John Grisham’s publisher, Doubleday, got a nice surprise last January. Grisham, whose yearly delivery of a legal thriller is as reliable as the sunrise, had written a little something extra on the sly: a lawyerless caper. It had a picturesque Florida setting, a fun-filled story about book lovers of many stripes (from those who write them to those who steal them) and a heroine who spent time in a bikini and sandals. Mr Courtroom had written a beach book. His first.
“Camino Island”, his 30th novel, released on June 6, but in mid-May he was already getting a huge kick out of what a surprise it would be to his fans. As he sat in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, backed by a wall of books too fashionably designed to be his and dressed in non-black (two plaids, glasses hanging from his neck), the 62-year-old guy who has sold nearly 300 million books went completely unspotted as he talked about his career’s latest plot twist. Does anybody ever recognise him in New York? “Never!,” and he likes it that way.
Grisham and his wife, Renee, dreamed up the idea for “Camino Island” on a drive from their home outside Charlottesville, Virginia, to their beach house in Florida. Its working title was the name of the place where they have a vacation home, but he eventually changed it for reasons of privacy. Its cover still looks just like the view from the Grishams’ boardwalk to the beach.
It was Renee who suggested working literary treasures into the plot, which involves the theft from Princeton University of the original manuscripts of the five novels written by F. Scott Fitzgerald — or “FITZ-gerald,” as the Arkansas-born, longtime Mississippian Grisham pronounces it. The book features two not-quite-adversaries: Bruce Cable, a rare-books dealer on Camino Island, and Mercer Mann, a stymied young writer hired to get close to him.
Grisham briefly thought the novel might include parts written by his wife. He wanted her to write the chapters involving Mercer, the female lead. “By the time we got to Florida 10 hours later she had made up her mind: She’s not writing a word of this,” Grisham said. Nor has she written a word of any of her husband’s other books either.
Grisham collects rare books by Fitzgerald (“I do not have ‘The Great Gatsby’ because it’s very rare and very expensive. I can’t bite the bullet”), Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner, all of whom were candidates to star in the story. But Faulkner wrote too many books to steal. The locations of Steinbeck’s and Hemingway’s manuscripts are too scattered. Only Fitzgerald had a conveniently portable five-book collection stored in a single place, Princeton’s Firestone Library.
As a point of principle, Grisham never set foot in there as he worked out the totally credible unfolding of the fictional theft. For anyone who wonders where he gets the precise details on which his books’ suspense depends, the answer isn’t shoe leather. It’s often Google. “I faked every bit of it,” he boasted. He wants as little real information as possible in order to avoid inspiring copycat crime. And he enjoys the challenge. “l love piecing together intricate thoughts that people find compulsively readable and they can’t put down,” he volunteered, and he will never need a better blurb than that. Literary status is not what he cares about. Selling books is.
Grisham is garrulous and funny when talking about himself, much more so than the tone of rectitude in some of his books might suggest. But another unexpected side of him also stands out: the accountant. (He has written books called “The Abduction,” “The Accused,” “The Activist,” “The Appeal” and “The Associate.” “The Accountant” was a movie that had nothing to do with him.) Much is made of the fact that Grisham, whose father was a construction worker and cotton farmer, went to law school at Ole Miss and served from 1983-90 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Not much is made of the fact that he also has a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He still has that old fiscal pragmatism when it comes to the state of the Grishamverse after nearly 30 years.
His breakout hit wasn’t his first book, “A Time to Kill” (1989). It was “The Firm,” which came out two years later. He has very happy memories of 1991, and mentions that year a lot. It was the first year friends sent him pictures of many people reading his books in the wild.
But it was also the year he made what was arguably his biggest financial blunder. A small publisher, Wynwood Press, had printed 5,000 copies of “A Time to Kill,” many of which wound up stacked unsold in Grisham’s office. He got rid of them. Bad idea, especially for a guy who now collects first editions. Doubleday bought the rights to republish the debut novel in 1991, after Grisham’s reputation had been established and after the author had passed on the opportunity to secure the rights himself.
“My agent at the time advised me against it,” he said. “I got a $15,000 advance for ‘A Time to Kill,’ and he did not want to cough up his 15 per cent of $15,000! I was too dumb to know it and too naive, and no one knew what was coming.” And where does “A Time to Kill” stand now? “It’s pushing 20,” he said, as in 20 million copies sold.
“That’s a lot of books.”
Sure is. But one of Grisham’s conversational habits is to say, “I don’t spend much time worrying about it,” after showing just how thoroughly he’s thought something through. At the beginning of his career, Grisham thought about movie sales all the time. “If you look at the first four, five movies” — “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief,” “The Client,” “A Time to Kill” — “they made them quickly, they paid top dollar.” Those were the days when he and Michael Crichton were one-upping each other with best-selling books and lucrative movie adaptations. Grisham and Crichton hadn’t met but “we had the biggest racket in the world. He would sell a book for one dollar more than I got, and I would come back the next year, back and forth. And they’re throwing money at us. They would take the manuscripts before they were even published.”
