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Novelist John Grisham on Escaping -- and Returning to -- His Lawyering Life

Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer season -- time to pick out those beach side books. One name on many people's reading list will be John Grisham - a name synonomous with the legal thriller. The prolific writer has seven novels to his credit. His eighth and newest is "The Partner." (Doubleday) He recently returned to practicing law. Grisham spoke to Terry about writing and lawyering. (REBROADCAST from 2/27/97)

45:19

Other segments from the episode on May 23, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 23, 1997: Interview with John Grisham; Review of books for the summer travel season.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Grisham
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As we kick off the summer season with the Memorial Day weekend, we feature an interview with a writer who's a long-time popular choice for summer reading, John Grisham. He's the author of the bestselling legal thrillers "The Firm," "The Client," "The Pelican Brief," "A Time to Kill," and his two current bestsellers "The Partner" and "The Runaway Jury."

Even if you haven't read any of his books, you've probably seen some of their film adaptations. Before he was the king of the legal thriller, he was what he describes as a "street lawyer" in a suburb of Memphis. Last February, I talked with him about his books, and about the legal career that led to them. We started by discussing his latest book, The Partner.

The story begins as a lawyer named Patrick Lanigan (ph) fakes his death, watches his burial, changes his identity, and goes into hiding with $90 million stolen from his Biloxi law firm. I asked John Grisham if he ever had the fantasy of changing his identity and disappearing from his legal work.

JOHN GRISHAM, AUTHOR: I can't say that I wanted to, you know, disappear, leave my family, all that stuff; change appearances. But escapism is fairly -- a common fantasy, I think, among a lot of people, especially a lot of lawyers who are sort of trapped in small towns, small practices and not making a lot of money; bad marriages, whatever.

And I've known several of those guys over the years who have actually tried to escape.

GROSS: By changing jobs or by changing identity?

GRISHAM: No, by stealing the money and running.

GROSS: Really -- like the character in your book.

GRISHAM: Yeah. I don't know of any who've actually changed, physically changed their identities to the extent that Patrick does in the book, but they have stolen money and disappeared and, you know, when they left town, they thought they were leaving for good.

I know of a very famous case in Mississippi where a lawyer actually faked his own death in a manner very similar to Patrick's, and took a bunch of money, disappeared, and got caught. So, it happens.

GROSS: It's funny -- you were able to leave law by -- you were able to leave law by writing books, and without having to steal money, you ended up making a lot of money.

GRISHAM: Right.

GROSS: Did you want out really badly?

GRISHAM: I wanted out. At the same time, I've actually been a lawyer forever. I thought that's what I would do. I had done it for 10 years and had achieved a level of success to where, you know, my family was comfortable and the kids were small.

And I just thought that I would do that forever. At the same time, as the years went by, I found the profession less and less fulfilling, and began thinking of, you know, sure would be nice to get out of it. And again, that's pretty common among the lawyers I knew and still know.

GROSS: You've been writing legal thrillers for almost as long as you practiced law. Do you want to write other kinds of books?

GRISHAM: Yeah, I will one day. I think the legal thrillers will run their course. You know, popular fiction is very cyclical and in a few years, these books will not be as popular as they are now for whatever reasons. And I hope I have the sense to recognize that -- that one of these days the books may not be -- my books may not be delivering what they -- what people expect. And I hope I have the good sense to write something else. I'd like to.

At the same time, I'd be foolish to, you know, jump ship now and try a different genre.

GROSS: Right. Who can argue that?

GRISHAM: Yep -- yeah. Something's working. Yeah.

GROSS: You've said that your first novel "A Time to Kill" was, in many ways, your most autobiographical, and in the introduction to the re-publication, you write a little bit about that. Let me just read a paragraph, you write:

"One day, I stumbled upon a horrible trial in which a young girl testified against the man who brutally raped her. It was a gut-wrenching experience for me, and I was only a spectator. One moment she was courageous; the next pitifully frail."

"I was mesmerized. I could not imagine the nightmare she and her family had been through. I wondered what would I do if she were my daughter. As I watched her suffer before the jury, I wanted personally to shoot the rapist. For one brief, yet interminable moment, I wanted to be her father. I wanted justice. There was a story there."

And that's the story that you developed into "A Time to Kill." Did you think you were capable of that kind of revenge?

