‘Black Hearts White Minds,’ the New Legal Thriller from St. Louis Author Mitch Margo
St. Louis writer, journalist and attorney Mitch Margo spent years as a reporter for The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner before making the change to a career as a lawyer. Since then he has worked in trust and estate litigation, mediation, arbitration, sports law and more. Margo also recently wrote the narrative legal thriller “Black Hearts White Minds.” Set in 1964, the story explores the world through the eyes of protagonist Carl Gordon, a lawyer who chooses to move to the town of Stockville, Alabama, to enforce the Civil Rights Act.
Recently published in early 2018 by Mission Possible Press, the story is a fascinating examination of what it felt like to live through the Civil Rights Movement, written as the result of comprehensive research and many interviews. Keep reading to learn more about Margo and this fascinating read.
“Black Hearts White Minds” is a real return to writing for you as a former newspaper reporter. What led you to study law instead of continue as a journalist?
While working at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, I had an editor who sent me to San Fernando Valley to be the first to cover brush fires—which hadn’t happened yet. I got the distinct impression that he wanted me to actually start a brush fire. As it sunk in, I went to a Lakers game that night instead and applied to law school the next day.
Wow, that’s an intense story. In its most primitive form, what did the idea and the writing look like?
The book actually started when my son went to basketball camp several years ago. Instead of writing him a letter every day, I decided I would write him a serial story about a kid’s basketball team. Every day or two, I sent him another installment of the story. And years later, that serial story I wrote him got worked into the book as the protagonist’s son.
You and the protagonist of the novel, Carl Gordon, appear to share a number of attributes, with the key exception that he’s active in his law practice during the Civil Rights movement. What inspired how the story ultimately came together?
I was born in 1955, so I really missed much of the Civil Rights Movement as it was happening, but it had always fascinated me. I also wanted it to be set in Alabama, where some of the most important work needed to happen. Carl Gordon and I do share a lot of attributes—and while there are characters in the book who are based on real people, most of them are combinations of different people I’ve known over the years.
At the very beginning of the book, his wife dies of terminal ALS and which prompts him to make some pretty morally questionable choices. That’s certainly a turning point for him, and creates the type of conflict a novel needs. He’s also very impulsive; after his wife’s death, he announces to his son that they’re moving to Alabama to help enforce the Civil Rights Act. His intent may be noble, but you also see his more serious character flaws. Like Carl Gordon, I’ve also had turning points along the way that has determined my direction, as we all do.
We’ve seen the effects of racism and how pervasive it can be, particularly here in St. Louis. How did you seek to handle that topic, which is so much a part of this book?
While it’s unquestionable that we still have a long way to go, since 1964 when the book is set, we have also come a long way. I wanted to tell an honest story about what went on during that time, and there are parts of this book that are subsequently very painful. And I wrote them that way. To prepare the narrative, I did quite a bit of research, conducted many interviews and did a lot of background reading. And much of my own story does underlie the plot points, but it really happens through the eyes of the characters. I definitely didn’t try to be careful about the way race is portrayed. Instead, I wanted to tell a story that was really true to history.
What did the writing process look like for the project?
From beginning to publication, it took about five years total to complete. Typically I would write part time, usually in the late afternoon or early evening when the law office quieted down. I also hired an editor based in New York to read the manuscript and give me notes. She did a marvelous job of consulting me and ultimately making it a much much better book.
The largest change she recommended, which took a while to implement, was that I had written the book chronologically from beginning to end. She told me point blank, “Mitch, this story doesn’t get going until your protagonist arrives in Alabama. That’s where the book starts.” She told me to start the book there, and then weave in the rest of the background information. And she was absolutely right. There were also other parts where she’d say, “Mitch, you have to take out this section or this sentence here.” And I’d say, “But that’s my best writing!” And she said, “It may be, but it doesn’t belong in the story.” It required a significant amount of editing, but it’s a much better and tighter book for it.
What can we expect to see next from you? What inspires your ideas?
Right now, I’m actually working on two books at the same time, which I have to stop doing. One is a sequel to “Black Hearts White Minds,” and the other is about a real-estate developer and his family living well beyond their means when the recession hits in 2008, and they’re deep in debt to a number of banks. It’s told through the eyes of his wife and explores what they do to recover.
As far as inspiration, for much of my life I’ve taken notes on the world around me. If I have an idea, I immediately stop and write it down—otherwise I forget. There is so much happening around all of us that is worthy of writing about. For me, it’s an opportunity to narrow down, “What would work as the kind of story I want to tell?”
Cover image courtesy of Trent Erwin. Headshot courtesy of Mitch Margo.