John Grisham on Judges, Innocence and the Judgments He Ignores
John Grisham is an unapologetic master of the industrial-strength page turner. His latest, “The Judge’s List,” due out from Doubleday on Tuesday …
John Grisham is an unapologetic master of the industrial-strength page turner. His latest, “The Judge’s List,” due out from Doubleday on Tuesday, is a sleek suspense novel about the hunt for a serial killer who is also a sitting judge.
Speaking by phone last month from Aspen, Colo., where he had just given a talk, Grisham acknowledged that his main goal is to entertain an enormous audience that is counting on him to deliver a legal thriller every year in time for the holidays.
“I’ve always been honest,” he said. “This is not literature. This is not literary fiction. This is popular fiction, and hopefully it’s a high quality of popular fiction. That’s what I aspire to write. I’d much rather sell books than get good reviews.”
But Grisham’s interests are more varied than that comment would suggest. A former criminal defense and personal injury lawyer, he is a student of the shortcomings of the American justice system.
Grisham has, for instance, worked hard to draw attention to wrongful convictions, saying he had been inspired by the work of Jim Dwyer, a reporter and columnist for The New York Times who died last year. Grisham, 66, also had sharp things to say about electing judges and prosecutors, a practice that is commonplace in many states and all but unknown in the rest of the world.
We talked about the Supreme Court, which I cover. Grisham traced a line from Bush v. Gore, the 2000 decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush, to the efforts of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, to ensure the appointments of President Donald J. Trump’s three nominees. The Supreme Court, Grisham said, “is a very political court.”
What follow are excerpts from our conversation. They have been edited and condensed.
The genre people associate with you is “legal thriller.” Is that what the new book is?
I don’t know where that term came from. I’ve used it myself a thousand times because it seems to fit. To me, it’s old-fashioned suspense.
The legal thriller thing just sticks because someone said it 30 years ago when “The Firm” came out. Scott Turow in 1987 published “Presumed Innocent” and kind of rewrote the whole book of blueprints for great legal suspense. That was such a brilliant book. It really inspired me to finish my first novel, but I don’t recall people describing Scott’s first book as a legal thriller. It’s a great courtroom suspense novel. So I don’t know where the term came from. I guess it fits. It’s certainly sold a zillion books for me.
This is not the first of your books to feature a corrupt, disgraced or criminal judge. Does that suggest something about your general view of the American judiciary?
I have a lot of respect for judges, but I don’t like the way we choose them. Fifteen years ago, I read your series on the Ohio State Supreme Court judges. At the same time, I was researching a book that became “The Appeal,” about the buying of Supreme Court judges in Mississippi. More than 30 states elect Supreme Court judges, which is just absolute stupidity. And I was watching the lunacy of West Virginia, where they were buying judges right and left.
I get very frustrated with the innocence cases that I work on through the Innocence Project, because there’s so many wrongful convictions that should be prevented by judges who are awake in the courtroom. So often — we see it thousands of times — judges are just not on the ball, and they allow stuff into testimony that has no business going in, and it’s very damaging.
I can’t help asking you about this in light of my day job: Do you have thoughts about the current Supreme Court?
It’s very distressing. I think the Supreme Court lost so much credibility in 2000 when five Republicans on the court saw a chance to elect a president, and that’s what they did. And at that point, it became a very political court, and that has not changed over the years, certainly not in the past four years. The way McConnell was able to hijack the Supreme Court was just hard-core raw politics. And it’s probably not going to change for many, many years. It’s now the Trump court.
You mentioned your work with the Innocence Project. Say a little more about what that experience has taught you about the American criminal justice system.
It was not something I ever thought I’d get involved in. I practiced criminal law for 10 years, and we had a really good system in my little rural neck of the woods in Mississippi. I knew the cops, I knew the prosecutors, I knew the judges, and it was a very efficient system. Everybody played fair. I had a lot of clients who went to prison. They deserved it. I never had a client who I thought was wrongfully convicted. It just never occurred to me that these things were happening until — do you know Jim Dwyer?
Jim was a giant.
He wrote this obituary in December of 2004. I love the New York Times obituaries. And it was a weekday obituary. The lead story was a guy my age, my race, my background, my religion, my neck of the woods — he was from Oklahoma, I’m from Arkansas — small town, rural. And he was a second-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s in 1973, a year I thought I might get drafted. My name was never called. This guy got drafted high but, anyway, didn’t make it. And he went back to his hometown in Oklahoma and was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row by the same town that always idolized him as a sports hero. He served 11 years, came within five days of being executed.