GRISHAM: At that moment, I sure did. In that courtroom, only a few feet away from the defendant, all of us who were there, I think collectively we felt very capable of inflicting some measure of revenge upon this defendant, who had, you know, done things to this little girl that are beyond description.

There were moments during her testimony when I was facing the jury off to the side and I knew three of the jurors -- three out of 15 -- and they were all covering their eyes because they were crying. And the judge was also trying to cover his eyes, and the prosecutor, a man I knew well and who could cry instantly, was also crying. And even the defendant's own lawyers were, you know, studying their shoes.

And it -- you know -- it was beyond, well, emotion's not an adequate word. But it would -- I think it would have been easy, right then at that moment, to get revenge.

GROSS: People were crying during the daughter's testimony?

GRISHAM: Yeah, little girl's testimony. It was just, you know, she would start crying and before long, everybody else was covering their faces. And it was -- this went on for a couple of hours. And the courtroom was locked. The spectators had been excluded by the judge because he knew her testimony would be so graphic and so difficult for her -- she was only 12 years old.

And it was, you know, we just suffered through it. And I was very anxious to get out of there. I was just a nosy spectator.

GROSS: Why were you there in the first place?

GRISHAM: Well, I...

GROSS: You had your own cases. What interested you...

GRISHAM: It was in the early days of my legal career, and at times if I didn't have a lot to do, I'd go hang around the courtroom, especially if good lawyers were in town trying good cases, because I wanted to be a trial lawyer.

And this particular crime had been so heinous and so notorious that we knew that -- we knew when the trial was going to occur, and so I just kind of hung around one day to see what was going to happen. And, you know, so there I was in the courtroom, and local lawyers can come and go at will pretty much, you know, in a courtroom. We know the judges and all that, and so the judge was not going to exclude me when he closed the courtroom.

We took a break after a couple hours of this, and because the little girl just had to have a break, and the judge kept asking her if she wanted a break and finally she said yes, and so, well, we cleared the courtroom and everyone was anxious to leave the courtroom -- the jury, the judge.

And we did. And in my haste to get out of the courtroom, I left behind my briefcase, and I didn't realize it until I was at my car, which was downstairs outside, and I realized I had to go back in the courtroom to get my briefcase.

And I walked back through the back entrance of the courthouse, up the back stairs, through a side door, and suddenly there I was in the courtroom, and no one had stopped me, and I walked right by the defendant, who was sitting in a chair with a deputy a few feet away -- the only two people in the courtroom.

And it dawned on me how easy it would be to, you know, get to the man who did that to my child. And it just floored me to think that I could have done it. I mean, and that's when the story was born.

GROSS: This is an interesting thing about your position as a lawyer or a former lawyer and a novelist is as a lawyer is your position to uphold the law; as the novelist you're always creating characters who break it.

GRISHAM: Yeah, I'm troubled by that. I mean, I think I'll always be troubled by the story of A Time to Kill because it condones vigilantism and that type of justice. And you know, we cannot function as a society if the victims of crimes are allowed to seek their own remedies. And I don't know if I would write that story again.

GROSS: John Grisham is my guest. In that first novel A Time to Kill, you described the lawyer, Jake Bergenz (ph) as: "He was clean-cut, conservative, a devout Presbyterian with a pretty wife who wanted babies."
How close does that come to describing what you were like when you started your law career?

GRISHAM: Pretty close. Pretty close. Again, there's a lot of autobiography. I'm not sure my wife wanted babies when we had them, but it was a joint effort. You know, small town, struggling lawyer, working hard trying to get a break, trying to get a big case, trying to get a reputation in a town that's, you know, filled with lawyers.

GROSS: Clean-cut? Conservative?

GRISHAM: Yeah, maybe not that conservative. Maybe more of a -- politically moderate, Baptist not Presbyterian -- a few differences. Clean-cut, I guess, yeah.

GROSS: What were your typical cases? If there is such a thing as "typical" cases?

GRISHAM: Well, in the early days, the first three or four years of my law practice, I did a lot of criminal or court-appointed criminal work for indigent clients who could not afford attorneys. Back then, our local county -- we didn't have a full-time public defender, so the criminal cases were assigned on a rotating basis to the younger lawyers.

