A Chat With John Grisham

The bestselling writer talks craft in new James Madison University series.

John Grisham has sold more than 300 million books, seen several turned into blockbuster movies, and he has his writing schedule down pat, starting a new legal thriller every Jan. 1. You might say he’s exceeded all expectations.

This Wednesday, Grisham comes to James Madison University to share some of his knowledge, hosting a conversation on stage with National Book Award-winning memoirist and novelist James McBride. In March, Grisham has invited Alice McDermott, whose “Charming Billy” won a National Book Award in 1998.

We spoke with Grisham, who lives part-time outside Charlottesville, about the John Grisham Writers Hour series, his books, his work with the Innocence Project, the Kavanaugh confirmation and when he plans to visit Richmond.

Style Weekly: How did you decide to do the writers series?

Grisham: Last year, I published a book called “Camino Island,” and I toured for the first time in like 20 years. I went to 20 different towns’ bookstores, and every town I went to, I’d invite a writer or two from that area, and we’d do an on-stage event — just writer talk. And we’d record it all for a podcast [“Book Tour with John Grisham”] and it became pretty popular.

My buddy is Inman Majors, a professor of creative writing at JMU. I know him very well. We talked about the idea of having a series where we’d invite writers to come in — writers that we admire, writers that we had never met — and first of all meet with the writing students and pass along advice or whatever, and then have a big event and talk to each other on stage about writing. It’s a lot of fun.

What is it about James McBride and Alice McDermott that prompted you to invite them?

I met James about 10 years ago at the book festival here in Charlottesville, and we hit it off big time and had a wonderful time together. He has a wonderful sense of humor and does not take life that seriously. He writes about serious stuff, but he’s really funny, just wants to have a good time. I have not seen him in 10 years, so that’s one reason to do something like this, to catch up with friends. I admire his writing, and he’s a great musician and just a great guy to hang out with.

I’ve always enjoyed Alice’s books. She was gracious enough to say yes, and we’ll see her in March. Inman and I are already thinking about who’s the third one going to be next fall. It’s kind of fun planning these, talking to writers and seeing who can come.

What do you think your audience can learn about writing and getting published?

They’re going to hear a lot of stuff about how we did it and how you go about doing it. I would read interviews of writers by journalists on how they approached the subject matter, how they got the discipline, how long it takes them, how many words a day — stuff that prospective writers need to hear. There’ll be a lot of that talk next Wednesday.

You’ve written 30 novels and other works, including nonfiction. How has your writing evolved over the years?

I can’t see any changes. I think it’s impossible to sit where I sit and write so much and be able to evaluate it and say now I’m going in a different direction, because it’s not intentional. When I start every book, my goal is to entertain, to take the reader on a journey where he or she has not been, a story they haven’t seen, and capture them for two or three days in a novel that hooks them and makes the pages turn. That’s my goal.

Sometimes I will include in that story a very serious issue, whether it’s capital punishment or wrongful convictions or environmental destruction or insurance fraud. You can explore that issue and take your reader through that world and maybe raise some awareness, that’s good. But it’s always a goal to entertain.

I wanted to ask you about your 2006 nonfiction work “The Innocent Man.” What was it like to write a person’s true story?

I’m not sure I’ll do it again. It was a lot of extra work that I’m not accustomed to. The research was brutal. I’m not a journalist. I wasn’t trained to be a journalist. I wasn’t sure how to find sources, check sources, rely on sources, and I was out of my league, OK. It’s a great story. It’s filled with all kinds of tragedy and injustice and all that. I still love the story, but writing it was a real challenge because it was a different world. I had to hire a full-time research assistant just to plow through 10,000 documents we found. Again, I’m just not sure I’ll ever do that again.

It’s much easier to just sit back for six months and create stuff — fictionalize stuff — and not worry about the facts. I’m not sure I’ve got the patience for more nonfiction.

You’ve worked with the Innocence Project, serving on its board of directors. Are you doing anything with them now?

I was in New York last weekend for a four-hour board meeting on Friday and a three-hour board meeting on Saturday. We meet four times a year in New York. I can’t make all of them, but I’m always on the phone. It’s a high-powered board determined to get the release of innocent people but also to enact policies to prevent wrongful convictions in the future. It’s a great organization. It’s so much fun, nobody on the board wants to get off the board, which is unusual for a nonprofit.

