Barnes & Noble Review Interview with John Grisham
To talk with John Grisham about the process of writing his latest novel is to get evidence, in conversation, of the kind of overwhelming energy required to found a new genre of fiction and write more than two dozen international bestsellers: friendly and gracious to a fault, the author is also in possession of a restless attention that anticipates questions before they are asked and leaves the interviewer wondering if he really is as easy to read as all that. The idea of being cross-examined by John Grisham on the stand is not a prospect one would face with a lot of pleasure.
What is fun is hearing the dynamic author talk with evident relish about Rogue Lawyer, his thirtieth novel and the apparent lead-off in a new series that stars Sebastian Rudd, a gun-for-hire attorney who conducts his business out of a van, employs an imposing bodyguard, and sees legal ethics as something of a musical instrument to be played on freely by those who have the skill to do so. He also spoke of his work on the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, and why he hates to reread his prior work. We spoke earlier this year at Book Expo America, before Rogue Lawyer was published. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: What I was immediately struck in by Rogue Lawyer, by comparison to earlier books, was a shift in your writing style and the diction and velocity of the prose. It took me a minute to orient myself. I thought, "This is as hard-boiled as I think I've read John Grisham." Was that your intention?
John Grisham: Oh, sure. I started writing it probably three years ago, just as an idea. I have a lot of ideas for stories based on real cases I read about, usually something dealing with a horrible injustice in the system, something that I would love to see addressed or fixed or exposed or written about. There are a lot of those.
BNR: Some kind of flaw in the way that we think about justice and the law that produces a story.
JG: Sure. A lot of those, though, cannot stand up to the rigors of a full-length novel. So they are smaller stories. I want to address the issues: I want to meet some of the characters. For years I've been thinking how can I do that in such a way that I can make it compelling and readable and a whole lot of fun. So I came up with this voice, which is basically me, my observations of the system. When I was a lawyer, I sort of admired the guys who were really out-there, the fearless guys who were taking the bad cases, who would take the case nobody else would take, who were in court all the time, who were basically just kind of fearless. I wasn't that way. I was a bit too nervous.
This all came out in the character of Sebastian: A voice, the guy who's at war with the system, the guy who's fighting for injustice, and then through him we can expose all these different issues that need to be talked about. So it was gradual.
I wrote the first installment, based on a real trial. When I finished it (I don't know how long it took, and I have not been in a hurry with it), I thought, "This is going to work." This stuff is fun to read. When I write something, and I go back and read it, and I say, "This is fun to read," it's going to work.
BNR: Is that your acid test generally? Or do you feel sometimes like you don't need to do that; you know you've got a good story?
JG: I have never gone back and read an entire novel after it was published, because by the time it's published, I'm really tired of it. I write them in 6 months or 9 months or 12 months or whatever, and it's a burst of energy, and I put a lot of work through it. Then you go through the editing, editing, copyediting, endless proofreading. So when the thing goes to press, I'm really happy. I can't touch it any more. I can't take any more.
So I just don't go back and read them, with the exception of two books, Bleachers and a short story collection, because I had to read those for the audio. Which I'll never do again. It's too much work. I did it twice for Bleachers, and I read the short stories and it's really labor. You have to sit in a sound stage for hours and do that. But other than those stories, I don't go back and read them, because I don't want to.
BNR: You never had to go back and say, "I have to re-read A Time to Kill because I'm coming back to that place, and I need to know what I said?"
JG: Oh, big time. Sycamore Row was a bear to write, because I had to go back and read so much of A Time to Kill.
BNR: You hadn't given yourself the privilege of a blank canvas that you usually have, where you can always start with whatever you want to do at that moment.
JG: Yes. That's why it's tricky. Plus, you can't make mistakes. You can't get something wrong. This Theodore Boone thing is driving me crazy, because this is #5 and I can't tell you what's in the first four. There are little details. "Does Theo have a cell phone?" I can't remember all this stuff, and it's getting to be a problem.
BNR: I was talking to Sloane Crosley about her new novel, and she said she found that process enjoyable. She had lot of characters, and said it was a treasure hunt kind of thing in the end, where she had to go through the manuscript looking for places where, for example one character turns his nose up at a drink early on because it was not a brown liquor, and then discovered she had him ordering a vodka tonic later on. She said it was kind of fun to catch those things. But I gather it's not always a lot of fun for you?
JG: I don't think it's fun at all. It's frightening to make those mistakes and I've made them. I'm making a lot of mistakes with Theo, because I don't want to go plow through and annotate the whole thing, and whatever. It's also kind of scary when you do catch something right before it's published, like the vodka drink . . . Because you don't want to make a mistake, you don't want to get caught, and you're going to get caught a thousand times they send you letters. It's like "gotcha ha-ha!" And then you're nailed. You can't lie your way out of it. You made a mistake.
I get letters from every book where people point out mistakes I've made in factual things, primarily guns and ammo. I know nothing, OK? Don't really want to learn. Not my hot button. But I make mistakes all the time talking about guns and ammo, and believe me . . .
BNR: They figure into the cases, but there are always going to be people who have a more geeky sort of attachment to any sort of technological thing like the caliber that would be in a certain make of a gun.
JG: Computers. I'm a low-tech caveman. Not only am I low-tech, I don't want to learn anything. I don't like having a cell phone in my pocket. I don't like having to submit my books electronically. I like the old-fashioned way better. Well, you can't live like that nowadays. You've got to learn some stuff. And Theo is on Facebook.
