Author John Grisham: On writing, rare books and the law

John Grisham

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John Grisham

By Anthony Stoeckert, Staff Writer
John Grisham didn’t come to Princeton while writing a novel about a theft at the Firestone Library, but four months after the book’s publication, the best-selling author finally made his way to town.
During a talk Wednesday at Richardson Auditorium, at Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus, Grisham talked about the two books he published this year, shared reflections on his career and offered insights into his writing process.
Sharing the stage with Maria DiBattista, a professor of English at Princeton University, Grisham answered questions with a lot of intelligence, thought, and a good dose of humor.
Grisham’s novel “Camino Island,” published in June, is about the theft of rare F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton’s Firestone Library. A novelist named Mercer Mann, who’s struggling with writer’s block, gets caught up in the world of rare books. He is hired to infiltrate the business of Bruce Cable, a dealer in rare books who’s made money selling stolen manuscripts.
Grisham was introduced by Anne Jarvis, Princeton University’s librarian. Jarvis joked that she read about a theft of Fitzgerald manuscripts from Firestone and wondered, “How did I not know about this?” She was relieved to find out the crime was fictional, then wondered if Meryl Streep could play her in the movie.
Grisham said the book’s plot was sparked when he and his wife were driving to Florida and heard a report on NPR about thefts of rare manuscripts and artifacts at libraries, easy targets because libraries aren’t known for their security. Wanting to write about a great American writer’s manuscripts, he chose Fitzgerald because William Faulkner’s papers are too bulky to be stolen, and Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck’s papers are scattered at various sites. “That left Fitzgerald,” Grisham said.
He got some information through the library’s website but decided, “I’m not going near the place.” Showing up at Firestone and asking how someone would go about stealing the papers would be awkward, and he also didn’t want to give any criminals ideas. Most important, an accurate portrait of the library and the papers wasn’t necessary for his story. “By getting it wrong, only a handful of people will know,” he said, joking that most of those people were at the talk.
Grisham was going to write a letter to the university to let them know about the book, but didn’t because “lawyers got in the way.”
A few months after the book was published, he got a call from Jarvis, who said she liked the book and invited him to speak at the campus. “I thought that was pretty classy,” Grisham said. “You folks have a sense of humor.”
Grisham — who collects rare books and was given a first edition of “The Great Gatsby” as a gift to celebrate the publication of “Camino Island” — got to see the Fitzgerald papers before his talk.
He said the papers showed how much work Fitzgerald put into his books, and he also noticed that Fitzgerald used the cheapest paper around, and a No. 2 pencil.
Grisham is most famous for his legal thrillers, he publishes one a year, but no lawyers are found in “Camino Island.”
Fall is when his lawyer books are published, and the newest, “The Rooster Bar,” was released Oct. 24. It’s about students at a for-profit law school who find out their education isn’t likely to leave them with much except a lot of debt. They then decide to get revenge on the hedge fund manager who owns the school.
For the last 10 or 15 years, Grisham’s plots have been structured around an issue, though he says his goal is not to preach but to entertain. Still, he’s troubled by injustice.
“The older I get, the more frustrated I am with deficiencies in the legal system,” he said, adding, for example, that it would be possible to end wrongful convictions in our legal system. That not only would mean justice, but would save lots of money.
Other issues he wants to write about are women’s prisons, juvenile prisons, and the opioid crisis and big pharma.
He also talked about his writing process, the start of his career and some of his favorite writers, such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, John le Carré, Pat Conroy and John. D. MacDonald.
Shedding light on issues pertaining to the law is satisfying, but even as one of the country’s most successful lawyers, Grisham said his platform isn’t big enough to enact real change, the way movies and television can. He said he’s often asked if he’s recognized in public, but rarely is.
“I’m a famous writer in a country where no one reads,” he said.