My Story & Background
I grew up in New York City and Levittown, New York. In 1965, I graduated from The American University in Washington, D.C. with a Bachelor’s Degree in Government. From 1965 to 1967, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. In 1970, I graduated from New York University School of Law. During my last two years in law school I went at night and worked my way through by teaching junior high school in the South Bronx in New York City. My first job after law school was a clerkship with Herbert M. Schwab, the Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. From 1972 until 1996, I was in private practice specializing in criminal defense at the trial and appellate levels. As an appellate attorney I have appeared 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. As a trial attorney, I handled all sorts of criminal cases in state and federal court and I have represented approximately 30 people charged with homicide, including several who have faced the death penalty. I was the first Oregon attorney to use the Battered Women’s Syndrome to defend a battered woman accused of murdering her spouse.
Since 1996, I have been writing full-time. All of my novels have been best sellers. Heartstone, my first novel, was nominated for an Edgar for best original paperback mystery of 1978 by the Mystery Writers of America. My second novel, The Last Innocent Man, was made into an HBO movie. Gone, But Not Forgotten has been sold to more than 25 foreign publishers and was made into a mini-series starring Brooke Shields. It was also the Main Selection of the Literary Guild. After Dark was a Book of the Month Club selection. The Burning Man, my fifth novel, published in August, 1996, was the Main Selection of the Literary Guild and a Reader’s Digest condensed book. My sixth novel, The Undertaker’s Widow, was published in 1998 and was a Book of the Month Club selection. Wild Justice (HarperCollins, September, 2000) was a Main Selection of the Literary Guild, a selection of the Book of the Month Club and was nominated for an Oregon Book Award. The Associate was published by HarperCollins in August, 2001 and Ties that Bind was published by HarperCollins in March, 2003. My tenth novel, Sleeping Beauty, was published by HarperCollins on March 23, 2004. Lost Lake was published by HarperCollins in March, 2005 and was nominated for an Oregon Book Award. Proof Positive was published by HarperCollins in July, 2006. Executive Privilege was published by HarperCollins in May, 2008 and in 2009 was awarded the Spotted Owl Award for the Best Northwest Mystery. Fugitive, was published by HarperCollins on June 2, 2009. Willamette Writers awarded me the 2009 Distinguished Northwest Writers Award. Supreme Justice, was published by HarperCollins in May, 2010. Capitol Murder was published by HarperCollins in April, 2012. Sleight of Hand was published by HarperCollins in April, 2013. Worthy Brown’s Daughter was published by HarperCollins in January, 2014. Woman with a Gun was published by HarperCollins in December, 2014. Violent Crimes will be published by HarperCollins on February 9, 2016.
Vanishing Acts, a young adult novel written by me and my daughter Ami Margolin Rome was published in October, 2011 by HarperCollins.
In addition to my novels, I have published short stories and non-fiction articles in magazines and law journals. My short story, The Jailhouse Lawyer, was selected for the anthology 1999, The Best American Mystery Stories. The House on Pine Terrace, was selected for the anthology 2010, The Best American Mystery Stories. The Adventure of the Purloined Paget written by me and my brother Jerry Margolin was published in A Study in Sherlock in October, 2011 by Random House.
From 1996 to 2009 I was the President and Chairman of the Board of Chess for Success. I am still heavily involved in the program and I returned to the Board after a one year absence in 2010. Chess for Success is a non-profit charity that uses chess to teach elementary and middle school children in Title I schools study skills. From 2007 to 2013, I was on the Board of Literary Arts, which sponsors the Oregon Book Awards, The Writers in the Schools program and Portland Arts and Lectures. Phil was married to Doreen Stamm for 39 wonderful years until she passed away in 2007. In 2013 he met Melanie Nelson, another wonderful woman, and were married in 2018.
Q: Why did you want to be an attorney and what was your legal career like?
A: When I was in the seventh grade, as a result of an overdose of Perry Mason novels, I decided that I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer when I grew up and that is what I have been for the majority of my legal career. After I graduated from New York University School of Law in 1970, I moved to Oregon where I clerked for the Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. I was with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office before opening my own private practice with a specialty in criminal defense at the trial and appellate level. As a trial attorney, in state and federal court, I handled every type of criminal case from traffic tickets to murder cases. I was the attorney of record in 30 homicide cases, including 12 death penalty cases. At the appellate level, I was the attorney of record in approximately 80 appeals. I have appeared before the United States Supreme Court, the Oregon Supreme Court, the Oregon Court of Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. I was the first attorney in Oregon to use the battered woman’s syndrome as a defense in a homicide case involving a battered woman who had killed her abusive husband.
Q: Are you still a practicing attorney?