The older lawyers, of course, had to do it when they were younger, so it was an unwritten rule that the guys fresh out of law school would take the indigent cases. And I did a lot of those.

The first year -- I'd been out of law school less than a year when I had my first murder trial, which I was not equipped to handle. And then there was another murder trial shortly after that, and so I jumped into a lot of high-pressure courtroom work fresh out of law school.

And that was fine with me, because I wanted to do that kind of work and I hoped to sort of gain the courtroom experience, become a good trial lawyer, you know, as fast as possible, and later try more lucrative civil cases. And that's kind of what happened.

GROSS: Did you feel guilty representing clients in cases that you felt that you were not ready to really take on yet?

GRISHAM: I would have felt guilty if we lost them, but I won both the murder cases with "not guilty" verdicts, and that does a lot for your confidence.

GROSS: Yeah, I can imagine. And did you always truly believe in the innocence of the people you were defending? Or did you have to be in the -- were you in the position sometimes of defending people who you really thought were guilty?

GRISHAM: Well, both the murder cases involved some very strong defenses of self-defense. These were shootings, you know, and the question was who shot first, and my client did, in fact, kill the deceased, but the deceased in both cases were heavily armed and, again, it's a question of self-defense.

There were some cases I wouldn't take. I mean, I would never have defended a rapist or a child molester. I simply, you know, refused to do that. I represented a lot of people who were very guilty, and I never had any moral problems doing that.

Lawyers can't worry about such things. Under our, you know, judicial and constitutional system, everybody's entitled to an attorney. And regardless of what you're charged with, you're entitled to legal representation. Somebody has to do it.

GROSS: My guest is John Grisham. He has a new novel called The Partner. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

John Grisham is my guest, and he has a new novel called The Partner.

Are there many cases in your novels that actually come from cases that you or colleagues close to you took on? Or do you mostly invent things and make them a little bit larger than life?

GRISHAM: Oh, much larger than life.

GROSS: Right. OK.

GRISHAM: This is fiction, OK? It's just outright fabrication. Oh, I don't -- I'm sure real live lawyers and real life cases sort of seep into the novels, but I don't build stories around them.

I'm much more interested in creating something that's brand new -- you know, a big trial against the insurance industry in "The Rainmaker" or the trial against the tobacco industry in The Runaway Jury or, you know, I'd rather paint a larger canvas and maybe call some of my personal experiences occasionally, you know, as minor sub-plots.

I don't really want to write about real people.

GROSS: Why not?

GRISHAM: Well, even a fictionalized version -- well, I don't want to get sued, for one thing.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, yeah, sure. But I mean, real kinds of people -- do you want to write...

GRISHAM: Well, I think a lot of my lawyers are stereotypes of -- or combinations of real people. I mean, you know, I study lawyers. I watch lawyers. I did when I was an attorney. I'd watch the good trial lawyers, and I spend a lot of time now watching lawyers, keeping up with legal developments, watching or keeping up with trials.

And so, sure, I mean, most of my characters are compilations of, you know, real lawyers.

GROSS: Do you go to the courthouse a lot now? Or do you stay home and watch Court TV?

GRISHAM: Neither. I deplore the idea of televised trials. I always thought there was some sanctity in a very dignified courtroom, where people could go and discuss things they would never discuss outside their own homes, because they had to -- they had to testify. But Court TV's made a mockery of all that, and it's turned the actors and judges into, you know, media celebrities and actors.

I don't really hang around courtrooms because, for the most part, it's very boring stuff. And I can't think of anything worse than watching a long trial. But I follow trials, you know, it's -- you can get the daily summaries in the papers. And I'm always, you know, watching issues and trying to piece together stories from current issues.

GROSS: What was your most celebrated case when you were a lawyer?

GRISHAM: I guess it happened a year ago -- the last time I walked back into a courtroom. I'd been out of the law practice for six years, and it was the last holdover case from my law practice and it involved the death of a railroad worker in a small town in southern Mississippi. And we had the trial in January of last year, and it was well-covered.

Before that, back when I was actively practicing all the time, celebrated case -- I'm not sure I had a celebrated case. I had a couple of very nice civil cases that were settled before they went to trial, that meant a lot to me as an attorney and financially and all that, but you know, none that I would say "celebrated."

