THE BLOG
12/02/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Woman With a Gun : A Talk With Phillip Margolin

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Photo: Anthony Georgis

Phillip Margolin graduated from the New York University School of Law School and worked for many years as a criminal defense attorney, a profession inspired by his having read the Perry Mason novels. An Edgar-nominated novelist (even while working as an attorney), he became a full-time writer in 1996. He is well-known for his short stories; the Amanda Jaffe and Brad Miller series; and for his many standalone novels.

In Woman With a Gun, an aspiring novelist, Stacey Kim, is mesmerized by a photograph at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The image captures Stacy's imagination and raises compelling questions in her mind. Obsessed with finding answers, Stacey learns the woman in the photograph was suspected of having killed her millionaire husband on their wedding night, but the 10-year-old murder remains unsolved. Stacy decides to explore this mystery as fodder for her novel.

A book jacket typically is designed after the manuscript is completed. But that's not so for Woman with a Gun. Tell us about that.
People always ask me where I get my ideas. This one is really easy to answer. I was in Georgia giving a keynote address at a writers' conference. After having breakfast in Palmer's Village Café, I went to the restroom to wash up. On the wall, was the most amazing photograph I'd ever seen. It was taken from behind and showed a woman in a wedding dress standing at the edge of the ocean; she was barefoot, looking out to sea from the foam line. Behind her back, she was holding what looked like a western six-shooter.

I began wondering what the photo depicted: did she kill her husband on their wedding night? Is she going to commit suicide? Is she waiting for a boat to come in so she can murder someone?

I was so fascinated by the photograph, I ended up buying it. At that point, I had the name of my next book, Woman with a Gun, and the cover of the novel. The only thing I didn't have was the story. I had my agent insert a clause in the contract saying the publisher had to use that photograph on the book's cover.

And in writing the novel, you constructed a scenario with the character, Stacey Kim, in a situation similar to yours.
Yes. The hardest thing for me is getting an idea big enough for a 400-page book. Once I have an idea, I do an outline and flesh it out. But getting an idea that's complex enough to become a novel can be difficult. So, I had this photograph -- and the book's future cover -- but I had no idea what the story would be about.

I started thinking, "What if the photograph was of someone suspected of murder?" I thought about it a bit more, wondering what would cause a bride to kill her husband on their wedding night. That really got my brain going, and I developed the notion of someone seeing this photograph and becoming obsessed with learning what happened. And she discovers the photograph involves a 10-year-old unsolved murder. I then constructed a situation where what happens to Stacy Kim in the novel, is what happened to me when I saw the photo. That's how I worked my way into the book's plot.

In an essay, you said you realized while writing Woman with a Gun, it became "decidedly noir." Will you tell us about that?
I try to make every book totally different from my others. Sure, in every novel I've written, there's a lawyer and a murder. But working within that framework, I try to do something unique and unanticipated with each book. As I was writing Woman with a Gun, I realized it was starting to read like a noir novel. There's a relationship between Jack Booth -- a smoking, drinking, hard-nosed, womanizing prosecutor -- and Kathy Moran, the photographer who took the picture of the woman with the gun. I always loved the Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald books. I didn't intend to write a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade type book, but I realized I was drifting in that direction. I'd never done something like that and wondered if I could pull it off.

Sometimes, the characters take over and shape the story. That's what happened with this book. I was making Booth more like the gritty, tough-guy private eyes in the noir novels. The novel drifted into this type of writing. It seemed to happen on its own. It's really weird.

I sometimes teach writing classes and tell my students "An idea is tiny, but a book is big." I mean someone seeing a photograph in a museum and being intrigued by it, is a tiny idea. But the book is 300 pages. The idea expands. I liken writing to a Chinese box puzzle, where if you push one piece into the square, it knocks another piece out. So you've got to figure out how to push the pieces in, so each side of the cube is smooth. For me, that's what writing a book is like. You realize if you add one piece, something else won't work. You keep slogging away trying to get everything to mesh.

What did being a trial attorney in the criminal venue teach you about human nature?
A lot. (Laughter). Let me give you an anecdote. My first bestseller in 1993 was Gone But Not Forgotten. There was a production omission which resulted in there being no author's photo on the hardcover edition. When I was on a book tour, people came up to me and questioned my being the author. They apparently thought anyone who wrote that book must be deranged. While reading the book, they had nightmares and couldn't read it alone. I was puzzled about why the novel was so scary. I didn't intend it to be that way.

Six months after I retired from my practice, a friend asked if I would be co-counsel on a murder case. I told him I'd retired and was writing on a full-time basis. His next words were "It must be nice to associate with normal people all day."

