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John Grisham's First Online Interview

To celebrate the release of John Grisham's latest legal thriller, THE GUARDIANS, we revisit an interview we conducted with the bestselling author back in 1997 prior to the publication of THE PARTNER. We love that his wit and brisk style held up over  22 plus years. Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, explains the significance of this interview and how much Grisham has meant to the company:

"Back in 1996, when we started The Book Report (the original name for Bookreporter), I vowed that we would not meet with publishers until we had been live for a few months. I wanted to show them, not tell them, what we were going to do. Jesse Kornbluth and I started making the rounds in early 1997, and when we met with Grisham’s publisher, they were intrigued as our website was something new and they wanted to do something special with us. A couple of weeks later, they called and offered us the first online interview with Grisham for THE PARTNER, as well as the first online excerpt. It helped to put us on the map, and we remain ever grateful to him for that."


February 1997

When the tour buses stopped at the end of John Grisham's driveway in Oxford, Mississippi, he knew it was time to move. The Grishams are now happily settled in Virginia in a house that's not quite as accessible to his legions of readers and fans. They have a quiet life --- Grisham is never seen at Hollywood openings or New York book parties.

For that matter, he rarely gives interviews.

But when Jesse Kornbluth, editor of The Book Report, sent him 20 questions, he promptly shot back 20 pointed answers.

We are delighted to present John Grisham's only interview before his new novel reaches bookstores on February 26th.

The Book Report: You've said that your mother didn't believe in television and that you grew up reading books. Which books were most memorable? Did other kids tease you for being a bookworm --- or did your athletic ability eliminate those taunts?

John Grisham: I was never a bookworm. I remember reading Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, Emil and the Detectives, Chip Hilton, and lots of Mark Twain and Dickens. My athletic ability did nothing but invite taunts. I was an indifferent student and an athlete with delusions of adequacy, dreams of adulation.

TBR: All through high school and into college, you seem to have been more committed to dreams of a professional baseball career than your studies. You've said that changed watching a ball game. How so?

JG: I was drifting through college, and one night I sat alone and watched a game between Mississippi State and some forgotten opponent. It dawned on me that the players I was watching, though my age, also had a very slight chance of playing pro ball. I decided we were in the same boat. And it was best to start studying for a change.

TBR: In your years as a lawyer, what was most satisfying about the law?

JG: Getting out of it.

TBR: Richard North Patterson told me that writing briefs for judges --- "the most bored and jaded audience in the world" --- was great training for writing legal fiction. How helpful was your legal training?

JG: Crucial. I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial.

TBR: You woke up at 5am for three years to write A TIME TO KILL, then went to work --- 60 to 80 hours a week --- as a State Representative. You really considered writing "a hobby?"

JG: Yes, very much so. I would write for an hour or so each morning, then start to work. My goal was simply to finish the first manuscript. It was only a hobby, a very secret one.

TBR: You have a close editorial collaboration with your wife. How does that work?

JG: I constantly inundate Renee with all sorts of story ideas, and it's her job to tell me to shut up and keep searching. She has an uncanny ability to spot a good story; I tend to think that almost anything will work. Once I start writing, she is merciless as the chapters pour forth. She enjoys picking a good brawl over a subplot, a weak character, an unnecessary scene. I accuse her of looking for trouble ---- and, inevitably, I return to the typewriter and fix whatever troubles her.

TBR: What have you learned from reviews of your books?

JG: I have learned not to read reviews. Period. And I hate reviewers. All of them, or at least all but two or three. Life is much simpler ignoring reviews and the nasty people who write them. Critics should find meaningful work.

TBR: You've said you read Steinbeck in school. Because you increasingly write about social issues, you're sometimes compared now to Dickens. What writers do you read, and who are your influences?

JG: I still read Steinbeck, Dickens and Twain. I'm not sure anyone has influenced my style, but if I could emulate anyone it would be Steinbeck.

TBR: If you get ideas from contemporary events or issues, what case inspired THE PARTNER?

JG: None. THE PARTNER is an old story. Lawyers dream of escaping, preferably with the money. I've known several who tried it.