GROSS: Did you have a case that you consider to be your greatest failure?

GRISHAM: Yeah, there's one case that comes to mind involving a young man who was charged with concealed weapons. He was passing through our town when his car broke down. And the police found him beside the road. He was trying to get help. They searched his car illegally and found a couple of pistols and a shotgun and a knife.

And under our law, they, you know, they were concealed weapons, and they're felonies. And the guy had no record and there was no proof whatsoever that he was up to anything bad. He was from Missouri. He was passing through.

And anyway, I had a deal worked out where the kid basically would plead to a misdemeanor charge and get his car and leave and promise never to come back. And that deal fell through. He was indicted for three or four counts of felony possession of firearms.

There was no defense to it, and so I worked out as good a plea agreement as I could, and he pled guilty and he went to the state penitentiary at Parchmen (ph), Mississippi which is, like most state penitentiaries, is a, you know, terrible place.

And he was not a big strong guy. He was kind of frail, and he was seriously abused, sexually abused for a long period of time, and I couldn't do anything about it. His mother found out about it. I tried to intervene, and we were just -- it was very difficult to do -- getting anything done because it's so common.

And he later committed suicide in the prison. And I look back to the day when, you know, we had a deal worked out where the kid could get in his car and drive off and, you know, never be heard from again. And it's a perfect example of somebody who had no business whatsoever going to prison, because he had not really done anything wrong and was not planning on it.

And you know, I still think about that kid -- still wonder maybe if I could have done something more.

GROSS: Did you usually leave cases feeling good about the law? Or feeling like you were let down by the results?

GRISHAM: Most of the time, the system works. Most of the time, juries do what's right. Most of the time, settlements are fair. They're negotiated by both sides, and so the vast majority of the time, when I closed a file, I was happy with what had been done. The clients were somewhat satisfied, and it was time to close the file and move on.

GROSS: The suicide of the young man you mentioned seems to have had quite an effect on you. Is there anything based on his case that ended up in one of your novels?

GRISHAM: Not yet. Not yet. Everything is -- yeah, everything is a possibility for a novel, but I think I'd have a hard time writing about that kid.

GROSS: Too close?

GRISHAM: Very close.

GROSS: John Grisham will be back with us in the second half-hour of our show. His latest legal thriller is called The Partner.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with John Grisham, the mega-successful author of such legal thrillers as A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief, The Runaway Jury, and The Partner.

When we left off, we were talking about his life before he started writing -- when he was a criminal lawyer.

Was it interesting for you to watch how some people deal with pressure? How some people break and other people are able to manage during the trial?

GRISHAM: Yeah, trial work is very stressful. It's high-powered, you know high-stakes, tons of pressure. And I've seen lawyers crack up in long trials. Others seem to thrive on the combat in the courtroom.

GROSS: What about you? How'd you do?

GRISHAM: I didn't really enjoy it. I mean, I wanted to -- I thought I wanted to be a trial lawyer, but honestly I never had any fun in the courtroom. I never enjoyed myself, even when I was winning. You don't win 'til it's all over, so you can't, you know, you worry about defeat up until the very end.

But I had trials against lawyers who just seemed to love the sport and the pressure of the courtroom. And I was never that way -- I never was able to relax. I'd lose sleep. You know, long trial, you don't eat much, you don't sleep much. A lot of lawyers turn to alcohol because of that -- because it is high pressure. And I knew a lot of those guys.

But I didn't handle the pressure very well.

GROSS: What about the competition and the games opposing lawyers play with each other, trying to psych each other out? Did that trouble you, too?

GRISHAM: Yeah, yeah, it really does because -- it did, because, especially if, you know, the opposing lawyer was from a very large firm and it seemed like he always was, because I was a sole practitioner. I was a -- what we would call ourselves "street lawyers" because we were representing people out on the streets; people who were injured or wronged or fired or whatever.

And typically, we're always suing insurance companies and big defendants, and they hire big lawyers and big firms and they all come in packs and dress alike and, you know, have fancy degrees and they just descend on a courtroom, and it can be very intimidating.

And I always wanted to be one of those plaintiff's lawyers who could take on, you know, a small army of defense lawyers and do so successfully. I never made it, but there could, you know, there could be a lot of intimidation, and then there was a lot of intimidation imposed on a young lawyer struggling to keep up with the big boys.

