Literary Rim Shots: A Chat with John Grisham

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When John Grisham first sat down to write a book in 1985, he didn’t know much about writing. All he knew was that he was a bored lawyer turned lawmaker, resentful of the demands placed on him by clients and constituents. Plus, he thought writing might be a good way to make a little money. He wrote in quiet corners of the Mississippi state house. That first book, A Time to Kill, was published in 1989 and it was a flop.

Grisham told his wife he would try one more book and then, if that failed, he’d give up. The next book, The Firm, was optioned by a film studio before it ever found a publisher. But by the time it was published, it was an instant hit, spending forty-seven weeks on the bestseller list.

From there, well, John Grisham became John Grisham. He’s written thirty-eight books, which have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. Many of his books are legal thrillers, some are about sports, and the rural south. His only nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, chronicles the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson. And in his most recent book, Camino Island, Grisham takes on a world he’s long inhabited but never written about—the literary world.

The plot is every struggling writer’s fantasy: a young broke writer is offered an insane amount of money to go to an island, write a book, and solve a crime.

The book has some familiar characters: the moralistic mom who writes about vampires, a roguish literary hero with affectations like not wearing socks with his shoes, and the novelist who would be a good writer if he could just stop drinking enough to actually write. (We all know that guy.) And yes, there is also crime.

We talked with John Grisham about his writing pet peeves, the literary mafia, and why he should probably be afraid of Stephenie Meyer.

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The Rumpus: There is a line in the book trailer, “The literary life can be more devious and dangerous than you think.” As an editor at a literary magazine, this made me wonder what in the hell I am missing?

John Grisham: Nothing. There is no devious and dangerous life. It’s all fiction. I’ve lived a charmed life, especially in the last thirty years since I’ve started publishing.

Rumpus: See, when I started writing no one ever billed it as a life of ease. But you’ve found it.

Grisham: Yes, I’ve won the lottery. And I keep winning it every year and I am so fortunate to do something I thoroughly enjoy and still enjoy after a bunch of books.

Rumpus: That is something that is apparent in all your books; even if your book has a dark theme, you seem to really enjoy the book as much as the reader. Your books are very readable. How do you maintain that?

Grisham: I still enjoy the process of writing. If I ever feel like I am going through the motions because I can sell anything at this level, I hope that somebody, somewhere who I trust will tell me to take a break and stop because it’s sounding old. But so far, I don’t feel like I’m boring anyone. But Camino Island  was fun to write because it has a happy ending. Nobody gets hurt and the roguish hero gets to walk away with the money.

Rumpus: You mentioned in a couple of interviews that you wrote Camino Island as a way to stick it to your critics who wrote your book off as a “beach read.”  So you wrote a very literal (because it happens on the beach) beach read.

Grisham: I was being a little tongue-in-cheek in those interviews. But yes, I did get tired of hearing that criticism years ago. That is not a compliment. Being labeled a “beach read” is a put-down. So, I did deliberately set out to write a book that would be very entertaining and compulsively readable and we published it on June 6  in time for summer vacation, hoping that people would buy it and take it to the beach.

Rumpus: You touch on this in the book, but there is a huge gulf between popular writers and literary writers. There are a lot of books that everyone in the “literary establishment” talks about but sell terribly, and then there are the books that get panned but sell so well. Do you have any insight into what’s happening there?

Grisham: That is one of the great mysteries of bookselling. How do you bridge the gap? How do you maintain the admiration of the critics, but maintain the popularity of the readers. And in my case, once you sell a lot of books and you are labeled a bestselling author, the serious critics are never gonna say anything nice about you.

And I don’t even know what a serious literary critic is.

Rumpus: Me, either.

Grisham: Who are these people? Where are they?

Rumpus: IT’S NOT US!1

Grisham: So many book sections in newspapers and magazines used to be lively and vibrant places. Now they are gone. You just don’t see many reviews anymore. I can’t control that, so I don’t worry about it. I just try to do what I do and write books that people find every entertaining. I don’t worry about the critics.

Rumpus: To be very real with you, I don’t know any writers who would have turned down the offer that Emily Mercer Mann receives in Camino Island. I mean, I have a house and kids and husband; I’d abandon them in a heartbeat for a few months on an island to investigate a crime and write a book. Why did you have her resist so much?

Grisham: Well, she resists, but she doesn’t resist too much. She needs a job, she needs money, she needs to finish her book. So, she didn’t fight too hard. But at the same time, she’s a very nice person. She’s not devious. And for her to be expected to go spy on someone she doesn’t know and solve a major crime, it’s just not her thing. She’s was scared to death to do that.

Rumpus: It made me wonder though, how many struggling writers do you know? Because I know a lot of writers who would do that for free.

Grisham; [Laughter] They would not resist, huh?

Rumpus: No, in fact, I want you to set up a Camino Island writing retreat; I will be the first to apply. Another fun aspect of the book is that there are so many good rim shots, especially during the dinner parties, where the couple who are obsessed with good literature, and write romance novels for money, snipe about the moralistic author of vampire novels. How much fun was that to write?

