A former reporter for The Detroit News and Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a syndicated columnist for 14 years, Mitch Margo is a native New Yorker and St. Louis trial lawyer. He’s witnessed the clash of cultures which are woven into his first novel, Black Hearts White Minds. Much of the story is drawn from his personal experiences, interviews, and hundreds of hours of research. He credits his eclectic law practice for a new storyline every few days.
As general counsel to the Missouri Valley Conference, and a former youth coach, Mitch has an insider’s view of basketball that enables him to write about it authentically. He’s also a member of the Washington University Sports Hall of Fame, at one time holding the school record in just about every baseball statistic. He’s proud of his days as a student/athlete, but hasn’t lost sight of the fact that you can’t get too much farther from Cooperstown and still be in a hall of fame.
BPM: Have you always been a writer? Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I’ve enjoyed writing and reading for as long as I can remember. I’m a child of Watergate and that’s why I was drawn to journalism as a young man. But I also loved creative writing, which is what journalism has now become!
BPM: You are a lawyer, how has that influenced you and your writing?
Most people think being a trial lawyer is what they see on TV — lawyers making impassioned speeches in courtrooms to edge-of-their-seat jurors. Not so. Most of a trial lawyer’s communications are written in briefs and motions to the judge. 95 percent of all lawsuits are settled before trial. So being a persuasive writer is a great advantage and persuasive means succinct, clear and even entertaining. Most lawyers write in long, complicated, boring sentences. I assume that judges curse them and love me.
BPM: Tell us about your latest book. What do you hope readers take away from it?
Black Hearts White Minds (BHWM) is a story about a time in history that few experienced and most would rather ignore. I wrote the book about the Civil Rights movement because I missed it. In 1964 I was nine years old and growing up in New York. After reading Black Hearts White Minds, I hope readers are left with the feeling that they’ve lived in the Deep South during segregation just like the characters. I hope they take away the frustration of the African American community that was constantly harassed and kept in a different form of slavery by a white power structure driven by money, power and ignorance.
BPM: Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special?
Carl Gordon is the main character, but really only one of the “important” characters. He drags his 12 year old son from New York to Stockville, Alabama to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and he’s remarkably unprepared for what he is about to encounter — the Klan, local law enforcement, the black community. But he’s also a great lawyer and a quick learner. He’s a hero in his own way, but no more so than Micah, a Black, self-taught intellectual auto mechanic who also happens to be the strongest man in Frost County, Alabama, and a disciple of Malcolm X. And by the way, Carl and Micah hate each other.
BPM: Was there a real-life inspiration behind your development of characters?
Three of the characters are drawn from people I know or have known in the past. Did I mention I love those people? Think about it, they’re interesting enough to make a fictional character out of them alone. Now that’s a real life character! The rest of the characters are composites of people I’ve known, stories I’ve read and my imagination. I think all writers will tell you that there are ribbons of themselves running through their characters. That’s certainly true for me. Maybe that’s why writers become such good friends with the characters they create.
BPM: How did you come up with the title for Black Hearts White Minds?
This book had more working titles than I can remember. I would list them for you, but one of them might just be the name of the sequel. (Spoiler alert!) My publisher, along with a focus group came up with Black Hearts White Minds and I love it. A Black Heart could be attributed to several of the characters, black and white. So could a white mind. “Black” and “white” have more than one meaning each, and nothing is just black and white.
BPM: In what genre(s) do you write? What do you love about the genre(s)?
Have you looked at a recent list of genres recognized now recognized by the literary community. It’s hysterical. There are more categories than Facebook gender identifiers. It’s easier to tell you what genre I don’t write in – Science Fiction! I think that’s because I didn’t watch enough TV (except sports) when I was young, and because I’m too grounded in reality, well, maybe reality on steroids, also known as fiction.
BPM: How do you find or make time to write? Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I think you have to approach writing like a job, even if it’s a part-time job. You must sit at the typewriter (haha – computer, I mean) every day except Groundhog Day when you should watch the movie. But seriously, when I started writing the book I wrote for two hours most evenings after work. Then a friend/novelist told me she had a different approach. She wrote until she got to 1000 words and then stopped, even if she was in mid-sentence. I tried it and it was great. If you stop in mid-sentence, then you know exactly where to begin the next day. If you write until the end of a chapter, the next day you could be, like, ok, now what? … and sit there for an hour without typing anything.