GROSS: You were in the state legislature for awhile. Why did you decide to run in 1983?

GRISHAM: I decided to run in 1978, '79. I'd just started law school and almost ran in '79 while I was in law school. It was a sort of single issue.

I was embarrassed because at the time, Mississippi was the only state with no public kindergarten system, and I wanted to be elected to the legislature and to work hard for public education in Mississippi. And that's why I ran in 1983. That was basically my platform, was public education. And got elected and took office in '84 and lasted a few years.

GROSS: What year did you start writing your first novel?

GRISHAM: Started in November of '84 -- same year I took office in the legislature.

GROSS: Busy man -- you were still practicing law, too?

GRISHAM: Oh, yeah. That was what I was doing for a living. I mean, the legislature didn't pay hardly anything. The book writing was still a, you know, distant dream. And the only way I could write was to get up at five o'clock in the morning and go to the office and write for an hour or two before the day started.

And I did that over a period of -- well, I got in the habit of doing it, and over a period of three years, the first book was completed, and it became so ingrained that when I finished A Time to Kill, I think virtually the next day, I started writing the next book which was The Firm.

GROSS: When you were writing A Time to Kill and going to the office at 5:30 every morning, was that your home office or your legal office?

GRISHAM: It was my legal office. It was about five minutes from my house, and it was only, like, the main drag of our main street of a little town -- town of 25,000, which is a suburb of Memphis. It's just outside of Memphis, Tennessee.

And so, I would be there at 5:30 in the morning. I'd turn on all the lights, so everybody driving by would be able to see that I was there, you know, at 5:30 in the morning.

GROSS: Oh, I see -- you'd look industrious?

GRISHAM: Yeah, you know, I got the reputation as a real hard-working young lawyer, you know.

GROSS: Little did they know you weren't working on anybody's case.

GRISHAM: I was up there trying to finish a book. And it was kind of funny, after A Time to Kill came out, I told this story: I had clients who said "so that's why my file never got taken care of. You were up there trying to write a novel."

GROSS: So nobody knew you were really writing a novel.

GRISHAM: Nobody but my wife. Nobody -- I didn't tell anybody until the book was finished. Renee (ph) read each chapter as I wrote it, and -- but she was the only one. I mean, I wouldn't -- I wasn't about to tell anybody. See, it took three years. And at least for two years, I -- the first two years, I was not even sure I was going to finish it. I mean, there was really nothing to talk about.

And I remember one day realizing that the story was half through, and that at some point in there, I was determined to go ahead and finish it. But there was a lot of doubt.

I went -- I think I went four weeks one time without working on it, and there were many times when I didn't want to work on it. It was just -- I mean, I didn't want to get up at five in the morning. I wanted to sleep for, you know, another hour or so.

And I often wonder now, you know, what would have happened had I quit?

GROSS: Do you ever wonder why you had this urge, then, to write, before you knew if there was anything in it for you? If you could even complete the book?

GRISHAM: Well, I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to see -- I wanted to get it typed, and have this big stack of pages and then try to get it published. And once I realized I was going to finish it, then I began having all these wonderful dreams about getting it published. And once you start thinking about getting published, you start thinking about bestsellers and movies and all that stuff.

And it's -- you know, it's a whole lot of fun to dream about that, and I got caught up in that. That prompted me to finish the book and to write the next one and to start thinking about, you know, just the dream of a big book and lots of money.

GROSS: And so how did the dream compare to the reality?

GRISHAM: You can only dream so much. The reality is far in excess of anything I ever dreamed back then. It is an enormous amount of fun to be able to write for a living, and to have the books, you know, well-received by a lot of folks. It's still a dream.

GROSS: Now, your second novel, The Firm, sold to a movie -- a movie studio before it was even published. What a trick. How did that happen?

GRISHAM: It was an accident. We did -- I did not orchestrate it. We did not know anything about it until it was almost over. I sent the manuscript to my agent here in New York in the early fall of '89, and he showed it to a few publishers and there was no great stampede to buy The Firm.

In fact, we really had no offers. He wanted me to do some more work on it, my agent did. I didn't want to do any more work on it. And it just sort of languished in his office throughout the fall of '89.