The movies worked, too, on a global scale. “They’re on cable TV somewhere tonight, being recycled, and they still sell books — that’s the amazing part. That model doesn’t work anymore.” That model’s enemy, he believes, is the superhero blockbuster that might make $1 billion in China. It just so happens that “Camino Island,” with its female lead, inviting location and huge plot whammy, is his most Hollywood-friendly book in years.
He doesn’t worry much about book sales either, except he’s very alert to the numbers. “The biggest change for me has been that I’m selling about half the books I sold before the Great Recession,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more than half. This is discretionary spending, and people are not spending.”
Whatever else Grisham does — and he has branched out into sports (“Calico Joe”), boyhood memories (“A Painted House”), a kid lawyer (the Theodore Boone series) and miscellaneous (“Skipping Christmas”) — he absolutely has to write his October legal book. The financial terms for those are bigger, and so are the sales. “My readers have some patience when I step outside the thriller,” he said. “But they really want the thriller. They want it every year.”
The next traditional thriller, as yet untitled, will be about student debt, a subject that has lit a fire under him. It will be topical, like “The Confession” (2010), which was about the death penalty and mostly set in Texas — with a preening, ambitious governor who bore an amazing resemblance to Rick Perry. “Ah, well, no,” Grisham jokily insisted. “Fictional character. Rick is a very devout Christian who doesn’t drink, and the governor in ‘The Confession’ was drinking some very good bourbon every afternoon.”
I asked Grisham why alcohol issues come up in so many of his books. Does he have an agenda, points he wants to make about drinking or recovery? “Nah. I’ve never been close to the edge of the cliff,” he said. “I’ve been very careful. We have a wine collection. My wife is a very light drinker. We’ve all had friends who got in trouble. I have writer friends who battled it a long time, and it’s not a pretty sight. But I really enjoy it so much that I don’t want to quit.”
This was an interesting moment for Renee Grisham to appear. She’d been out shopping, and she was a little taken aback when she heard her husband explain what he’d been discussing. “We’re talking about drinkin’ and what,” he said, the Southern accent suddenly strong. “You’re lookin’ worried.” Well, yeah, she was, but she seemed used to his loose cannon side. They have been married for 36 years.
As for why drinking and sobriety turn up in the books, including “Camino Island,” he picked up the thread: “I write about a lot of writers and lawyers. Those two professions have produced a lot of world-class drunks. The legal profession’s filled with guys and ladies who’ve abused it because of a bunch of factors. I’m not really tolerant with excuses. Somebody says ‘Well, he or she was driven to drink because of this, this and this.’ Their problems were too much, and that’s their excuse. I don’t really buy that. I think it’s a matter of self-control and being able to take care of yourself.”
This is the old-school side of him. It’s tough, but it suits stories of characters skating around the law. The part of him that advocates personal responsibility also has no patience for self-pity. “I tell my friends, ‘Just stop whining. You’re lucky to be where you are in life, you’re lucky to be here, shut up. I don’t want to hear it. Nobody wants to hear your gripes’.”
Grisham’s friends, family, publisher and close associates are the only people who can reach him. He lives nearly off the grid outside Charlottesville and has an office in town, where he says he’s seldom bothered. If there’s an emergency he can be found, but he long ago decided he liked lying low. Watching Tom Cruise get screamed at by fans during the filming of “The Firm” was one learning experience. So were stories he heard at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. — the readers’ and writers’ shrine that he relocates to Camino Island in exact detail — from the writers Larry Brown, Willie Morris and Barry Hannah, who told him a book tour was a horrible thing.
But 25 years since he last toured, Grisham is going out into the world again. He will visit 12 cities to promote “Camino Island,” doing Q. and A.s with local writers and meeting up to 200 fans at each stop. He still signs 2,000 copies of anything he publishes for Square Books; that’s how much he loves the place, as well as a few other independent stores that get similar treatment. But he’s needed his arm massaged after some marathon signings, so this time he’s setting limits.
And looking forward to it enormously. What does he have to lose? He’s someone who candidly says, “It’s all about selling books,” and the tour will certainly do that.
Readers of “Camino Island” will learn a lot about how Grisham sees the rest of the writing world. He has described in it everything from what it feels like to sit down and type “Chapter 1” (probably not bad, for him) to how a box of brand-new books smells.
In the novel, we mingle with several writers who gather at the fictional island, and together they present a Grisham’s-eye view of what fellow authors look like to a superstar. The popular ones want literary credibility. The literary ones want to be more widely read. There’s one “literary snob who can’t sell and hates everybody who can,” and a “Vampire Girl” who “hit pay dirt with a series about vampires and ghosts and some such junk.” Most popular stereotypes are represented. E.L. James must vacation in another state.
Where’s the John Grisham type? Maybe there’s no such thing. There’s only one of him, and that one was beginning to sound tired a couple of books ago. He mentioned how closely his books are tracked by his publisher, and that “The Whistler” (2016) has been a bigger success than “Rogue Lawyer” (2015). I murmured that that’s because “Rogue Lawyer” wasn’t as good. He shot me a “What?” and a momentary sidelong look. But then: “OK. Doesn’t hurt my feelings.” And he’s fine. He’s not going to spend much time worrying about it.
–New York Times News Service