Bestselling American author John Grisham joined University English professor Maria DiBattista on Wednesday, Oct. 26 to discuss his new book, "Camino Island," and his development as a writer. Best known for his legal thrillers, Grisham is also an attorney, philanthropist, politician, and social activist.
Grisham’s newest work is partially set in Firestone Library and the book begins with a gang of thieves stealing five rare manuscripts written by F. Scott Fitzgerald Class of 1917 from the University’s collection. Readers of the novel then follow the escapades of Bruce Cable, a black-market bookstore owner on Camino Island, and Mercer Mann, a young novelist who investigates Cable’s illegal dealings.
Grisham admitted that the descriptions of Firestone are intentionally inaccurate, adding that he had never set foot on campus before this week. While it would have been better to walk through the library once before describing it in his novel, Grisham jokingly noted that “only a handful of people will know the truth, and the other five million will never know.”
Before the book was published on June 6, Grisham addressed a letter to University President Christopher Eisgruber ‘83.
“I’d really hate to blindside Princeton,” Grisham said, grinning boyishly, “so, I thought, let me write a nice letter to the President [Eisgruber] and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, but this [book] is coming, and you can’t stop it.'” He further joked that the University wouldn’t be able to sue him because he didn’t write anything defamatory.
University Librarian Anne Jarvis said that she and her team enjoyed the book and invited Grisham to campus despite the Firestone inaccuracies. During the talk, Grisham recalled the moment he received the invitation.
“I thought it was very classic,” he said. “You folks must have a sense of humor after all.”
Grisham also good-naturedly described the moment when he went to look at the Fitzgerald manuscripts in person. Despite the fact that the security guards were all alertly watching him, the moment was very touching and one he never dreamed would occur.
During the talk, Grisham also explained how he became inspired to write the novel. While driving down I-95 to Florida with his wife, he overheard an NPR segment bemoaning the rise of rare manuscript thefts. He had originally intended for his wife to write the novel’s female lead, while he took charge of the male lead. However, in an anecdote which elicited spirited laughter from the audience, by the trip’s end his wife remarked that this was out of the question – she wouldn’t even write a postcard with him.
Grisham drew inspiration for the manuscript heist he describes in his novel from his own collection of 20th century first-edition books. He owns 75 manuscripts and has collected works by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Faulkner throughout the past 25 years. He noted that while Faulkner’s handwritten manuscript was neat and had neither rewrites nor notes in the margins, Fitzgerald’s manuscript had entire pages which were crossed out.
The prolific author has written over thirty books in total, beginning with "A Time to Kill" in 1988. With nearly thirty years of writing experience, Grisham has compiled some ‘unoriginal’ rules that have contributed to his success.
First, he must always know the endings of his novel before he writes the first scene. According to Grisham, a tedious and extensive outline ensures a more cohesive novel.
“Writers are known for getting stuck with a great idea and just racing through the first 100 pages and running out of gas, and thinking to themselves, ‘I’ve done this for a year, and I don’t know what to do now,’” Grisham said. “This happens all the time because they’re lazy.”
Grisham once wrote two endings for his legal thriller "The Partner," a “happy one and [an] ambushed-style [one] that no one expected.”
Second, he makes sure to be concise. Grisham explained that authors often use too many words because they have no restrictions. In contrast, he reads every sentence aloud three times, looking for ways to make his writing more economical, and tries to use words that are three syllables or under. This inclination began when he was a lawyer in his twenties. From day one, he used ‘plain English’ and became well-known for his brevity.
“Don’t you hate it when you’re reading a book and you get the impression that the writer is sitting there with a keyboard and a thesaurus?” Grisham asked.
Third, Grisham asserted that writers must have hyperactive imaginations. Inspiration for ideas can be found in everyday material, such as newspapers and magazines, or in texts of proclaimed authors. This is why Grisham encourages writers to also be prolific readers.
Grisham also talked about the time before his fame and prestige within the literary world in order to illustrate his fourth ‘unoriginal’ rule.
As a young lawyer with only ten years of experience under his belt, Grisham realized that he didn’t love his job. Halfway through his law career, he began working on his first novel, hoping that he could continue to write full-time. Similar to Grisham, the protagonist in "A Time to Kill" envisioned himself becoming a big-time trial lawyer.
Initially lacking confidence in his book, but heartened by his wife’s support, Grisham pushed through and worked diligently on the novel for three years. He wrote at least a page a day.
Grisham encouraged authors to commit themselves to writing at least a page a day at a fixed time and keep a fixed routine.
When his completed 1,000-page manuscript was rejected, Grisham told himself that he would write one more, “hopefully a more commercial and popular one,” and if it didn’t work out, he would forget his hobby. Fortunately, his second novel, "The Firm," wound up becoming his first widely recognized book; it sold 1.5 million copies, and was made into a 1993 film starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.
Even with his profound success, however, Grisham still struggles to effect social change through his novels.
“I don’t think I have enough of a voice or a platform to bring about change [because] I’m a famous writer in a country where no one reads,” Grisham lamented.
Grisham perseveres by attempting to take social issues and “weave them” into his plotlines without coming across as moralistic.
“The older I get, the more frustrated I am with the defects of criminal justice,” said Grisham. “I lose more sleep now than I did twenty years ago.”
Grisham’s passion to weave social issues into his novels often requires a visit to prisons. Grisham has talked to people who have been imprisoned for thirty years, inmates who are on death row, and even prisoners who were lawyers. Thus, his plans for future books will concern juvenile prisons, the opioid crisis, and women’s prisons.
The talk with Grisham was sponsored by the Friends of the Princeton University Library and was held in Richardson Auditorium at 4:30 p.m.