At some point, a bootleg copy of the manuscript surfaced and was sent by a scout here in New York to a producer in L.A., and the producer in L.A. ran off, you know, 25 copies of it, and submitted it to every major studio.

And we knew nothing about that. Again, there was no book deal. And the first inkling that I had that something was about to happen was a phone call from my agent, a very hurried phone call, saying that he needed my authority to take the highest offer from Paramount, Universal, or Disney for the film rights to The Firm.

And I said: "what happened to the book rights? I thought we were going to have a book deal?" And he said something to the effect that we'll talk about that later.

Right now, we've got to have the final round of bidding in L.A. And that's how it happened. It was a big deal, and then two weeks later we sold the publication rights to Doubleday, but it happened, you know, virtually overnight -- totally unexpected.

GROSS: When movies are made now of your books, I think you keep control. You have script approval; casting approval; director approval. Why is it important for you to have that? I think there's two schools of thought with novelists. One is, you know, let them have it. They give me the money. They do with it what they want to. It's not a book anymore, it's a movie; out of my control.

And the other school of thought is to try to keep control and make it -- make the movie as close to your vision as possible.

GRISHAM: Yeah, you nailed it, those two schools of thought, and I honestly don't know which one's the best. The first theory is Stephen King's, where you -- and he told me this -- you take all the money up front. You kiss it good-bye, and you expect it to be something different. And if you don't like that, then don't take the money -- keep the film rights. And I've tried that a couple of times.

The second theory is that if you can get control, you get it -- and you still get the money up front, 'cause you're not going to see it on the back-end. And I don't know, I mean, I got a lot of control with A Time to Kill -- casting and location and director and all that. But I also was dealing with somebody I trusted, Joel Schumacher (ph) I knew would direct the movie, and I trusted him to make a faithful adaptation, which he did.

Subsequent to that, we've sold film rights to The Runaway Jury and also to The Rainmaker and I did not insist on casting approvals and director approvals and all that. I did want to write the screenplay for those two, and I have. But I have no plans to sell the film rights to The Partner. I'm taking a break from that. It's...

GROSS: Why?

GRISHAM: Well, it -- the movies -- I'm not mad at anybody, but the movies add a entirely different, heavier layer of notoriety and stress and loss of privacy that I'm just not crazy about. I've had five movies. There are three in various stages of post-production, pre-production, whatever.

And that's eight. And that's an awful lot, you know, for anybody and I just -- you know, when people start telling me they're not going to buy the book, they're just going to wait on the movie -- something's wrong. It's time to take a break from movies.

GROSS: My guest is John Grisham. He has a new novel called The Partner. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

John Grisham is my guest, and he has a new novel called The Partner.

Now you a while ago sued the estate of your former agent who had since passed away, on charges of funneling funds to a lawyer that the agent suggested hiring. So you became part of the legal -- I mean, you became a plaintiff in the legal system.

GRISHAM: Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: What was it like for you to face the legal system suing the estate of somebody who you'd worked with? Did you find yourself feeling different about lawyers or the whole system?

GRISHAM: It was not something I was anxious to do. And I can't say a lot about the lawsuit. There's since been a settlement, but both sides throughout the actual lawsuit and the settlement and now post-settlement, we all agreed that we would not discuss it. And I think that's the best way to leave it.

As far as actually being involved in litigation as a plaintiff, you know, it's not against -- not something I want to do a lot of. What is a lot worse than that is being a defendant. I got sued a couple years ago by a person claiming I stole the idea for The Chamber from her book, and that is very uncomfortable.

It was a totally frivolous lawsuit. The judge threw it out, after a year of, you know, some heavy lawyering on both sides. But it's -- I'm going to try my best to avoid lawsuits.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: I think that's good advice for anybody.

GRISHAM: I don't really want to -- I don't really want to file any more myself, and I can't control it if people want to sue me. You know, one lawsuit per book, believe it or not, is not a -- it's about average, I guess.

GROSS: Do people smell money, and figure let's take him to court?

GRISHAM: Oh, sure, sure. And then when they print all your contracts and income in Forbes magazine and all that stuff, that you become an easy target. So because of that, I'm very careful. When I write books, I don't want to get close to real people, real companies. You know, I just -- I'd prefer not to be sued. Life's too short.

GROSS: I know when you were young, you moved around a lot. Your father worked for a construction company, I believe.

