Literary Rim Shots: A Chat with John Grisham

I don’t worry about the critics. But you’ve found it. He’s written thirty-eight   books, which have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. ***
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? 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. Grisham;   [Laughter] They would not resist, huh? Cormac McCarthy got it started thirty or forty   years ago and now people try to imitate him. Rumpus:   You aren’t going to get a call from Stephanie 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. Grisham:   I was being a little tongue-in-cheek in those interviews. 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. Grisham:   Is he? There are very few people you can have those conversations with. Rumpus:   It made me wonder though, how many struggling writers do you know? You can introduce four or five characters at the most in the first chapter. Rumpus:   Me, either. Being labeled a “beach read” is a put-down. Because I know a lot of writers who would do that for free. Where are they? But there is only one Cormac. Lyz’s writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. How do you maintain that? That’s the good stuff. Rumpus:   You touch on this in the book, but there is a huge gulf between popular writers and literary writers. Do you two sit together and swap epic literary gossip? She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. Those books are worth it. 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. The movie doesn’t change a word of the book. So, I guess I have my own literary mafia. Just something where I get caught up in the story. I just try to do what I do and write books that people find every entertaining. 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. She needs a job, she needs money, she needs to finish her book. Rumpus: IT’S NOT US!1
Grisham:   So many book sections in newspapers and magazines used to be lively and vibrant places. That first book, A Time to Kill, was published in 1989 and it was a flop. How do you maintain the admiration of the critics, but maintain the popularity of the readers. And I don’t even know what a serious literary critic is. His only nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, chronicles the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson. Rumpus:   Oh my gosh, you have no idea. Now they are gone. Really? Grisham:   There are few writers who, if they publish anything, I am going to buy it:   Ian McEwan,   Scott Turow,   Pat Conroy—he was a buddy of mine and I always read his stuff. But nothing like in Camino Island with Myra and Lee and the two guys, who are drunks. Grisham:   Yes, I’ve won the lottery. You can just see that cast of characters around the table having a long dinner and drinking a lot with Bruce and his wife. Your books are very readable. So, she didn’t fight too hard. There is no devious and dangerous life. Grisham:   It’s ridiculous and it’s confusing. And you just can’t do that—introduce the first four generations of a character’s family in the first chapter. Grisham:   Okay, now you’ve got me worried. She’s was scared to death to do that. 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. How much fun was that to write? 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. Nobody gets hurt and the roguish hero gets to walk away with the money. He can get by with it. Grisham: Well, she resists, but she doesn’t resist too much. Rumpus:   The writer of popular vampire novels who is very religious and has kids was pretty on the nose, though. Another mistake is to use big words that are not normally used in conversation to try to impress folks with your vocabulary. I’ve lived a charmed life, especially in the last thirty   years since I’ve started publishing. That’s what I want. John Grisham:   Nothing. It’s all fiction. Rumpus:   No, in fact, I want you to set up a Camino Island writing retreat; I will be the first to apply. I   remember he did a fundraiser one time with J.K. Rumpus:   I heard he was going to revive George Smiley, just in time for the Russia investigation. Grisham:   Really? I’ve given them my email and said if you need someone to talk to, I’ve been through it. 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. From there, well, John Grisham became John Grisham. She’s not devious. We talked with John Grisham about his writing pet peeves, the literary mafia, and why   he should probably be afraid of Stephanie Meyer. I want to read a good writer, but I also want to read something where the pages are going to move along. And   in his most recent book, Camino Island, Grisham takes on a world he’s long inhabited but never written about—the literary world. He told me a long time ago, when he gave me some advice about the movies. 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. It’s rare to be with somebody who has been through all of that. It doesn’t have to be a thriller or a mystery. Good. But yes, I did get tired of hearing that criticism years ago. So we tend to talk about things that are off-limits elsewhere and that nobody else would understand. 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. Rumpus:   Who are your favorite writers? Grisham:   I still enjoy the process of writing. Rumpus:   So you gave the New York Times some of your best writing tips, some of which you wove into the book. Grisham:   Who are these people? Grisham:   There are books—literary classics—where you have to invest some time. And you know, come on, they haven’t earned the right to publish a book that big. More from this author → I haven’t earned the right to publish a book that big. He wrote in quiet corners of the Mississippi state house. Stephen reached out to me twenty-five   years ago and taught me some valuable lessons. How do you bridge the gap? Rumpus:   Well, don’t worry; she probably doesn’t read The   Rumpus. 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. And he’s seen and done everything. Really? You just don’t see many reviews anymore. Grisham:   Well, if she does call, we will have a good laugh and become buddies. (We all know that guy.) And yes, there is also crime. Rumpus:   Speaking of that, I’ve read that you hang out with Stephen King. I’ve got writer buddies I hang out with in Charlottesville, Virginia where I live. I’ve never thought about that. 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. Rumpus:   I hate to break it to you, but there are not a lot of vampire novels written by a Mormon who has kids. Rumpus:   See, when I started writing no one ever billed it as a life of ease. That is not a compliment. I’ve never read that series. It’s absurd. But if you take the money, shut up and don’t criticize the film because you sold it. 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. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. But we talk a lot about publishing, bookselling, and book writing. We have so little time anyway. Why did you have her resist so much? Another thing that drives me nuts is, you’ll have a writer publish a debut novel that’s almost a thousand pages long. 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. All he knew was that he was a bored lawyer turned lawmaker, resentful of the demands placed on him by clients and constituents. ***
1. I am not going to tell him how to write, but for anybody else, please use quotation marks. Do you have any insight into what’s happening there? But by the time it was published, it was an instant hit, spending forty-seven   weeks on the bestseller list. I can’t control that, so I don’t worry about it. 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. Plus, he thought writing might be a good way to make a little money. Where the reader has to stop and get out a flow chart and has to figure out who is who. I don’t want to work too hard when I read. He’s been around for ten years longer than me and was a bestseller right off the bat. I’ve never known a gang of writers like that. But so far, I don’t feel like I’m boring anyone. Grisham:   That is one of the great mysteries of bookselling. It might be us.↩