BNR: You couldn't write a believable teenager with the same attitudes that are natural for you.
JG: No way. So fortunately, my agent, David Gernert, has got an office full of young, smart, tech-savvy 20- somethings, who eat this stuff up. So when I write a scene involving Facebook or Twitter or whatever, they always review it for me.
If I'm [writing a story with a character] wiring money in offshore accounts or Swiss banks or whatever, somebody else is going to look at it, somebody with some expertise. Even a lot of the legal stuff, I'll get a lawyer buddy to give it a look. Because you think of yourself as a professional; you just don't want to make mistakes.
With A Time to Kill it drove me crazy, and I guess this [Rogue Lawyer] is going to do the same thing, because it's another series, you know.
BNR: It's not a surprise that his voice is so immediately recognizable. So I want to talk a bit about where that voice came from. What's interesting is that he's a lawyer, but his kinship is with, I feel, private detectives and the kind of Philip Marlowe figure. Trouble walks into his office, and it's clear you've created someone whose struggle is to sort of figure out how to be the good guy. There's a scene in which he's weighing all the different scenarios of what his options are.
JG: Also, and you'll see this in the book, he is constantly torn between the ethics of his profession and confronting other lawyers and judges and cops who have no ethics. In his trials the prosecutor puts on witnesses that he knows to be lying a cop or an informant or whatever. So Sebastian takes the position, "They're cheating, so I'm going to cheat." Once the authorities legitimize cheating in a trial, all bets are off. He struggles with that all the time.
There are three different trials in the book: There's more legal stuff in Rogue than any other book I've written. It's three straight trials, and some more stuff. But in the last trial, Sebastian has a chance to cheat and win but he doesn't do it because the prosecutor is not cheating. He's playing it straight, for a change. For the next trial, the same prosecutor may cheat. So he's going to have to think the whole time about how much cheating is OK, which is really fascinating to explore, and how do you cheat? How do you cheat in your trial? Well, there are a lot of ways to do it. This is stuff I love. I love to read about it, I love to write it.
BNR: Do you find yourself trying to follow new developments, new kind of problems in the law where you say, "This would create attention . . . " I'm thinking about states, for example, where they try to come up with legal justifications for acquiring the pharmaceuticals to do executions, which are new justifications, new arguments, because they've never faced this issue before, of legally having the power to do an execution but being constrained in all kinds of ways, and finding it hard to make it through . . . to get that done. Do you kind of keep your eye open for these new wrinkles?
JG: Nonstop. I have a file on the drugs used for executions. In the story, part one is a horrible murder trial in which Sebastian is defending the accused in a small town, nearby, and the kid is facing the death penalty, and the town can't wait to execute him. In Part 2, Sebastian is on death row with a client who is about to be executed. So there is a lot of death row stuff in this book. I am fascinated by the issue of the death penalty. I've written about it many times in other books. But now they can't find the drugs, and again, it's a fascinating issue to explore.
Also, with the death penalty, Nebraska abolished it yesterday, the first conservative state to do so ever. We see a dramatic decrease in the number of death verdicts and executions every year. But what's behind that? Well, I'm on the board of the Innocence Project here in New York. We think it's because we've had so many high-profile exonerations that jurors are now far more skeptical about what the cops and prosecutors tell them. They're far more demanding. There are fewer bad convictions than you think. But that's right down my alley, and that's the kind of stuff I love to write about. And Sebastian will explore all those issues.
BNR: You do so much work with things like the Innocence Project: I want to ask whether you ever feel there is a tension between, "I'm interested in writing about this in the book, but I've got to be careful what I say because I don't want to create the impression that I think one thing when there's this other debate going on" or do they all kind of feed each other?
JG: They just feed each other. On the Innocence Project board, we look at thousands of cases. I don't personally, but I come across them. We've had 325 exonerations in the last 20 years. I wrote a nonfiction book about one of them. Every wrongful conviction deserves a great book. They are all fascinating. You lock a man up for 25 years for a rape he didn't commit, and what went wrong . . . And the real rapist is still out there. I wish I had the time and resources to write one a year, an innocence story every year.
So the material comes to us. The material comes to me. All I've got to do is regurgitate it, run it through a hyperactive imagination, change the names and you've got a great story. They're out there. Anybody can do that. The newspapers are full of them.
BNR: Speaking of other people who do this, one thing I was struck by it may be the kind of thing you've done in other books and I've failed to notice, but this is where I noticed it first: In Rogue Lawyer, right away we learn that Sebastian likes to unwind reading Michael Connolly and James Lee Burke. I thought, "Is that John Grisham winking a little bit at his colleagues?
JG: Yeah. Well, I enjoy both those guys. A lot. I know Michael a little bit. I've never met James Burke. But two of my favorites. I've toyed with the idea: Stephen King, a few years ago he's a great buddy of mine gave me a cheap shot in one of his books, some guy who was barely literate and was reading Grisham. I called him out on it, because he was not getting back, and two books later I nailed him. So just stuff like that, we go back and forth.
But I'm still thinking about what kind of books would Sebastian read? Murder mysteries. Crime fiction. The dark stuff. That's what he likes.
BNR: Would he read John Grisham, or would that be too close to his own work to be impressed?
JG: Great question. I don't know. He probably would love the content, but it could easily be something he'd want to stay away from. That's his life.
November 5, 2015