GRISHAM: Correct.

GROSS: And was transferred a lot. So what are some of the different places you lived in as a boy?

GRISHAM: I was born in Black Oak, Arkansas on a farm. We were cotton farmers, and I lived there for the first six years of my life. And then we decided to leave the farm because it was a pretty rough life, and we moved -- we moved to Crenshaw, Mississippi which is a very small town in the delta region of the state.

From there, we moved to Delhi, Louisiana, and I was there for the second grade. From there, we moved to Parkin, Arkansas and I was there for the fourth, fifth -- third, fourth and fifth grades.

From there, we moved to Ripley, Mississippi and I was there for the sixth grade. And from there, we moved to Southaven, Mississippi which became home. And I was there from the age of 12 to the age of, I guess, 35.

My wife grew up there. Our families are still close to that area -- to the Memphis area. Six years ago, we moved to Oxford, which is an hour down the road and that's where -- that's what we call home now. We are living right now in Charlottesville, Virginia, just outside of Charlottesville. We've been sort of hiding out there for a couple years.

GROSS: Your mother was a devout Christian. Were you raised in a very religious environment?

GRISHAM: Both my parents were and are, grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles -- it was a -- which is not unusual in the deep South. We were devout Southern Baptists. I'm still a Southern Baptist, as is my wife. We are Christians trying to raise our kids in a Christian home. That's -- you know, that's the way we were raised and that's what we believe now.

GROSS: But was there ever a moment when you found faith and law to be incompatible?

GRISHAM: Yeah, yeah. There were times, especially in the area of divorce. I was never much of a divorce lawyer because I thought the divorce laws were designed to make divorce almost like an assembly line -- you know, very weak grounds for divorce and anybody could walk out.

And because of that, I just didn't do a lot of divorce work. That's -- yeah, that was an area where I think my faith intervened, and I just said I'm not going to do this.

Also we mentioned, you know, certain types of crimes I just didn't have the stomach for. And in certain types of clients, I mean, one time I was -- a guy who owned a series of shady businesses, I mean, the topless joints, and he wanted to hire me to get some, to do some legal work and the fees would have been very lucrative. And I just didn't feel like representing somebody like that. I mean, I knew he could find a lawyer anywhere, and I just didn't want to be associated with him.

So there were several times in my legal career where, I think, my faith had something to do with turning down clients.

GROSS: We only have a couple of seconds left, but you know, you were telling us how when you started writing while you were practicing law, you'd go to your office a five or 5:30 in the morning and turn on the lights and write. How does the process of writing compare now?

GRISHAM: I've go to my office at five o'clock in the morning. I turn on the lights and I write.

LAUGHTER

It's really, I guess habits are hard to break, but when I'm really under the gun, facing a deadline, and trying to get it finished, which is usually the last two or three months of a six-month writing process, I'll get back in the old habit of five o'clock in the morning in the office, which the office now is right behind the house. I work real hard with few interruptions and lots of black coffee until about noon.

And on a good day, I'll -- I can produce eight to ten pages of manuscript. On a bad day, it's four or five, but it's every day.

GROSS: John Grisham, I thank you very much for talking with us.

GRISHAM: My pleasure.

GROSS: John Grisham, recorded last February after the publication of his latest novel The Partner.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Grisham
High: Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer season, time to pick out those beachside books. One name on many people's reading list will be John Grisham, a name synonymous with the legal thriller. The prolific writer has seven novels to his credit. His eighth and newest is "The Partner." Grisham recently returned to practicing law. He spoke to Terry about writing and lawyering.
Spec: People; Books; Lawyers; John Grisham
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: John Grisham
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 23, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052302NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Manhattan 45 and Into Thin Air
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This Memorial Day weekend, as always, people across the country will be piling into cars, trains, and planes. But book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a stay-at-home strategy for those seeking travel adventure.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: My earliest travel memory is of being around five years old and looking out the window of my parents' apartment in Queens, New York. In the distance, I saw what I later learned was a radio tower and a tall bank building surmounted by a clock face.

That's the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, I announced to my mother, who responded with the bad news that, no, everything as far as the eye could see was still Queens.