We really are committed to the work, because there are so many thousands of innocent people in prison. Most people don’t believe that, but there are thousands of innocent people there and we’re trying to get them out.

The DNA cases are the easiest cases because you have clear biological proof when it works. Oftentimes, it doesn’t, and with DNA it’s impossible — or virtually impossible — to get the police and the prosecutors to acknowledge that this person could be innocent, and that’s a fight we fight all the time.

The really difficult cases are the cases where there’s no DNA, and there’s no biological proof — nothing to hang your hat on. You have to go back to the scene of the crime and start investigating 15, 20, 30 years later, and it takes enormous resources to pull that off. But we do it all the time. That’s why we do what we do, to try to solve these cases, and not only free an innocent person but convict whoever the real killer was.

It’s very slow, cumbersome, expensive work, and you get no cooperation from the government. In fact, they’re your enemy. They don’t want a bad conviction exposed. It’s frustrating, but that’s why we do it.

Can you tell me a little bit about “The Reckoning,” your new book (coming out this month)?

It’s very different. There are huge sections of the book when you’re going to be reading it that you can’t believe it was written by me [laughing]. It’s the only book I’ve written that takes place before I was born — in the 1940s in a small town in Mississippi, a sensational crime with no explanation for it. It’s really Southern gothic — an old Southern family with all kinds of issues, tragedies. It was so much fun to write.

What made you decide to do something that was more of a period piece?

I heard this story 30 years ago from somebody — I don’t know who — of a murder that took place in Mississippi in the 1930s, and it was a complete mystery and a fantastic story. I don’t even know if it’s true. I’ve never forgotten that. This is my chance to steal it and re-create it in my own way.

What advice do you have about getting published in the age of Amazon?

It’s always been virtually impossible to get published because so many people are trying to get published. What I tell students is that sounds impossible, but so does becoming an actor or becoming a famous rock star. It all looks impossible.

Every year in publishing, though, there are several hundred first novels that get published, and publishing is always looking for new talent because publishing needs new, young writers to keep readers coming in. And so, the truth is if you’re writing something that’s good, you may be rejected for a long time, but if you persevere, you will eventually be noticed.

If you’re not noticed over a long period of time, then maybe you should face the reality that it’s not going to happen. But if you believe in what you’re doing and writing good stuff, somebody is eventually going to notice.

Do you have any thoughts about Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, which has been the biggest legal story in a while? Do you think you’ll write anything about it?

Yeah [laughing]. You never know. I wrote a book called “The Pelican Brief” that was published 20-something years ago. It’s about the assassination of two Supreme Court justices, so I’ve already been down that road once. I don’t know — but it’s fascinating. The frustrating part is it’s so horribly political, there’s not much effort to gauge the qualifications of Kavanaugh.

There were some real issues about his veracity that were being raised, when suddenly there was a sexual assault allegation — that sidetracked everything. It became strictly partisan — right down the middle, 51-49, and we’re not going to change because we’re Democrats or Republicans or whatever. And whether or not he’s qualified got lost in the shuffle.

It became a matter of winning or losing. And I’m not sure if they confirmed a good guy. He may be, but I don’t know. We didn’t get to talk about that. So, it was all sensationalized, and it’s a very dark and depressing chapter in the history of the Supreme Court. Will I write about it? You never know. You never know. There could be a great story that comes up about the Supreme Court.

Have you ever considered doing a signing or some sort of event in Richmond?

There’s a good store in Richmond I want to go to, there’s a good store at the beach I want to go to. They’re on my list. I love to go to independent bookstores and say thanks both for the support and to meet the fans and all that. So, they’re on my list, and I’ll get there eventually.

What are you working on now? Movie adaptations or a new novel?

I try to stay away from Hollywood for a lot of reasons [laughs]. I’m writing another book for my kids series, “Theodore Boone.” That’ll probably come out in June of next year. And then kind of gearing up for January the first. Every January the first, I start the next legal thriller. I’m thinking about it now.

For information about the John Grisham Writers Hour, visit https://www.jmu.edu/news/2018/09/19-john-grisham-writers-hour.shtml.


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