West.
I finished a draft in the late 1980s but I didn’t feel it was good enough to be published. In 1993, I published my first bestseller, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” and I put my historical novel away while I worked on contemporary legal thrillers. In 2010, I finished a book well ahead of deadline and decided to give my historical novel another look. My agent didn’t think it was publishable as written but she made some excellent suggestions for a rewrite. I scrapped the earlier version and did a complete rewrite starting at page one. This version was totally different from the others and HarperCollins bought it.
Larry: Being so established in the modern legal thriller niche, how much arm twisting was required to get your agent and publisher to line up behind the idea?
PM: HarperCollins and my agents were very supportive. I’ve heard of other writers who have tried to change genres and been rebuffed by their publisher. This never happened with HarperCollins. I believe there were several reasons for their terrific support. First, I believe this is the best book I’ve written and my publisher appreciated the quality of the work. Second, although “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” deals with serious subjects like slavery and dealing with grief at the loss of a spouse, it also has all the elements of my contemporary thrillers including a surprise ending in the middle of a murder trial. The book can be read as a serious literary novel, an historical novel, a western or a legal thriller and I believe that HarperCollins realized that these multi-genre aspects of the book might attract people to my work who may not have read me before.
Larry: You’ve written 17 NY Times Bestsellers, which is amazing. What was the most powerful “tip” you learned early on, and what would you say now, after being on that A-list for this long, to writers who would like to earn their way to such visibility, as well?
PM: Don’t try to figure out what you must write to get published or make the bestseller list; write something that excites you. If you look at most first novels, even ones that aren’t particularly good, they all have a certain energy that comes from a writer getting an idea that excites them.
Larry: Just like King tends to keep his stories in Maine, you tend to set yours in Portand and the Northwest. Is that a comfort level thing, a branding strategy, the leveraging of “real” cases, or something else?
PM: I set my books in Oregon because I love Portland and the Pacific Northwest. Also, when I start my books with the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” I’m not lying most of the year.’
Larry: You were kind enough to read and blurb my new novel. How many blurb requests a month do you normally receive, and do you have advice for those who reach out to “name” authors without the prior-acquaintance advantage that I had with you?
PM: I am asked to blurb books a few times a year and I only blurb a book – even if it is written by a friend – if I like it. I will not read a book for a blurb unless it has been accepted for publication.
Thanks to Phillip Margolin for taking the time to share with us. That tip about writing what you love, rather than writing what you think will sell, is a game-changer. That said… what excites you still needs to be written in context to the proven principles of story physics for it to work. His new book demonstrates that, as well.
Worthy Brown’s Daughter releases January 21, 2014, from HarperCollins.
A Short Review of Worthy Brown’s Daughter
by Larry Brooks
Given that Phil blurbed my new novel (DeadlyFaux), and then appeared here in this interview, you might question my objectivity as a reviewer of his new novel, Worthy Brown’s Daughter.
Don’t. I can tell you with complete honesty, objectivity, clarity and sincerity that Worthy Brown’s Daughter is an excellent novel, immersive and even disturbing (in a good way) to read. And if you’re a Phillip Margolin fan already, you’ll find it to be a refreshing mash-up of his familiar take on all things lawyerly and a perfectly nuanced trip back in time to the mid-1800s Pacific Northwest. If you’ve ever wanted to time travel, this novel is as close as you’ll get without actually using time travel as a literary device.
For me the book was a powerful vicarious experience. I marveled at how the roots of the modern practice of law — complete with corruption and incompetence and the value of a solid attorney who will do what it takes to have your back — was evident in the legal machinations of hero Mathew Penny as he helps a black laborer, Worthy Phillips, out of a jam compelling enough to be an Emmy-winning episode of The Good Wife. Throw in a bombshell femme fatale who makes Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct villain look like a pickpocket by comparison, and you have a cascade of emotional empathy driven by an ongoing stream of dramatic twists.
Evidence of story physics abounds in this novel. All six realms are in play, and as such the novel becomes a clinic on how to tap into the forces that make a novel a rewarding reading experience. A compelling dramatic premise that you haven’t seen before… dramatic tension fueled by a can’t-look-away plot… great pacing that allows the story to be as character-driven as it is plot-centric… emotional empathy that has you rooting for the hero as hard as you’re rooting for the villains to get hit by a stagecoach… a vicarious reading experience that plops you back in 1860 Oregon to an extent you’ll be checking your boots for mud… and a clean writing voice that infuses the read with grace minus any literary distractions.
This is how it’s done. Read earlier Margolin novels and you’ll see the same hallmarks of excellence in play.
If you caught the pun… couldn’t stop myself.