By Anthony Stoeckert
Four days before the release of John Grisham’s newest legal thriller, “The Rooster Bar,” The Washington Post ran a review by Carrie Dunsmore, a lawyer and book blogger, praising Grisham for what he gets right about the law in his books. She wrote that becoming a lawyer ruined a lot of legal fiction for her because it strays too far from reality. Grisham, she wrote, largely gets it right.
“I’m shocked to hear that because I normally don’t get it right and I don’t care,” said Grisham with a laugh during a phone interview. “I get close to being right but if I have to fictionalize some law, or create a new courthouse or a new judge, I’m going to do that and not worry about that.”
But Grisham, who worked as a lawyer before becoming one of the world’s best-selling authors, said it was nice to hear that praise.
“She’s exactly right,” Grisham said. “I can read the first 20 pages of a book about the law and tell you if the writer is a lawyer or not. If the writer is not a lawyer, the mistakes are piling up immediately and I lose interest. A lawyer can always spot that. I get close enough to the law to make it believable but I’m not bound by what the law really is.”
“The Rooster Bar” is the second novel of Grisham’s to be published this year. The first, “Camino Island,” was released in June and was about the theft of rare F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Grisham didn’t visit Princeton in researching the book but he’s paying a visit on Oct. 25, with a talk titled “Appearing at the Scene of the Crime, John Grisham Visits Princeton.” The talk will take place Oct. 25, beginning at 4:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall.
“When the book came out back in June, I was a little bit nervous about how the book might be received at Princeton,” he said. “I kept waiting, thinking I might hear something from somebody at Princeton.” A few months after the book was published, he received a letter from University Librarian Anne Jarvis.
“It was a very nice letter; she invited me to come to Princeton and have a chat,” Grisham said. “And I said, ‘Well, at least you have a sense of humor.’ So that’s why I’m coming, I got invited.”
Being a book collector himself helped Grisham come up with the plot for “Camino Island.” In the early 1990s when he was living in Oxford, Mississippi, a friend was interested in selling a copy of “The Marble Fawn,” a book of poetry self-published by William Faulkner in 1924. Grisham said there are four known copies of the book in existence.
“Obviously they’re very, very rare, they didn’t sell back when he published them,” Grisham said. “This friend was looking to sell a copy of ‘The Marble Fawn’ and my wife kind of went behind my back and bought it as a gift for me. That was my first rare book and I kind of got the bug and I started buying more 20th-century novelists: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald. After 25 years I probably have about 75 books, and I’ve also picked up other writers — Mark Twain, William Styron and Updike, people I enjoy reading.”
Grisham said he likes collecting because those books have histories.
“It’s a real thrill to look at them and to think this book was published almost 100 years ago, the way they published then, the way they printed and bound them,” Grisham said. “And the way some books are preserved over time and some are not. I’ve got several first editions where the dust jackets are torn, or they’re stained. They’re not in good shape and that really affects the value. But it’s just fascinating to think that a collector held this book for 80 years and decided to sell it, or a family decided to sell Grandpa’s library. And they’ve been very good investments over the years.”
Grisham is, of course, best known for his legal thrillers, starting with “The Firm” in 1991. He’s also written a good amount of books that aren’t about lawyers, starting with “A Painted House," his 2001 autobiographical, coming-of-age story about a 7-year-old boy growing up in a family of cotton farmers struggling to pay its debts.
Since then, he has also written a comedic holiday novel (“Skipping Christmas,”) a work of non-fiction (“The Innocent Man”), books about sports, and the “Theodore Boone Kid Lawyer” young adult fiction series.
For Grisham, the chance to branch out and try other genres stemmed from a drive to see where else his talents could take him.
“You ask yourself, can I do something else? What are my limits? That was the question,” Grisham said. “So I had this great childhood memoir that I wanted to write while my parents were still alive and they could help me write it with the research. That was ‘A Painted House’ and it found an audience. Then next I had a really funny story about skipping Christmas, something I wish I could do every year.’
Those books also were best sellers, starting with “A Painted House.”
“That was very gratifying because we had no idea what to expect,” Grisham said of what the reception to his first non-legal thriller would be. “It’s become one of the favorites of all the stuff I’ve written because there’ not a single lawyer in the story.”
Still, he said he can’t imagine not writing legal thrillers. He writes one every year, starting with a few sentences on New Year’s Day and finishing by July 1 of each year.
“The books are still very popular, there are still a lot of people who expect one a year – they want two a year, but I can’t do two,” Grisham said. “They’re still a whole lot of fun to write, to piece together the intricate plots, to build the characters. I feel very, very lucky to be able to do this.”
In recent years, Grisham’s legal thrillers have been tied to issues, such as coal mining in Appalachia (2015’s “Cold Mountain”) and judicial corruption (2016’s “The Whistler”).
“There’s no shortage of problems with the legal system,” he said. “We talk about injustice, criminal injustice, penal injustice, social injustice. Sadly, there are a lot of problems and a lot of fascinating stories that are born because of human suffering and injustice. And those stories are, to me, irresistible and I’m always looking for stories like that.”
“The Rooster Bar” looks at for-profit law schools, something Grisham learned about from an article in The Atlantic titled “The Law-School Scam.” It follow three law school students who realize the for-profit law school they attend is owned by a hedge-fund operator who also owns a bank that specializes in student loans. They hatch a plan to get out of debt, one that involves quitting law school just a few months before graduation.
“It was about for-profit law schools and how they were attracting a lot of students who really have no business going to law school but they’re able to borrow huge sums of money from government and go to law school and hand over all their tuition money to law schools who are making a profit,” Grisham said. “It’s a bad situation, and I never heard of a for-profit law school at that time.”
He said those schools are pretty much out of business, which is why his book is set in 2014.
“What they found out starting several years ago was that these kids, these students, who had borrowed heavily, did not receive a very good education, could not pass the bar exam and could not find jobs, and so the whole thing is crumbling right now,” Grisham said.
Issues tend to be the sparks that lead to a new book, but Grisham’s goal is to write something his readers will enjoy.
“I don’t care what I write, initially it’s going to be something that I hope is very entertaining,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll write a legal thriller without an issue, or write a story without an issue, it’s just old-fashioned suspense, and those are still enjoyable to write. I think in the last 10 or 15 years of my career, I’ve spent more time with issues that I care about and exposing things that are wrong in the system through a legal thriller. The goal is to get readers caught up in the story through entertainment and expose or illuminate a particular issue. Maybe not my feelings about the issue, though my feelings are usually pretty evident. I think the better books I write are when I entertain and inform.”
A few years ago, The Washington Post wrote another story about Grisham, which included quotes from a book store owner in the South who said the author’s books helped bring new readers to his store.
“That’s really satisfying,” Grisham said. “The one thing I hear occasionally is when people say they were not reading or they had stopped reading and one my books inspired me to start reading again, and that’s as good as it gets.”
Tickets for John Grisham’s talk in Princeton are free and are available at 609-258-9220 while supplies last. Pre-signed copies of “Camino Island” and “The Rooster Bar” will be for sale. Grisham will not sign books at the event.
By Anthony Stoeckert