BPM: How much research went into sculpting this story with a legal thriller/historical/southern motif?
Of course it all comes down to good writing and entertaining the reader, but in historical novels, research is make-or-brake important. You walk a fine line between historical accuracy and make believe. I did loads of research. I visited cities in the South, sought out interviews and went to libraries, but I don’t know how novelists did it before the Internet.
For me the most enjoyable part of researching the American south in the mid ‘60s was learning what I didn’t know. For instance, sharecropping. What an awful hoax that was. It really was just an unofficial new form of slavery after the emancipation. A black family rented a ramshackle house on a plantation, had to borrow money for seed, rented equipment from the landowner, always at usurious rates, with the promise that he could keep a percentage of the farming profits, which there rarely were because of fictitious expenses and “taxes” created by the white landowner. The black tenant-farmer couldn’t complain or question because then his family would be thrown out and no other white landowner would rent to him. It was a horrendous system to perpetuate white supremacy and black economic despair.
BPM: You address some important social issues inside your new book. Can you explain why you have chosen this particular subject matter?
I believe that if we could eliminate racism, we’d eliminate virtually all of our country’s problems. Really, all of them. Poverty, education disparity, police aggression, housing discrimination and even drug abuse. That may be a simplification, but I believe it.
BPM: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
I especially liked writing the parts of the book where I’m able to be a smart ass without distracting from the storyline. Describing the elitist Northwoods neighborhood and its unofficial Mayor, Edith Spinz, was especially delicious. Bringing the African American pastor to life was so much fun because he was such a contradiction and so important at the same time. I like writing dialogue. I also loved writing about the kids’ relationships, because they’re kids and they don’t have to follow conventional rules. For the boys in BHWM, they weren’t concerned with color lines, only the lines on the basketball court. Kids have a lot to teach adults.
BPM: Talk us through your experiences in sports and how they relate to it in this book. Why is team so important that you would make that part of this story?
More than any other experiences, team sports molded me into who I am. Teamwork means working with others to accomplish a shared goal. It means discovering what each other does best, and how to use that particular talent to win the game. This kid is a great rebounder, this one plays great defense. Not everyone can be the top scorer who gets most of the attention. By the way, this analysis works just as well for the NBA – can you say Golden State Warriors?
BPM: Did publishing your first book change your thought process on writing? Was it a positive or negative experience?
Publishing a book is for a writer like crossing the finish line in a marathon is for a runner. I guess some writers are content to write for themselves, but I haven’t met any. When I started writing Black Hearts White Minds it was to someday publish it. I wanted it to be relevant to today’s reader. I had no idea, what with our current president and populist, by which I mean racist, resurgence, it would be this relevant. I can’t think of any moment in writing the book that I would describe as negative. The lessons I learned, the people I met and interviewed, the towns I visited – all amazing, positive learning experiences. And then, sitting down recreating it all in my own world, Stockville, Alabama? That was delightful.
BPM: What is the most rewarding part of your artistic process?
Getting to know my characters. I love them all. They are some of my best friends. Don’t let this get out, but I talk to them all the time.
BPM: Was there an early experience where you learned that the written word had power?
When I was in high school I wrote a sports column in the local weekly newspaper. For the sake of being clever, I wrote a piece criticizing my high school football team. It caused quite a stir and that’s when I realized the power of publication. I look back on that as one of the cruelest and stupidest moments of my life. Great Neck North Blazer football team of 1972, I am so sorry, you deserved so much better.
BPM: In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?
I feel successful when I hear from a reader. Whether it’s by email or a posting on my blog or at an event, when someone tells me that my story made them feel excited, angry, outraged, you name it, that’s when I’m both humbled and I feel successful.
BPM: If you could pass on any advice to authors out there reading this interview, what would it be?
Avoid clichés and so here is the most important one…don’t give up. The state of publishing in America is a disaster.
BPM: Share some of your writing goals. What projects are you working on at the present?
I’d like to publish a new book every two years. That would mean spending more time writing and less time practicing law. Or it could mean writing, practicing law, and no sleeping.
I’m working on the next Carl Gordon novel, and I’m also working on a story set in 2008 about a real estate developer who goes from wildly rich to bankrupt in a matter of days when the real estate market crashes. Actually, it’s more about his wife. Readers can keep up with my latest blog posts and upcoming events at https://mitchmargo.com.