Something about that nascent experience of being safe at home and yet encountering strange places has left me with a taste for armchair traveling. Who needs the hassle and expense of arranging a trip, when for $17.95, you could curl up with the "Travelers' Tales Guide to Hong Kong" and in seconds be in an exotic health restaurant eating double-boiled turtle glue with wild ginseng.

The Travelers Tales' Guides are not Frommer's-type manuals that give you tips on where to eat and sleep. Rather, they're handsome paperback collections of non-fiction travel stories, written by amateurs as well as by big names like Richard Rodriguez (ph) and Bruce Chatwin (ph).

I dipped into the guides for Hong Kong, Paris, and San Francisco and read about one man's erotic misadventures in Gay Paree, and the 99 varieties of light in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The story I can't get out of my head, though, is by a retired airline pilot named Joseph Dedrick (ph). It's called "The Gift," and it describes a cognac-soaked night Dedrick spent in Paris with a sad folksinger and a ruined woman.

Travelers Tales' Guides not only transport readers to far away lands, but also introduce them to off-the-beaten-track, unknown writers. Only a literary travel pro like Jan Morris (ph), however, can take me to one of the places I most yearn to visit -- New York City right after World War II, when Automats, trolleys, and department store palaces still crowded Fifth Avenue.

Morris' 1986 book, "Manhattan '45," reprinted now in paperback, is a serenade to New York at the moment it became a world city. Morris' book opens with the arrival of the troop ship the Queen Mary into New York harbor on June 20, 1945. Wedding imagination to research, Morris describes what the returning soldiers saw:

"All around the waterfront on every wharf and every vantage point, crowds were waving. The towers of the city glittered in the afternoon sun. Untouched by the war, they stood there, metal-clad, steel-ribbed, glass-shrouded, colossal and romantic -- everything that America seemed to represent in a world of loss and ruin."

Manhattan '45 is exhilarating, but it also leaves you with the conviction that, time-wise, you've missed the boat. For many out-of-towners, visiting New York City in any decade would qualify as high-risk adventure travel.

For Jon Krakauer, who survived the ill-starred 1996 expedition to Mount Everest, where five of his fellow climbers died, the capacity to be terrified by anything any more must be severely diminished. Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air," is so suspenseful that while reading it, I imagined myself to be as oxygen-deprived as Krakauer was when he reached the summit.

As Krakauer notes, climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. Just in acclimatizing to the high altitudes, Krakauer lost 20 pounds of muscle mass. That was before he scaled rickety ladders up moving glacial ice splinters, and huddled in a tent near the summit through a night of minus 100 degree temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

This isn't a swaggering yarn. Krakauer attributes his own survival largely to luck. He's also introspective about the morality of climbing -- a potentially grief-inducing avocation that he somehow can't give up.

Maybe it's too early yet to declare Into Thin Air this summer's must-read book. But I'll tell you that once I opened it, I broke all previous endurance records for non-stop sitting, wrapped in my Lazy Boy.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Here's her list of suggested travel reading: Into Thin Air by John Krakauer; Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris; and the anthologies Travelers Tales' Guides to Hong Kong, Paris, and San Francisco.

We'll close with one of Noel Coward's travel songs from his musical "Sail Away," sung by Elaine Stritch.

I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a great holiday weekend.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, FROM "SAIL AWAY")

ELAINE STRITCH, SINGING: Travel, they say, improves the mind
An irritating platitude, which frankly entre nous
Is very far from true
Personally, I've yet to find
That longitude and latitude
Can educate those scores of monumental bores
Who travel in groups and herds and troops
Of various breeds and sexes
Til the whole world reels, the shouts and squeals
And the clicking of Roll-e-Flexes (ph).

Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel?
When the right people stay back home?
What compulsion compels them
And who the hell tells them
To drag their cans to Zanzibar
Instead of staying quietly in Omaha?
The Taj Mahal and the Grand Canal
And the sunny French Riviera
Would be less oppressed if the Middle West
Would settle for somewhere rather nearer

Please do not think that I criticize or cavil
At a genuine urge to roam
But why oh why do the wrong people travel
When the right people stay back home?
And mind their business
When the right people stay back home
With Cinerama
When the right people stay back home
I'm merely asking
Why the right people stay back home

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Manhattan '45" and "Into Thin Air".
Spec: Books; Cities; New York
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Manhattan 45 and Into Thin Air
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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