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Why ‘The Reckoning’ is a first for best-selling author John Grisham

Best-selling author John Grisham became a lawyer, got bored and turned his courtroom experience into legal thrillers instead. His latest, "The Reckoning," tells of the murder of a Mississippi preacher by a returning World War II hero, who confesses to the crime but won't explain why he did it. Jeffrey Brown spoke with Grisham at the Miami Book Fair about the novel, which includes a Grisham first.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Author John Grisham began life as a lawyer and then, he says, got bored and began turning his courtroom experience into bestselling legal thrillers.

    His latest, "The Reckoning," tells the story of a murder of a prominent Mississippi preacher by a returning World War II hero who confesses, but refuses to say why he did it.

    Jeffrey Brown spoke with Grisham for PBS Books at the Miami Book Fair, and found out this novel includes a Grisham first.

  • John Grisham:

    Did something I have never done before. In the context of a — I guess a legal thriller, we start off with a murder, arrest, criminal prosecution, the trial, a looming execution.

    You know, that's my sweet spot, OK? That's what I like to write about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • John Grisham:

    And then, suddenly, when that's over in part one, the book takes a hard left turn and goes off to World War II, to the Philippines, and the Bataan Death March, because our hero, as it turns out — or our antihero, what you want to call him — the murderer, the defendant, went off to fight in the war.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is it correct that this is a story you heard a long time ago?

  • John Grisham:

    Yes, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes?

  • John Grisham:

    I think it took place in Mississippi in the 1930s. That's the way — the version I heard.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's no question about the whodunit.

  • John Grisham:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But there's the why that he just doesn't want to talk about.

  • John Grisham:

    That's why it's a great story, because the truth was never known.

    There was speculation that it involved his wife, but he would never say that because he didn't want to damage her honor, impugn her reputation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Right.

  • John Grisham:

    So he took it to his grave.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When you're writing about 1940s-'50s Mississippi, you're inevitably writing about race.

    You often in your books, I think, write about and get into social things, issues that…

  • John Grisham:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Interest isn't the right word — that seem important to you. Is that fair?

  • John Grisham:

    Yes.

    I'm always searching for a story about an issue, issues involving criminal justice, and especially injustice, with wrongful convictions and the death penalty, and mass incarceration, our for-profit prisons, and all these problems that we have that we could fix if we would simply do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is it the issue that interests you first, and then you find the story to go with it?

  • John Grisham:

    Both ways.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Both ways?

  • John Grisham:

    Both ways.

    Sometimes, my wife will say, just stop preaching. Get off your soapbox and go write another "Firm," a good story of suspense, legal entry, and stop preaching for a while. And then I will do that.

    You can't impose your politics on your readers, because it becomes sort of intrusive. You don't want to do that. You don't want to assume everybody's got the same politics. So I stay away from it a lot.

    And it is fun just to write a good old-fashioned thriller, suspense novel, without the heavy legal issues.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What made you want to be a writer in the first place?

  • John Grisham:

    I had a story. I had a great story that became "A Time To Kill," and I — something I saw one day court. And I said, I'm going to take this story and change this and change that and make it a very compelling courtroom drama in a small town in Mississippi.

    So I became obsessed with the story that became "A Time to Kill."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    I read that you were given some early advice about publishing regularly, or once a year, or — yes?

  • John Grisham:

    I had never thought about it. I had never thought about publishing every year.

    But when "The Firm" came out in March of '91 now, a young editor just made an offhanded comment over lunch. He said, "Well, the big guys come out every year."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The big guys, the big writers?

  • John Grisham:

    The big guys, the big writers.

    And he said,"Look at the lists. You got Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Michael Crichton. These guys come out every year. The key to it is to do it every year for a while."

    I never realized that. I never thought about that. And I had started my third book, "The Pelican Brief," and I was — I hurried back home and quit touring. And I said, OK, I'm going to finish this book and publish it next year.

    And we got it done in a hurry. And that got it started. Twenty-five years later, I still do it once a year.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Somehow, there's that endless fascination with the — the justice system and process, right? Never went away.

  • John Grisham:

    We're Americans. We have — we have this insatiable appetite for stories about the law and lawyers and crime.

    And we have a compulsion for litigation that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • John Grisham:

    We have so many rights that we either really have or we think that we have as Americans. And we love our rights that we cherish.

    And if somebody does something to tamper with a right that we think we have, we're not going to take it. We're going to call a lawyer. We're going to file a lawsuit. We're going to do something, because we want justice.

    And that's just the American way. That's in our DNA. And that leads to a lot of great stories.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, if you know where to look.

  • John Grisham:

    If you know where to look. Headlines.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new novel is "The Reckoning."

    John Grisham, thank you very much.

  • John Grisham:

    My pleasure. Thank you, Jeff.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All of Jeff's conversations from the Miami Book Fair are available online at PBSBooks.org.

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