John Grisham at Square Books
Square Books in downtown Oxford, Mississippi has a reputation for being a literary Mecca, where book signings, author talks, and the south’s up-and-coming authors, as well as historic classics, are featured. It was certainly a fitting location for John Grisham to stop on his 2017 book tour, the first in twenty-five years for the popular author.
On Tuesday afternoon, June 20, 2017 Grisham was in his “home store,” as he calls it, to meet with approximately 200 readers, sign a copy (or two) of his latest book Camino Island, and pose for photos. Later that afternoon, Grisham and two other authors met at Off The Square Books for a literary discussion about some of the ways they come up with story ideas, how they work, their background interests, and the process of getting published and, ultimately, selling their stories in book form.
The afternoon discussion featured Tom Franklin, Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at Ole Miss; Ace Atkins, author of 21 novels and renowned crime fiction writer; and Grisham. The discussion was moderated by Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books.
On book tours and bookselling:
The discussion started with bookstores, so Grisham told how he came to consider Square Books his “home store,” so to speak.
In July 1985 when he was a first time lawyer, he was trying a big case in Oxford and need to quickly find some information about The Federal Rules of Evidence. During the recess, he went over the Square Books and, low-and-behold, found just the book he needed. From then on, he has had an affinity for Square Books and, for years, he spent every Friday afternoon at the store with friends. “I thought it would fun to write books and hang out at bookstores.”
His first book, A Time to Kill, took three years to write, and was not a hot seller. But with his next novel, The Firm, his writing career took off, and this book was on The New York Times’ best seller list for 47 weeks. Of course, he had his first book signing at Square Books.
Ace Atkins also had his first signing at Square Books, with Crossroad Blues (1998), as did Tom Franklin with Poachers (1999).
About his current book, Grisham said, “I had a lot of fun writing it.” The Grisham family takes an annual summer road trip to Florida – driving eleven hours to get there. During a recent trip, he heard a story on NPR about stolen rare books. He discussed fictional story ideas with his wife and “by the time we got there, we had the story mapped out,” Grisham said. But his wife wasn’t going to write a word of it! So the story is about really cool booksellers, rare books, and stolen books, and the location is modeled after the place the Grisham family stays in Florida.
Tom sometimes writes books with his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, also an Associate Professor at Ole Miss. When he writes a book with his wife, Tom says he loves book touring because she comes with him. How does the writing partnership work? “She writes her chapters, and I still haven’t finished mine. Then she co-writes my chapters with me,” he explained.
Tom says he loves small towns, and often writes dark and violent stories. “I like people who are not afraid of violence and who like to take charge of the world.” He says his writing process is lonely. But the loneliness is overcome when he co-authors a book. His book, The Tilted World, was co-written with his wife Fennelly. The novel is set in Mississippi and is about the great flood of 1927.
Tom’s first book, Poachers (1999) is a collection of ten short stories that address the injustice, irony, and corruption in daily life. His characters meet situations in which the line between right and wrong can be unclear. Tom’s novel Hell at the Breach is a fictionalized version of a violent feud in 1899 in Clarke County, Alabama. The story involves the struggle of poor sharecroppers against the wealthy landowners.
Ace is primarily a crime writer, who used to be a newspaper reporter. He says he enjoyed the reporter job because it kept him close to the community. He said you can look at the Police Blotter and tell a lot about the community. Originally from Alabama, he started writing about Delta blues music, publishing Crossroad Blues in 1998. Crossroad Blues first introduces the character Nick Travers, a Tulane University blues historian. Nick searches for lost recordings of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson.
As a crime reporter for The Tampa Tribune, Atkins wrote a feature series about his investigation into a forgotten murder in the 1950s. His novel, White Shadow, tracks this murder story, but is an offshoot from it. Asked if he solved the crime in his novel, he answered, “No, I didn’t solve the crime.” But he got interested in little roadside motels in Tampa in the 1950s, and then later traveled to Cuba.
Ace says, “Southerners have a strange way of pulling off crimes.” Want to get ideas for a novel? Just read the daily newspapers. Tom added, “There’s a lot more room to hide bodies in the rural south.”
Ace talked more about developing southern characters: “Just go to Walmart and eavesdrop on people’s conversations.” Ace has buddies in law enforcement and wanted to write something about soldiers coming home from war and how they adapt back to society. “I am inspired by William Faulkner and Burt Reynolds,” he quipped.
Ace is now writing about a team of bank robbers – all dressed as Donald Trump: the Trump Bandits. They rob banks all over Mississippi.
Questions and answers:
Q: about the setting for Camino Island.
A: Grisham said it is named for Amelia Island, a real place where the Grishams hang out. “The setting is accurate, but the story is pure fiction,” he said. It’s about a literary community, a gang who hang out around a book store, and there’s a little satire about the book industry. The bookstore is Bay Books, where the owner dresses sharp, has lots of hair, and loves the ladies. “He does well with young female writers. He reads four books a week and is a great book seller,” Grisham said.
Before the book was finalized, Grisham sent a draft to Richard Howorth for him to make sure that the information about booksellers was accurate. Howorth’s one idea he sent back to Grisham for an addition was that the bookstore needed a cat.
Q: about other authors who inspire these three writers.
A: William Faulkner, of course. Grisham said his last night in law school was spent at Faulkner’s grave.
Q: about the inspiration for Calico Joe.
A: Grisham said he always liked baseball, but didn’t have a story. When he finally did get the ideas, he did a lot of research on baseball players, research that was a lot of fun.
Q: about life imitating art, and justice/injustice issues.
A: Ace said he takes a grain of a true story, and then gets involved in understanding the characters.
Grisham said he was a lawyer for ten years and he never had a client whom he thought was wrongfully convicted. But a story [about a minor league baseball player who was wrongly convicted for rape and murder] opened his eyes about wrongful convictions, which led to his first nonfiction book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town (2006). Eleven years ago Grisham became a board member on the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. Grisham said, “Our criminal justice system is broken, flawed in many areas. It could easily be fixed and save a lot of money, save a lot of lives.” Ace has also helped the Innocence Project.
Q: about critics and how these writers feel about reviews.
A: Grisham said he learned early on, after the Memphis newspaper trashed his first novel, that “bad reviews ruin your day. I’m lucky to be where I am and, occasionally a good friend will send me a bad review,” he joked. Mostly, he just ignores the bad reviews.
Q: advice on writing.
A: Grisham answered that his first piece of advice is: “if you’re not writing a page a day, nothing’s going to happen.”
Q: about what other authors they enjoy reading.
A: Ace likes John D. McDonald, Elmore Leonard, Megan Abbott, and David Joy.
Tom likes Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and Stephen King.
Grisham likes Ian McEwan, John le Carré, and Pat Conroy (who was a friend of his), along with John D. McDonald, and David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon, The Lost City of Z).
In concluding, Grisham mentioned that he sponsors the visiting writers series at Ole Miss. It is called the John and Renée Grisham Writers in Residence for emerging writers, selected on the strength of their writing. Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, is the 2017-2018 Grisham Writer-in-Residence.
From Oxford, Grisham traveled to Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS on June 21 where his discussion was with Greg Iles and Matthew Guinn. He traveled to Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN on June 22 for a signing and discussion with Ann Patchett and Jon Meacham. For more information about the book tour and Grisham’s books, visit http://www.jgrisham.com/
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