So I’m reading his obituary. He had just died after being exonerated by DNA. The story just slapped me in the face. Before long, I was in Oklahoma, in a small town. This is my only nonfiction book. It was published in 2006, and it really took me into the world of wrongful convictions, something I’ve never really thought about. Once I got into researching “The Innocent Man,” I just realized how many innocent people are actually in prison, and there are thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. Barry Scheck asked me to join the board of the Innocence Project, and I did. We litigate coast to coast getting our innocent clients out of prison through DNA testing. And we have 375 DNA exonerations, and some of those were on death row.
The work is addictive because you get caught up with these clients. You’ve come to know that they’re innocent and yet they’ve spent 20 or 30 years in prison for somebody else’s crime, and so the injustice is really something that still nags at me. It’s a never-ending battle that I hope I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
It’s great to see someone, after achieving your level of success, leverage it to do important, valuable work like that.
I’ll tell you something, Adam. Every wrongful conviction case should be a book, because these are fantastic stories from a storytelling point of view because of the incredible suffering, the injustice, the wasted lives, the wasted time, the wasted money, the wasted everything that goes into a single wrongful conviction, while the real rapist, the real murderer goes free.
Do you think your legal training helped or hurt your prose style?
It was crucial, because I would never have written anything without the legal background.
To survive law school, you’ve got to be able to handle the language and not be fearful of the language or the act of writing, and a lot of people are. But by the time you finish law school, you’ve written so much. And then your first years as a lawyer, you realize how much you have to write.
You can probably read the first 10 pages of a book about a courtroom drama and tell if the writer is a lawyer or not. There’s some things just come naturally. You just know the terminology, the phraseology, the legal theories, the courtroom procedures. As a lawyer, you just know that kind of stuff, and I get frustrated when I read legal thrillers or legal courtroom dramas written by people who are not lawyers, because you can always tell the lack of authenticity.
One false move just destroys it.
Yeah, one bad term, one word out of place, and you think: Wait a minute, this is not the way it is. So, yeah, the legal training is crucial. And also, I don’t think I would have become a writer had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. It was not something I ever studied. I never took a course in creative writing.
What’s the rhythm of your year like? Did I read that you devote part of the year to writing one book and the rest to different activities?
For years, it was one book a year. Beginning in 1991 with “The Firm,” there’s been at least one book a year since then. For years it was just the one big legal thriller that would come out in spring, because nobody else came out in spring, and bookstores love it. And then, I was busy raising kids, coaching Little League Baseball, you know, living the good life. Once my kids were gone, I had more time. After about a dozen legal thrillers, I started asking myself, can you write something else? Can you write a book with no lawyers in it? And so I started doing that. I’ve written a kids’ series and sports books. So my schedule now is to, in January, start the legal thriller. Jan. 1. I make myself start Jan. 1. I give myself six months to finish it, by July 1. And then we spend six weeks going through all the editing and rewrites and all the drudgery. Lord, I hate it, but you’ve got to do it. And then it goes to press, with a publication date in late October to catch the Christmas market, because that’s when every publisher wants the big books now to come out.
And invariably by Labor Day I’m bored again, and I’m looking for something else to write and so I’ll write a kids’ book or I’ll write a sports book.
I still write each morning from 7 a.m. to about noon, five days a week, and still treasure those early hours in the day, with strong coffee and a big blank screen to look at, just to be able to create stories and entertain people. I still feel very fortunate to be able to do that and have no plans to slow down anytime soon.
Your books are so enormously popular. But there’s sometimes a disconnect between that and the occasional mixed review you get. I don’t even know if you read your reviews, but I wonder if you think that the first thing influences the second, that it’s possible to be too popular to be taken seriously?
I made peace with that 30 years ago. I made peace with the literary critics a long, long time ago. They were pretty harsh with the first two or three books. You can’t let that dictate what you write.
Tom Clancy told me a long time ago, before he died, he said, “I’ve finally reached the point where I’m review-proof.” It’s a very good place to be. When you’re review-proof, the critics ignore your work and they just leave you alone. And it doesn’t matter because you have your audience. Your goal in writing is to write a book every time out that’s really going to satisfy your audience and deliver and entertain, and that’s all I want to do.