A: I am still a member of the Oregon State Bar and the Federal Bar, but I have not practiced law since 1996. I didn’t stop practicing because I disliked being a lawyer. I had a very exciting legal career. The reason I stopped was because it became impossible to practice law and write the type of books I was writing at the same time. When my first two novels, Heartstone and The Last Innocent Man, were published in 1978 and 1981 respectfully, they were not bestsellers and I did not do any promotion for them. When Gone, But Not Forgotten, my third novel, was published in 1993, my publisher wanted me to go on a book tour. By 1993 I had a very busy criminal defense practice. Many of my cases were death penalty murder cases or federal drug conspiracy cases which require a lawyer to be in court for a few weeks to a few months and also require a lawyer to do a tremendous amount of preparation. The judges and district attorneys in Oregon were very kind to me when I asked for setovers in cases so that I could go on my first book tour. However, I realized that the tours were going to get longer and that it was impossible to do the type of job I would have to do to provide my clients with competent legal representation and be out of state for a month or so at a time. I had been a practicing attorney for 25 years and I had done almost everything that a criminal defense attorney can do. On the other hand, I had never had an opportunity to be a full-time writer. I worked on my books on the weekends and in the morning. I wanted to see what it would be like to be a full-time writer and I finally achieved that goal in 1996 when I finished my last case. I love writing and I loved being an attorney. Right now I am enjoying writing so much that I want to continue it full-time.
Q: What made you start writing?
A: I have always been a voracious reader and reading the works of Conrad, Shakespeare, Hemingway, etc., convinced me that I could not possible write publishable fiction. In my last semester of law school, I decided to try to write a novel simply to figure out how people wrote books that were 400 pages long. I was never able to write anything more than 25 pages and this was a great mystery to me. My first two novels were terrible and I didn’t try to get them published. In 1974, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine published a short story I had written, called “The Girl in the Yellow Bikini.” (I got paid $65.) This gave me self-confidence to try to write a publishable novel. My first job after law school was working as the clerk for the Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. While serving in that capacity I learned about the Peyton-Allen murders, which were Oregon’s most famous murder cases at that time. In my opinion, this is the single most complex and amazing murder case in American history. Fortunately for me, it was an Oregon case and few people knew about it outside of the state. I decided to try to write a novel based on the Peyton-Allen murders. That book was Heartstone published in 1978. It was nominated for an Edgar Award.
Q: How did you get your first book published?
A: Luck has always been a major factor in my writing career. I had written five chapters and an outline of Heartstone, my first novel, when Marty Bauer, a friend from New York University School of Law, called me from New York and told me that he and his wife were going to come to Oregon on vacation. I hadn’t talked to Marty since we graduated from law school. When I picked him up at the airport, I found out that Marty was one of the attorneys at International Creative Management, one of the largest literary agencies in the world. I asked Marty if he would show my chapters to somebody at his agency because I wasn’t sure whether they were of publishable quality and I wanted to know if I was wasting my time. Two weeks later I came back from court and everyone was sitting around with a bottle of champagne. I asked them what was going on and they told me that my agent had called from New York and had sold my novel.
Q: Can you tell us how you got the ideas for some of your books?
A: On this website, you will find an essay about Wild Justice and another essay about my current novel The Associate. I talk about how I got the ideas for those two books in those essays. As a practicing criminal attorney, I am frequently asked how I can represent a person who I know is guilty. I decided to explore that ethical and moral dilemma in the context of a novel. My second book, The Last Innocent Man, is about a criminal defense lawyer who decides to base the way he represents a client on his own personal view of the client’s guilt or innocence rather than being an adversary for his client, the way he is supposed to in the American criminal justice system. The idea for Gone, But Not Forgotten came from a dinner party conversation I had with a friend. It led me to think about what I would do if Adolf Hitler asked me to be his attorney. In Gone, But Not Forgotten, I have a heroine who is nationally known for representing women in cases involving women’s issues. She is hired by a mysterious multi-millionaire who may be the Rose Killer, a horrifying serial killer who dehumanizes women before he kills them. This puts the heroine’s personal ethics and morals at odds with her duty as a defense attorney to represent anyone no matter who they are or what crime they have committed. The Burning Man is very loosely based on a real murder case that I handled in the mid-1980’s.
Q: Are the fictional cases in your books similar to real criminal cases?
A: My fictional cases are similar in many ways to real cases, but they are also very different. I have handled 30 homicide cases and only two of them had mystery elements in them. Most real life cases are fascinating for the lawyer trying them, but pretty dull for anyone sitting through them. You usually know who did the killing and the issue is whether the defendant acted in self defense, was insane, etc. When I write about a trial in one of my books, I make sure that only the exciting parts are included. If I wrote about a trial the way it is in real life, most readers would fall asleep after a few pages. I also try to stay away from the Perry Mason type of lawyer, even though I really enjoy the Perry Mason novels. My lawyers have real problems and are not perfect. Most of my fictional lawyers have character flaws. However, the lawyers in my books are normal, decent people who may act heroically or badly in specific circumstances.
Q: What process do you go through between getting an idea for a novel and handing in a finished draft?
A: It usually takes me a few years between the time I get an idea for a book and the time I actually finish a novel. I usually get an idea, but cannot figure out how to create a complete book from it. I forget about the idea for awhile. Then a second idea comes into my head and I realize at some point that I can put it together with the first idea and create a whole book. I won’t start writing until I have figured out the ending of the book. I have to know who the bad guy is and what clue trips him up. Once I have my ending, I write an extensive outline that details all the plot twists and where the clues and red herrings are going to be inserted in the plot. It them takes me six to eight months to write a first draft of the book. My first draft is usually pretty bad. I spend four to six months of intense editing getting the book into final shape.
Q: Do you have any favorite courtroom thrillers?
A: There are several excellent courtroom thrillers. Among my favorites are Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver.