How do you make a joke both political and funny?
John Grisham’s latest novel, his 30th, departs from the author’s usual legal thriller genre in a few ways. For one, the main character isn’t a lawyer.
In Camino Island, Grisham writes about a struggling young author who moves to a sleepy resort town in Florida. It’s the story of a rare books dealer, a daring literary crime and a young, female writer who tries to catch a thief.
- John Grisham Bestselling author of more than 30 books, including one work of nonfiction, a collection of stories and four novels for young readers
How does Camino Island compare to your other 29 books? Is your 30th your best?
Well, you always say that it’s the best one yet. You have to say that, you know, to promote it. It’s hard for me to rank the books or evaluate the books, especially after so many. But it is, it was by far the most fun book to write. It was really delightful.
Camino Island is about a literary heist, about the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, including the manuscript of The Great Gatsby, which are stolen from a library at Princeton University. How did you come up with the idea for Camino Island?
Well, thanks to NPR. I was driving with my wife a couple years ago to Florida, to the beach, for a couple of weeks. We try to do this every year, take a long summer road trip, throw the dog in the back of the SUV and load up and take off down the road. We were listening to NPR. There was a story– we can’t remember exactly the details– but it was about some stolen, rare books. And we really enjoy collecting modern first editions. Some are rare. We’ve been doing it for 25 years. And we know the business a little bit. We’re not serious collectors. But we, you know, know something about it. And the story was about some very valuable books that had been stolen, and we just started thinking about ways to concoct a story, a mystery, about stolen, rare books. And as the miles passed and the hours passed, the story grew and grew. No lawyers. I was determined to write a book with no lawyers, and I almost succeeded. Toward the end we had to have one, so I put him on stage for a couple pages. By the time we got to the beach, I had the idea for a story, and I spent the week researching online. Renee didn’t forget about it, but she went off and read some of her favorite books. And that’s where it came from.
It’s interesting that you said that you wanted to get away from writing a book with a lawyer as the central character. Why is that? Were you feeling pigeonholed, or what?
Not really, I mean, after twelve or so legal thrillers, I wanted to write something different. I wrote a comic novel about Christmas. I wrote a childhood memoir. I’ve written two books about football. One baseball novel. One nonfiction work. One collection of short stories. So yeah, after a few legal thrillers, I want to do something different. I’m still curious about that. Curious about what I can and cannot write. It’s a process. As the career continues, I think about writing all different kinds of books. And some I will not do, some I don’t want to tackle, but I’ll never get too far away from the legal thriller, because those are still very popular. And there are a lot of fans out there who want the new legal thriller, one per year. And we’ve done one per year for 25 years.
Have you taken stock of the impact your books have had on the way we view the law?
It’s impossible to sit where I sit and gauge the impact. I know that when I write a legal thriller, it’s going to be read by a lot of people. But still, that’s a small fraction of, you know, our society. And I don’t really think about the impact a book may have about an issue, or even a movie. Although we haven’t made a movie in 15 years. It’s very difficult to make the movies now. I don’t really think about that. Occasionally I’ll write a book and I’ll say okay, this issue– if the book is– if the story is told properly, and it involves an issue, it might raise awareness to some level, but again, I’m not really trying to do that. When I start writing a book, I have one goal, and that’s to write the best book I’ve ever written. And I write a certain type of book, when I’m writing legal thrillers. And again, I can’t gauge– I don’t worry about the impact.
From a listener: “A Painted House remains my favorite. Where did the impetus come from?”
It’s autobiographical. It was a childhood memoir. The first seven years of my life, I was that little boy living on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas with my parents and my grandparents. That’s where the story came from. And now it’s published as fiction because– There were a lot of stories told when I was child, that I heard on the front porch, late at night, listening to the Cardinals on the radio while my mother and grandmother shelled butter beans and peas. There are a lot of stories. Old family stories. And I remember those stories. They’re probably all fiction, but still great stories. I wanted to collect those, and I wanted to write the book before my parents, so my parents could enjoy it. And they were very helpful as I wrote the book, and it’s one of my favorites.
On naming his (many) characters:
I’m always on the prowl for names, good names. Because every novel has 200 names. And after 30 novels, that’s a lot of names! And it’s always a challenge to find names that are unusual, but still pronounceable, and something we can remember from page to page.
Do you remember where you found the names for Camino Island?
My wife came up with Mercer. One day she said, she was reading something and she said, “I like the name Mercer for this character,” and that was it. Bruce Cable, I can’t recall where that name came from. I’ve never used Bruce as a lead character before. And again, I’m kind of, I take a lot of notes to try to keep track of names and potential names that go into a notebook. But sometimes I’ll use the phonebook, sometimes I’ll use obituaries or box scores. I wrote a book one time, and the first twenty characters were all named after major league second basemen who played before 1920, because I had the baseball encyclopedia. I wrote a book one time where I took a football program from a college football game, and scrambled all the names up and wiped out an entire team. So I mean, I’m always looking for names.
What advice would you have for an aspiring author?
Write one page a day, every day, no excuses. If you’re not producing one page a day, nothing is ever going to happen.
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