A light went on in my head. I realized that in Gone But Not Forgotten, I'd created this horrible serial killer. But actually, all I did was describe the guys I'd been having lunch with for 25 years: serial killers, sociopaths, bank robbers and drug dealers. For me, they weren't scary. They were my clients, the guys I got to know very well.

Of course, most people never come in contact with such people. I realized exposing readers to the world of sociopathic killers was frightening for some of them. So, there were many things about being a lawyer that helped with my writing, but one was the contact I had with these unusual people.

Do you think contact with criminals over the years tainted your view of human nature?
Not really. Growing up, I was in all the "bad" classes in school. Some of my classmates were sort of similar to the guys I represented in my practice. So, my world view has been somewhat like that all these years.

Actually, I'm pretty upbeat about people. Only a small percentage of humanity is comprised of really bad people. I think most people are pretty decent. When you're a criminal defense lawyer, prosecutor or police officer, you're constantly immersed in criminality, and you may develop a skewed view of humanity. But I think I was able to put these things in context in so far as my real life is concerned. I do think my immersion in the criminal law venue left me a bit more wary of people, in general. After all, I was constantly around people who cheat, lie and steal for a living. And, by the way, that's the stuff of novels.

Some of your protagonists have dealt with issues of conscience when defending the accused. How did you feel about your role as a criminal defense lawyer?
For two years, I was in the Peace Corps in Liberia. At the time, it was a horrible dictatorship with no rule of law. If the government didn't like you for any reason, the secret police could come in the middle of the night, drag you to a concentration camp in the bush, where you'd be tortured or killed. You had no right to remain silent; no right to an attorney; and there was no right to challenge your accuser. Because of that experience, I developed a deep appreciation for the rule of law and due process. Our justice system is not perfect, but it's a lot better than in most other places.

When I represented someone, I felt it was crucial to give even the most awful person a fair trial --whether it was a terrorist mastermind like Osama bin Laden or a serial killer like Ted Bundy. If everyone gets a fair trial, people will have faith in the system. Once people lose that faith, you get revolution. I've always felt the system is far more important than any individual case. Even when I knew a client was guilty, it was my job to make certain that if he was convicted, it wasn't due to phony evidence or perjury. I felt I was something of a referee; I made sure the prosecution and judge acted fairly and respected the rule of law. So, for me, representing evil people was not a problem.

Who are your legal heroes?
Louis Brandeis was the guy I really admired. I didn't really have legal heroes. I just loved being a lawyer.

Which writers influenced you as a youngster?
Earle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason books influenced me so much, they made me want to become a lawyer. The Ellery Queen books were another early influence because I love puzzle mysteries where there are clues. I try to do that in my own books; I leave clues about the killer's identity so the reader can pick them up as the novel unfolds.

Whom do you enjoy reading now?
I read three books a week. I read everything. I don't like this "genre" business. It's either a good book or a bad one. The guy I idolize is Joseph Conrad. I hate him because he didn't even speak a word of English until he was in his mid-20s when he moved from Poland to England; and I know I'll never write a single sentence as elegantly as he routinely did. Dickens is a favorite, too. I've also loved Robert Caro's four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. It's actually a page-turner. I enjoy Michael Chabon's books. I thought The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson was an astonishing book.

You've had so many bestsellers. What about writing over the years has surprised you?
The fact that I still love it amazes me. I've been doing it non-stop since 1992. I get to the office at 7:30 every morning. I can't wait to sit down and write. I'm on my 20th book now, and you'd think I'd get tired of it, but no; I love it. I still get excited when I start a book. I wonder if I can do it again. It's the challenge that excites me. You'd think after twenty books, I'd be pretty self-confident, but I'm not.

Can you pinpoint exactly what you love about writing?
It's the puzzle aspect of writing. The first thing I do each morning when I get to the office is the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was a competitive chess player for years. I love Ellery Queen books, Ross Macdonald's books and Harlan Coben's early Myron Bolitar books for their mystery and clue elements. I love trying to construct a puzzle for the reader. That's the most fun. It's what I love about the writing.

If you could have dinner with any five people from history or the literary world, who would they be?
It would be dinner for two -- my wife passed away about seven years ago. She was the single most amazing human being I've ever met. So, it would be just with her.

What's coming next from Phillip Margolin?
I'm about 175 pages into another Amanda Jaffe book. I've written standalone novels and also done different series. You know, Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes. He wanted to kill him off, but readers wouldn't allow it. He felt forever trapped with the character and his exploits. Sometimes, a series can suffer after the first well-written, successful novel: the plots become thin, and the writer gets trapped in trying to create a life for the protagonist. I made a conscious decision to write standalone novels between my series.

Congratulations on yet another standalone novel, Woman with a Gun. I too was mesmerized by the cover photograph, and while reading the novel, referred to that picture again and again.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and Love Gone Mad