John Grisham On His Latest Heist Novel, 'Camino Island'
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
John Grisham, super world-famous best-selling author of books about lawyers and judges and crime isn't - let's face it - known for his beach books. But his latest novel "Camino Island" is set in a Florida beach town, and the frequently bikini-clad heroine spends a lot of time frolicking in the sun. That said, this wouldn't be a Grisham novel if there wasn't a lot of drama and dastardly deeds. The plot here involves a gang of thieves, priceless manuscripts, and not anyone in the legal profession, but rather a band of writers. Yes, writers. John Grisham joins me now. Hi, how are you?
JOHN GRISHAM: I'm fine. How are you doing?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well, thank you. You have published so many novels. I feel like I've been reading your work for most of my adult life. Where do you keep all your books?
GRISHAM: Well, my publisher Doubleday sends me the first book off the press. Or at least they claim it's the first book off the press. I have no way of knowing. But it comes with a very nice note from my publisher. And we take that book at a little ceremony and we go to a certain place, a certain bookshelf in the library and add it to the collection. So we have a row of - two rows now - of all of the first ones off the press. And that's where I keep my first editions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, that's nice to know. This book does not involve, as I mentioned, any lawyers, any judges. Why did you choose to step away from courtroom drama and head out into the harsh world of writer's salons?
GRISHAM: You know, these ideas pop in from all over the place. I enjoy collecting modern first editions. I have for probably the last 25 years and have a nice little collection that I like to play around with. They're very good investments. So I know a little bit about that world. And my wife and I were having conversations about, you know, what would be a fun, still a mystery involving stolen books, stolen manuscripts, bookstores, booksellers, things like that, and it just sort of unfolded.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your main character in this book is Mercer Mann. She's a young author who is down on her luck. Tell us a bit about her.
GRISHAM: Well, she's 31 years old. She's published one novel when she was 24 that the critics loved, but she couldn't sell it very well. She has one collection of stories. She's teaching college to survive. She has a mountain of student debt. And she's, as you say, sort of down on her luck and sort of easy prey for these people who want to find some stolen manuscripts.
She also has a connection to Camino Island, which is where the story takes place. She grew up there, so she loves this place. And it just so happens that the authorities believe that there are some stolen manuscripts under the control of a bookseller on the island.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should mention the plot centers around the theft of not just any manuscripts, but the F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton. These are real things. And I was struck by your author's note - which I have to say in every book I always like to read because they always provide clues as to what the authors were thinking - that you say you never actually went to Princeton to visit the library where these manuscripts are actually at. And you say that's because I, quote, "want no part of inspiring some misguided soul to get felonious ideas." Is that a real concern?
GRISHAM: I love the word felonious.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a good word.
GRISHAM: Yeah, it's a very real concern. The manuscripts are there, unlike the great 20th century writers - Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald. Faulkner's manuscripts - and he had 40 of them. He wrote a lot of books. They're all - almost all - housed in a library at the University of Virginia. I've seen them. That's where I live. I've been there and I've been to the basement. I've seen his manuscripts. He was fastidious about his manuscripts. And they're in great condition, but there are like 40 of them.
Steinbeck and Hemingway, their manuscripts were scattered and they're not in one place. And there are a lot of them. Fitzgerald only has five. He had rewrote five books or four and parts - part of his last book, "The Last Tycoon." And Princeton has them all. Some were in the Firestone Library under lock and key. I didn't want to go there. I didn't want to see it. I didn't want to inspire anyone to get any bad ideas.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm wondering where you think we're at in the book world now. What is going on? You are selling I think you mentioned half the books you did before the U.S. recession. Are people reading less or reading differently?
GRISHAM: I think the numbers show that we are probably reading - the average American reads less every year, buys fewer books, reads fewer books. Young people are reading fewer books. So, I mean, the trend is down. It's not all hopeless. You know, in the last 10 or 15 years, we've lost several thousand bookstores, which really impacts the business. At the same time, e-books have become very popular. So, you know, I can't tell you where the future of books will be. I'll say there always going to be a lot of books published.
And I tell writers who are trying to get published, you know, it's sort of discouraging. I got discouraged, you know, 30 years ago when I'd walk into a bookstore and see all - the wall full of these big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list and I would say, good gosh, who wants to hear from me? And I would get discouraged by that. But every year, you know, several hundred first-time novelists are going to be published. And publishing needs the new talent every year. Publishing needs a new best-selling author every year.
That's what we need. We don't always get one. And I've been doing that for 30 years. Stephen King's a buddy of mine. He's been doing it for 40 years. And, you know, we're still...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write a book a year still. Do you get writer's block?
GRISHAM: No, I have not yet. I have not...
GRISHAM: Ever. No. That's not happened yet.
GRISHAM: I try to do a book or two every year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that you wanted your wife to write the female character of Mercer Mann. You have been married to your wife for a long time. You were childhood sweethearts.
GRISHAM: Yes, close to that. Yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want her to be involved?
GRISHAM: Well, it was a crazy idea that lasted about an hour.
GRISHAM: We were driving to Florida for a couple of weeks. And we try to take an annual road trip. We load up the dog and put some books on tape and podcasts and get in the car for 10 hours. And we were talking about this idea of stolen books, stolen manuscripts, a mystery. You know, that's how the story came about. And as we realized, you know, there would be a lead character that's male, one that's female - and it was sort of my idea. I'll write one, you write the other. And she had some ideas about the story, but by - you know, by the time we got to our destination, she was not going to write anything with me, so...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just too much togetherness?
GRISHAM: Yeah, way too much togetherness.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Do you have her read your stuff, though? Is she your sounding board? Because my husband writes, and he does not let me anywhere near it ever. He'll let a lot of other people see it, but he will not let me see it. So I'm curious as to how you manage that relationship.
GRISHAM: She reads everything before anybody else does. And she read "A Time To Kill" many years ago, the first chapter of it, and encouraged me to keep writing. And that's been a process we have now for almost 40 books. I tell students, people who are trying to write, there's, you know, certain tips that - I guess we, you know, call them tips, suggestions, do's, don'ts, whatever.
But you've got to find somebody who loves you, who can read your stuff and be critical, and somebody who really wants you to succeed. It can be a teacher, a parent, a spouse or girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, somebody who's on your side but who can be very honest with you. And that's - you've got to have a sounding board.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you are hitting the road and doing a book tour for the first time in a very long time. Why now?
GRISHAM: Well, you know, over the years, I've just kind of felt guilty because I would not hit the road and go out and do some work and go to bookstores and talk to booksellers and fans and readers. And I would read a story about some great new bookstore or an old bookstore somewhere, and I would say, you know, I really should go there. I should make the effort and go say hello and say thanks for selling books and meet some fans and sign - you know, so I've had these thoughts over the years. And, you know, I guess I'm just kind of bored. I'm tired of sitting around the farm. My wife wants me out off the farm for a while, so I'm going to go - I'm going to hit the road.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Grisham. He'll be touring possibly to a bookstore near you. Thank you so much. His book is "Camino Island." Thank you.
GRISHAM: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.