Lyz Lenz is Managing Editor at The Rumpus. In return,   I’ve tried to be generous with my time over the years with young writers. That is probably one of my favorite scenes in the book. Grisham told his wife he would try one more book and then, if that failed, he’d give up. But it depends on what you are looking for. At some point, just put in quotation marks; it’s why Jesus invented them. And you don’t know if someone said something or if it’s something they thought. 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. Rowling and he was very impressed with her. I stopped reading Faulkner because it’s hard work. He can make his own rules. Also:   Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, John Le Carre   (but he’s pushing ninety). One thing that drives me nuts… well, let me ask you, when writers write do they not use quotation marks anymore? And we do experimental stuff and push the line, but I have my limits. Grisham:   Those are probably my favorite sections of the book. Many of his books are legal thrillers, some are about sports, and the rural south. Rumpus:   Are you worried about getting an angry letter from a famous writers who might feel targeted by your portrayal? Grisham:   Yeah, pretty much. Is there value in the struggle with readability? But there are so many vampire books on the market, surely she isn’t going to know. It’s everywhere and I’m constantly adding them back in. The next book, The Firm, was optioned by a film studio before it ever found a publisher. We keep up with each other’s work and support each other. Grisham:   No, no, no. But Camino Island   was fun to write because it has a happy ending. 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. Grisham:   The two mistakes that come to mind are people who introduce a flood of characters in the first few pages. And there is a fair amount of cheap shots and laughter. Literary Rim Shots: A Chat with John Grisham

By Lyz Lenz
June 16th, 2017

When John Grisham first sat down to write a book in 1985, he didn’t know much about writing. But at the same time, she’s a very nice person. But I’d love to hear you talk about mistakes writers make. I don’t want to get in trouble.