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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Bill Moyers talks with John Grisham about writing and reading

JOHN GRISHAM: When Dickens wrote his books, you know, 200 years ago, 150 years ago, and he exposed-- you know, the dreadful working conditions of children in London there was no television. You know, it was all the--

BILL MOYERS: No internet.

JOHN GRISHAM: No internet. It was all the written word. And that was--

BILL MOYERS: Few newspapers.

JOHN GRISHAM: Few newspapers. And those books had, you know, a tremendous impact. When John Steinbeck wrote THE GRAPES OF WRATH in 1939 you know, about the plight of these poor Okies in California, and how mistreated they were. The book was scandalous, it was criticized, it was hated. But it was read.

BILL MOYERS: You read it. That book really impacted you didn't it?

JOHN GRISHAM: I read it every three or four years yes.

BILL MOYERS: You still read it?

JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah. Listen, my goal for 2008, my plan is to read every one of Steinbeck's books again. That's how much I love Steinbeck. But but I love--

BILL MOYERS: Why? Why -- that was not your period. That was before you were born in '55 right? This was 20 years before.


BILL MOYERS: But you were born poor? You picked cotton.

JOHN GRISHAM: You know, I guess we were poor. We didn't know it. We didn't think of being, we were like everybody else. We were cotton farmers. And the first seven years of my life was on a cotton farm in Black Oak, Arkansas. And we picked cotton and chopped cotton.

And my dad had, I think, 40 or 80 acres that he tried to farm. And we were like everybody else around there. There were no rich people. And, I guess there were folks who had less, but we didn't really know it.

BILL MOYERS: So when did you come upon Steinbeck and GRAPES OF WRATH?

JOHN GRISHAM: Well, it's kind of funny. When I was a senior in high school I had a really, really great high school English teacher named Francis McGuffy who we're in contact with all the time. And she made us read good books. She was, you know, she forced us to read great literature.

Well, in Mississippi, there's some kind of state law that says you have to read Faulkner if you're in high school. And so we always had a Faulkner novel going which you, you know, you couldn't penetrate the thing without help from Ms. McGuffy. And she took pity on us and she gave us something else to read. So we went through a Steinbeck period. And I it was Faulkner and Steinbeck. And so I fell in love with Steinbeck because you could understand what the guy was saying. And you knew where the plots were going. But I was always struck by how clear he could write.

BILL MOYERS: I have the same experience. I mean I have not finished, seriously, I have not finished a Faulkner novel. I hate to admit that at this age of my life. But same thing happened with Steinbeck.

JOHN GRISHAM: I finished some Faulkner novels, not all of them. Some I can't, you know, I can't penetrate. But I read all of Steinbeck , not all of Steinbeck's books, but a lot of them in high school. And Ms. McGuffy saved the best one for last. You know, when I read THE GRAPES OF WRATH I just knew that this was-- I saw the greatness in the book. Even as an 18 year old kid.

BILL MOYERS: What was it?

JOHN GRISHAM: Just the people. The story. The human conflict. The suffering. And the sense of survival those Oakies had in the face of the great injustice. And, you know, it was written for the little guy. And great characters. A great moment in history that he captured beautifully with-- with his best writing, I think, that he ever pulled off at the age of 37. It's just a great story.

BILL MOYERS: How old were you when you started writing A TIME TO KILL?


BILL MOYERS: And you got up, as I understand, every morning at 5:00 and wrote for three hours.

JOHN GRISHAM: I would wake up at 5:00, and I'd be at my office by 5:30. That was the only quiet time of the day. Because Renee and I were having babies and life — I was in the legislature in Mississippi. I was, you know, my law office was busy. It was never profitable, but you know, it was still busy. A lot of clients who couldn't pay. From 5:00 until 8:30, or 9:00, that was the only quiet time of the day. And I'd go to the office and make some strong coffee and sit down and start writing.

And I didn't know, I mean, I'd never written before. My goal, when I started the book, was just to finish it. 'Cause I'm always starting a new project and never finish. But I had this great courtroom drama. That I just couldn't get away from. And this father who'd gotten retribution for his little girl. And I put the racial angle in there. And it was told through the eyes of a young attorney, just like myself, who was dreaming of the big case. Dreaming of something that will make you famous, you know.

I worked on it for three years. I remember I had to go to court sometimes at 9:00. And I can remember just sitting in court being dead tired 'cause I'd already written for three hours. And it, you know, it's draining. When you do it a lot it really takes a lot out of you.

BILL MOYERS: How did you know it was working?

JOHN GRISHAM: I didn't. No one knew it but Renee. And she would read — I wrote it on legal pads. And I would finish a chapter and she would read it. And she reads a lot of books. She studied English in college, and has a real sense of pace and story and plot and all that. And she kept pushing. She kept pushing.

And there were times I would put it down for a month. And I didn't really want to go pick it up again. And I would say- I'm tired. I don't want to do that anymore. I want to sleep. Just why am I doing this? I used to walk in a bookstore and see all those tens of thousands of beautiful books and I would say, "Who wants to hear from me?" you know, what have I got to say? How can I add to that? And, you know, I just-- I finished it. After three years. And lucky enough to get it published.

BILL MOYERS: Five thousand copies though. That wasn't very many.

JOHN GRISHAM: I bought 1,000 of them. My publisher was the small, unknown — it was a real publisher. They didn't have any money. And so I bought 1,000 copies that I was going to sell to my friends. And, you know, was I going to make some money on the retail price, whatever. I've still got about 50 of those things buried in backyard.

BILL MOYERS: Where does this storytelling talent come from? Some people I read are gifted with it. But some people really have to work hard at learning the architecture of storytelling. Where does it come — was it arguing briefs before juries? Was it preparing-- taking testimony? Deposition? Where-- where did it come from?

JOHN GRISHAM: No, the legal career didn't help with that. 'Cause lawyers tend to be verbose and overblown. And although, when I was a lawyer I worked hard at keeping the writing simple and direct and not overdone. Bill, you know, I can't answer that you know, I didn't study writing. I don't think you can study it. I've always read a lot. I don't study other authors. There's -- it's a god-given gift to be able to just tell a story, in such a compelling way and 400 pages that hooks the reader into all -- till the very end.

BILL MOYERS: Who are your favorite writers? You said you read a lot. What are you reading?

JOHN GRISHAM: Just got off of a Mark Twain binge. I read a lot of his stuff. We had a couple biographies. I love Mark Twain. And this year, I'm going to try to read everything that John Steinbeck wrote. I've already read most of them, but years ago when I was a student. I love to read John LeCarre, the British guy, who's a great-- really -- probably my favorite writer.

BILL MOYERS: What was his favorite book?

JOHN GRISHAM: LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is a book that I read about every four or five years because it's just so clever and brilliantly plotted. And it's the kind of book when -- and his writing is just off the charts, the way he expresses himself and the way he describes people in dialogue.

And every time I read that book-- it inspires me to be better. Because - I'll never be as good as he is. And that's when I'm writing, I really have to watch what I read, 'cause you always want to read great books. And if I catch myself reading a really good writer when I'm writing-- invariably, I'll start try-- I catch myself imitating, you know, imitating somebody else. I love Pat Conroy, you know. but his descriptions and his language and narratives are so over the top, you know. But I'll catch myself adding a few extra words to a sentence just 'cause I'm reading Pat Conroy. So, I'll put him down for awhile until I finish the book.

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