Phil Margolin & Ami Margolin Rome: Vanishing Acts Q&A

Today we’re delighted to be featuring an exclusive Q&A with father-daughter author duo Phil Margolin and Ami Margolin Rome. Their book Vanishing Acts, is an exciting mystery that takes place in Portland, Oregon. Check out our interview below, and scroll down to learn more about their book!

Phil, you’ve written plenty of mysteries for adults. How was the adjustment when writing for middle grade readers? What’s the biggest difference?

Phil – The biggest adjustment was finding the voice I would have to use in a Middle Grade book. It was different from the voice in an adult book. I asked my editor to send me some Middle Grade books. After reading a few, I wrote a sample chapter and my editor said I’d figured out the voice. Then, of course, there is muted violence and no sex, although we do have a chaste kiss at the end of the book.

As a follow-up, be honest: who is the tougher audience, kids or adults?

Phil – Kids are kinder. Just look at some of my bad reviews.

What was it like writing as a father-daughter duo? Tell us the good, the bad, the ugly!

Phil – Actually, there was no ugly other than Ami insulting my typewriting skills. We worked together very well.

Ami – When we first set out to write Vanishing Acts, I think my dad thought that we would actually physically write together – in the same room, at one computer. We tried to write the outline this way, with my dad sitting at his computer typing slowly with two fingers, unwilling to let me type. After about 5 minutes, and 6 words typed, the options became clear: abandon the project all together, or work “together” in separate rooms. Luckily we decided on the latter. So, I wrote the first draft, emailed it to him, he wrote the second draft and so on. We did meet and discuss changes when we got notes back from our editor, but for most of the writing we could very well have lived in different countries. Maybe for my next book I will try to convince him to send me to Hawaii to write!

Obviously, the characters in VANISHING ACTS bear slight similarities to you guys, since Madison’s dad is also a defense attorney. Did your own relationship inspire/influence the characters in VANISHING ACTS? Are any moments in the book inspired by real-life moments?

Phil – To set the record straight, I was never a workaholic when I practiced criminal law and I spent loads of time with Ami and her brother, Daniel. Ami seems to have blocked out the many times I got up at four in the morning to get her to ice skating practice

Ami – We did think a lot about a father– daughter team writing about a father – daughter team, but the book is not 100% based on us. Madison is much more athletic than I am and Hamilton is much more attractive than my father! There, however, are some similarities. Like Madison, I had to contend with my father the defense attorney but my father was more attentive to me (slightly) and certainly made time for my many activities. Sadly, Madison and I do share the loss of our mothers. Luckily it was much later in my life, although still way too soon. My father has written 16 New York Times bestselling books for adults, courtroom thrillers with a lot of violence and a high body count. An editor called and asked if he had ever thought about writing books for young adults, and his answer was truthfully no. He told me about the conversation and how out of date he was with a younger audience, he doesn’t even have a cell phone! I thought it might be a fun project, for us to work on together. I could learn from his writing style and he could learn what it was like to be a jr high girl. One of the great things about the book is there are some characteristics of my father’s adult writing (plot twists, weaving of two incidents that seemly are unrelated etc etc) but aimed at a younger audience. It was fun learning from him and I think he enjoyed hearing about things like jr high drama and the challenges of jr high girls. We have gotten a lot of compliments on our soccer scenes but we can’t take any credit for that. One of my best friends, Ashley Berman, was a star soccer player in Oregon, and played professional soccer. She helped us create dynamic, accurate and exciting soccer scenes. Often some of the words you read in a book are largely shaped by someone other than the author, such as the editor, subject matter experts, friends and family. I really believe writing is a collaborative process!

In my dad’s adult books there is a father-daughter criminal defense team, Amanda and Frank Jaffe. Because these characters appear in many of my father’s books, he had a good back story already created for them. Amanda’s mother died when she was very young and Frank, a workaholic criminal defense attorney, raised Amanda. I came up with a concept for the Jaffe Junior Mysteries: the books would be set when Amanda was in high school and show what it was like to grow up as Amanda Jaffe. The editors in New York loved the concept, but there was one catch – Amanda is in her early 40s now, so she would be in high school in the 1980s, before cell phones and the internet. The editors were concerned that young readers would not read a book set in the 1980s, so we created Madison and Hamilton Kincaid. Madison and Hamilton are very similar to Amanda and Frank, the only real difference is Madison is in 7th grade now, not in the 1980s, she has a cell phone and uses the internet, and Madison plays soccer where Amanda was a champion swimmer.

Tell us about setting the story in your real-life hometown of Portland! Any added pressure to live up to the city? Or was it fun writing about a real place?

Ami – When I was growing up, Portland was, as my mom described it “a small town that thinks it’s a big city.” Back then, Portland had few good restaurants or cultural options, and was thought of as Seattle’s less exciting, little sibling. Even though Portland is now a “foodies” paradise, the subject of shows like Portlandia and a place that east coasters dream of moving to, it is still a fun, comfortable small town to me. I was born here and moved away for ten years (college, Peace Corps, grad school and my first job) but always missed my true home town. I love everything about Portland, new and old. It was very fun writing about the city, and I think it would be hard to write a book taking place anywhere else. And yes, there was a lot of pressure. Not just because we love Portland but most Portlanders love Portland as well. If we misrepresented parts of the city I am sure we would upset some of our readers. We also thought it would be fun for local children to enjoy reading about their city. Perhaps one day they will offer Madison tours around Portland similar to Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo tours in Sweden!

Phil – I agree with Ami.

And here are Novel Novice’s traditional flash questions!

Private concert: who’s playing

Phil – Really good jazz by anyone or loud, screaming rock. I love the Rolling Stones and I’m not crazy about any group that came along after the early 1980s, so sue me.

Ami – If I am going to be honest – an N’Sync reunion with all the original members, include Justin.

Pizza toppings?

Phil – Having grown up in New York I am a pizza snob. There are only two toppings not counting the cheese – sausage or pepperoni. Anything else is barbaric.

Ami – black olives and green peppers

Book you can’t stop re-reading?

Phil – Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seriously, three times.

Ami – Anything by Phillip Margolin…just kidding I love, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

Living or dead, who would you like to have dinner with?

Phil – Doreen, my late wife.

Ami – my mom

Perfect vacation?

Phil – Venice

Ami – Anywhere, as long as my husband does all the planning and I just have to show up… and he carries all of my bags, but that should go without saying!

Look at your desk right now. Name five things within reach.

Ami –

1. hot tea (I am constantly drinking something hot)

2. a ton of cheap pens (I learned from my dad the love of a good bic)

3. Blank scratch paper

4. Scratch paper covered in notes

5. my cell phone

Phil –

1. My computer

2. My dictionary

3. Roget’s Thesaurus

4.A picture of Doreen

5. Another picture of Doreen

Thanks Phil & Ami! Here’s more about their book, Vanishing Acts:

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