Imagine this: A John Grisham novel without a courtroom, without a jury and without a compelling sense of justice – unless you consider the heist of original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton’s Firestone Library unjust. (Well, of course it is, especially if the thieves turn around and sell them on the black market.)
Grisham’s 30th novel, “Camino Island,” has just hit bookstores – and he’ll be back in the fall, right on schedule, with another taut legal thriller.
When the 62-year-old internationally bestselling novelist Grisham makes a rare appearance on Tuesday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, it will be his first book tour in 25 years. For the lucky 200 who snared tickets in April, he’ll sign copies of this latest from 1 to 5 p.m., then talk and answer questions from 5 to 6 p.m.
(Once, when he appeared at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., home of the Ole Miss Law School from which Grisham graduated in 1981, he signed so many copies, his arm had to be iced.)
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The newest is about a bookstore owner in a small town on Camino Island, off the west coast of Florida. Bruce Cable is an appealing character, if shady as a midnight alley, and knows the bookstore business inside out. Yes, there’s an attractive young woman on the island (she recently lost her job teaching English at UNC); a colorful – if neurotic – coterie of writers, including one who’s battling the bottle; and a bit of romance. But love scenes? Take my word, Grisham’s strength is justice, not juice.
His stops this week include Quail Ridge in Raleigh Park Road Books in Charlotte and Malaprops in Asheville. On June 27, he’ll loop back through our state and sign at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.
I recently sent Grisham some questions. “Give me a deadline,” he pleaded. “I won’t get it done if I don’t have one.” A habit which may help explain his wildly successful writing career.
Q. In a 2011 interview with the American Bar Association Journal, you observed that equal justice for black people wasn’t much closer to reality now than in the time of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” more than 50 years ago. You said, “A black suspect is simply treated differently from a white suspect. Then they are tried in a system populated by white prosecutors and white judges and all-white juries. And that’s not much different from the trial 75 years ago of Tom Robinson.” Do you see any cause for optimism in 2017?
A. I don’t recall putting it like that. Things are not quite that bad. There are many more constitutional safeguards in place today that at least aim to provide equal justice. For example, Tom Robinson would not be tried today by an all-white jury. His case would probably be moved to a neutral site. And, scientific evidence would make it difficult for a conviction.
There is cause for optimism. Because of the innocence movement, more states are passing laws that will prevent wrongful convictions. There are fewer death verdicts each year, and fewer executions. DNA is widely used by law enforcement to exclude innocent suspects.
Still, though, racism is endemic in the system. Black suspects are often treated differently. I wish I had the solution for this.
Q. Last September, Charlotte experienced days of racial unrest after the fatal shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police. How do such cases fit in with your views on racial justice?
A. These cases have been happening for a long time. Video cameras now prove them. The footage tells the truth, or at least places the spotlight on the police. Because of this evidence, law enforcement is being forced to reassess its procedures.
Q. I once asked Eudora Welty to describe her ideal day. She said no one had ever asked her that question. Ideally, she said, the phone wouldn’t ring, the doorbell wouldn’t ring and for lunch she’d just slap together a tomato sandwich so she could work all day. On the off-chance no one has asked you that question recently, please describe your ideal writing day.
A. Every day is ideal. I retire to my little office next to the house at 7 a.m., with a cup of strong black coffee. I work at a desk top, with no phones, no faxes, no internet. It’s a cozy, dark place, and for three or four hours I’m in another world. Mid-day I drive to town and prepare for the rigors of lunch. Twice a week I’ll play golf with friends or my son. If Renee (his wife) and I want to go to the beach or somewhere else, we go and I never think about writing when I’m away.
Q. A friend of yours – a fellow writer in Charlottesville, told me to ask you about the girl next door. I have a feeling it’s about your wife, whom this person describes as gorgeous. Please elaborate.
A. That’s Renee. We met when she was 16, and I was 22, and there was no way another guy was getting near her. Forty years later, all is well.
Q. Like the fictional bookstore owner in “Camino Island,” you collect rare books. You’ve said you wish you’d kept copies of your first novel, “A Time to Kill,” which a small press published to the tune of 5,000 copies. You bought 1,000 of those wholesale and, over the years, gave a lot of them away. Now each copy of that first run is worth $4,000 plus. Any advice for book collectors?
A. Serious collectors are such an eclectic bunch that no word of advice would fit them all. Find something you love and collect it.
Q. “Camino Island” includes a scene set in Chapel Hill, and more specifically inside The Lantern Restaurant on Franklin Street. Do you have favorite restaurants in North Carolina?
A. Well, The Lantern. We’ve been enjoying fine meals there for 15 years. We’re pals with Ashley Christiansen in Raleigh and love eating at Poole’s.
Q. In your novel, you mention that “some writers are seasoned raconteurs with an endless supply of stories and quips and one-liners. Others are reclusive and introverted souls who labor in their solitary worlds and struggle to mix and mingle.” Where are you on this spectrum?
A. Somewhere in the middle. I’m not reclusive or introverted, though these days I try to avoid crowds, stages and podiums for speakers. I’ve never been a big talker or jokester, but I love humor and can tell stories if the occasion is right.
Q. You also say that writers “are generally split into two camps: those who carefully outline their stories and know the ending before they begin, and those who refuse to do so believing that once a character is created, he or she will do something interesting on his or her own.” Which are you? Have you tried both?
A. One of my rules for writing popular fiction is: “Don’t write the first scene until you know the last one.” This requires careful planning, even outlining, something writers generally despise. But I outline extensively before I begin. Twice in my career, I have plunged headfirst into novels with little planning. Both times I paid dearly with hundreds of pages of manuscript that didn’t work.
Q. Alcoholic characters show up in your novels from time to time. There’s Nate O’Reilly in “The Testament,” four times in rehab and still struggling. The recovering alcoholic lawyer Reggie Love in “The Client.” And in the new one, it’s a novelist named Andy, who says he’s soon off to “booze camp.” What is it about alcoholics that makes for intriguing characters?
A. A lot of lawyers and writers battle the bottle. For lawyers, it’s probably the stress. For writers, it’s probably the undisciplined lifestyle. In fiction, they make great characters because of their suffering and struggles.
Q. What is your primary goal as a writer?
A. To entertain. And, if in the context of a good story in a popular novel I’m able to shed light on an issue, then the book is better for it.
Q. You’ve said Southern writers are confined by place and history and that you do not want to be so confined. Why do you think so many Southerners are confined by these things – is it that they want to be or is it that they can’t help themselves?
A. So much good fiction comes from the South because of its tortured history. Suffering, injustice, violence, conflict – all lead to compelling stories.