Grisham: Those are probably my favorite sections of the book. I’ve never known a gang of writers like that. I’ve got writer buddies I hang out with in Charlottesville, Virginia where I live. And there is a fair amount of cheap shots and laughter. We keep up with each other’s work and support each other. So, I guess I have my own literary mafia. But nothing like in Camino Island with Myra and Lee and the two guys, who are drunks.

You can just see that cast of characters around the table having a long dinner and drinking a lot with Bruce and his wife. And then, Mercer walks into it and she’s just captivated by this group of people who are probably very envious of one another, but they are on their best behavior. That is probably one of my favorite scenes in the book.

Rumpus: Are you worried about getting an angry letter from a famous writers who might feel targeted by your portrayal?

Grisham: No, no, no. I’ve never thought about that.

Rumpus: You aren’t going to get a call from Stephenie Meyer, saying, “Hey, come on now, Grisham!”

Grisham: I’d be shocked if I did, because I was careful to make sure things were nice and fictionalized. I don’t want to get in trouble.

Rumpus: The writer of popular vampire novels who is very religious and has kids was pretty on the nose, though.

Grisham: Okay, now you’ve got me worried. I’ve never read that series. But there are so many vampire books on the market, surely she isn’t going to know.

Rumpus: I hate to break it to you, but there are not a lot of vampire novels written by a Mormon who has kids.

Grisham: Really? Really? Really?

Rumpus: Well, don’t worry; she probably doesn’t read The Rumpus.

Grisham: Well, if she does call, we will have a good laugh and become buddies.

Rumpus: Speaking of that, I’ve read that you hang out with Stephen King. Do you two sit together and swap epic literary gossip?

Grisham: Yeah, pretty much. I  remember he did a fundraiser one time with J.K. Rowling and he was very impressed with her. But we talk a lot about publishing, bookselling, and book writing. He’s been around for ten years longer than me and was a bestseller right off the bat. And he’s seen and done everything. It’s rare to be with somebody who has been through all of that. There are very few people you can have those conversations with. So we tend to talk about things that are off-limits elsewhere and that nobody else would understand.

He told me a long time ago, when he gave me some advice about the movies. He said to take the money up front and expect it to be something different than the book and if you don’t like that don’t deal with Hollywood. But if you take the money, shut up and don’t criticize the film because you sold it. The movie doesn’t change a word of the book.

Stephen reached out to me twenty-five years ago and taught me some valuable lessons. In return,  I’ve tried to be generous with my time over the years with young writers. I’ve given them my email and said if you need someone to talk to, I’ve been through it.

Rumpus: So you gave the New York Times some of your best writing tips, some of which you wove into the book. But I’d love to hear you talk about mistakes writers make.

Grisham: The two mistakes that come to mind are people who introduce a flood of characters in the first few pages. Where the reader has to stop and get out a flow chart and has to figure out who is who. And you just can’t do that—introduce the first four generations of a character’s family in the first chapter. You can introduce four or five characters at the most in the first chapter.

Another mistake is to use big words that are not normally used in conversation to try to impress folks with your vocabulary.

One thing that drives me nuts… well, let me ask you, when writers write do they not use quotation marks anymore?

Rumpus: Oh my gosh, you have no idea. It’s everywhere and I’m constantly adding them back in. And we do experimental stuff and push the line, but I have my limits. At some point, just put in quotation marks; it’s why Jesus invented them.

Grisham: It’s ridiculous and it’s confusing. And you don’t know if someone said something or if it’s something they thought. It’s absurd. Cormac McCarthy got it started thirty or forty years ago and now people try to imitate him. But there is only one Cormac. He can get by with it. He can make his own rules. I am not going to tell him how to write, but for anybody else, please use quotation marks.

Another thing that drives me nuts is, you’ll have a writer publish a debut novel that’s almost a thousand pages long. And you know, come on, they haven’t earned the right to publish a book that big. I haven’t earned the right to publish a book that big.

Rumpus: There seems to be a divide between books where the writer is trying to get you to turn the page and books where it seems as though the writer is ambivalent whether you turn the pages. Is there value in the struggle with readability?

Grisham: There are books—literary classics—where you have to invest some time. Those books are worth it. But it depends on what you are looking for. We have so little time anyway. I don’t want to work too hard when I read.

I stopped reading Faulkner because it’s hard work. I want to read a good writer, but I also want to read something where the pages are going to move along. That’s what I want. It doesn’t have to be a thriller or a mystery. Just something where I get caught up in the story.

Rumpus: Who are your favorite writers?

Grisham: There are few writers who, if they publish anything, I am going to buy it: Ian McEwanScott TurowPat Conroy—he was a buddy of mine and I always read his stuff. Also: Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, John Le Carre (but he’s pushing ninety).

Rumpus: I heard he was going to revive George Smiley, just in time for the Russia investigation.

Grisham: Is he? Good. That’s the good stuff.

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1. It might be us.


Lyz Lenz is Managing Editor at The Rumpus. Lyz's writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. More from this author →