TBR: In April 1993, you and fellow members of the First Baptist Church in Oxford went to Brazil and built houses for the poor. Did you draw on that experience for the Brazil part of THE PARTNER?

JG: I love Brazil, and I go there often. I've been several times with church groups, and our mission each trip is to build a small chapel for a local congregation, and also to provide medical care to the sick. It's always satisfying. Of course, it provides a rich landscape for the fiction.

TBR: Forgive the over-simplification, but your previous novels tend to explore David vs. Goliath themes, on the order of that Texas Rangers motto "Little man whip a big man every time if the little man is in the right and keeps on coming." Your lawyer-fugitive in THE PARTNER seems outside of that pattern. He strikes me as the ultimate realist --- he plays the system against itself (as you write, "It was the legal system protecting its own.") Is this an isolated plot point in a single novel, or does it suggest a change in your views about the legal system?

JG: No change; it's just the plot for this novel. I prefer to tackle issues --- death penalty, tobacco litigation, insurance abuse, etc. --- but it's not always possible every time out.

TBR: In THE PARTNER, you write, "Everyone wants to run away... At some point in life, everyone thinks about running away." That's a succinct motivation for your main character. Is that also your wish --- to be rid of the burden of celebrity and the need to isolate yourself from a too-adoring public?

JG: I wanted to run away from the law, but not like my main character. I have a wonderful wife, great kids, a great family. My desire was to make a quick fortune (a typical lawyer's dream) and run away from the profession. Now, though, I'm very content. I can hide from the fame and the public can't find me.

TBR: You've been publishing novels with remarkable regularity. The pressure on you --- from readers and publishers and film studios --- to continue writing legal thrillers must be immense. How do you do it, year after year? Do you have plans to branch out and try other forms, even at the risk of being less "successful?"

JG: There's no pressure. I write six months a year. I find my story, find its voice, its people, its pace, and I retreat into my attic for six hours a day and shut out everything but family. As I write, I don't think about the readers, the sales, the movies. I think about the story. If I get it right, everything else falls into place. One day, and I don't know when, I'll write other types of books. But not in the near future. I'd be foolish to abandon this genre at this time.

TBR: In the Oxford American, you indicted Hollywood --- well, Oliver Stone, anyway --- for moral blindness. I've read that you wrote an original screenplay about a lawyer and a seductress called The Gingerbread Man. Did you find your anti-smut, anti-violence principles challenged by this experience?

JG: The Gingerbread Man is my first, and probably only, original screenplay, and nothing was compromised. It's as mild as your average prime-time TV, something I know nothing about. The Oliver Stone controversy --- that would take pages.

TBR: You've said, "Bill Clinton and I may be distantly related." Does that preclude you from commenting on the Paula Jones lawsuit?

JG: Yes.

TBR: As a Little League coach, how would you characterize yourself? Do you play everyone at the expense of winning? How do you deflect the win-at-all-cost or put-my-kid-in advice you get from other parents?

JG: Every kid plays in every game. In fact, our league has a mandatory play rule, and all the coaches support it. I don't know much about winning. I've coached my son for seven years now, and my career winning percentage is .474. I ignore parents. If they gripe and complain, I invite them to take their precious bundle elsewhere.

TBR: Last year, you described A TIME TO KILL as your favorite of your books. Still think so?

JG: Yes.

TBR: In 1990, you said, "I'd like to do what Faulkner did --- carve out a little piece of Mississippi territory and claim it as my own." With THE PARTNER, you've gone international. Are you finished with books about your home region?

JG: For now. Maybe when I'm 60, I'll go back to Ford County and write stories, but not now.

TBR: You tried a case last year. Think you'll do it again?

JG: We won, and I was thrilled to leave the courtroom. I cannot see myself returning. Trial work is quite stressful when you do it every day, and I had not seen a courtroom in eight years. Never say never --- but never again.

TBR: Last question --- and the one that everyone wants answered: You really shave only on Sunday?

JG: Yes, every Sunday, just before church.