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John Grisham’s first novel was “A Time to Kill,” a thriller about a young, Mississippi lawyer who successfully defends a black client charged with murder. Grisham wrote that book in his laundry room while practicing law in Mississippi. It remains one of the best-selling novels of all time. Now, 25 years later, Grisham returns to the same rural Mississippi town with a sequel: the story features many of the same characters and another controversial trial tinged with race. Attorney Jake Brigance is back and his client is a dead man who left behind a controversial will and a big family secret. Diane talks with best-selling author John Grisham.
- John Grisham bestselling author of 32 books, including one work of nonfiction, a collection of stories and four novels for young readers
John Grisham, master of the legal suspense thriller, talks about why he waited more than 20 years to write “Sycamore Row,” the follow-up novel to “A Time to Kill,” and why he says his wife is his most honest critic. Grisham said his personal life had changed so much from when he wrote “A Time to Kill,” which was inspired by some of his own experiences as a Mississippi lawyer, that he was hesitant the sequel would lack authenticity. “Every book goes back to story. You can’t write anything without a story,” he said.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Sycamore Row” by John Grisham. Copyright 2013 by John Grisham. Reprinted here by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. John Grisham's books have sold more than 300 million copies in 42 languages. Nine of his novels have been turned into films, including his first one, "A Time to Kill." Grisham's latest legal thriller is his sequel to that first novel, set in the same Mississippi town. It's about a dead man with a secret, a controversial trial, and the ghosts of the deep south. And attorney Jake Brigance is back on the case. The book is titled, "Sycamore Row."
MS. DIANE REHMJohn Grisham joins me. I invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. John Grisham, welcome back.
MR. JOHN GRISHAMDelighted to be here, Diane. Always a pleasure.
REHMSo glad to see you. You know, I almost want to call you Jake Brigance, because there is a lot of you in Jake Brigance, is there not?
GRISHAMYeah, I mean, when I created that character, almost 30 years ago, I was that character. I was a struggling lawyer in a small town in Mississippi, with not enough clients and dreaming of the big case, the big trial, the big -- you know, I wanted to be a trial lawyer, I wanted to work in the courtroom. And I was -- had a, you know, beautiful young wife, and we were having babies and struggling. We were very happy. But that was -- you know, you write about what you know or what you live, and that's where I was 30 years ago.
REHMIs it true you were actually writing "A Time to Kill" in the laundry room?
GRISHAMI wrote "A Time to Kill" in the laundry room, at the office, in courtrooms, in courthouse libraries, at the State Capitol Building in Jackson, Mississippi where I was a State Legislator and bored out of my mind. I always had the legal pad, the current legal pad is all written in long hand.
GRISHAMYeah. And I would keep the current legal pad in my briefcase, and if I had five, 10, 20 minutes to kill, I would sneak off somewhere and write. And I did that for three years. And it took three years to write the book.
REHMWell, I have to tell you, John Grisham, that "Sycamore Row" got me from the first page, which is absolutely what you wanted to do.
GRISHAMYou know, it's no different than any other book I write. I really want to try to hook you on the first page. Certainly the first chapter, but not too far into the book, I want the reader hooked.
REHMAll right. Now, why don't you read for us, starting with that first page?
GRISHAMYou want, you want the first chapter?
GRISHAMFirst chapter, let me get my glasses on here. I'm not sure I had these glasses the last time I came here, but I've got reading glasses now.
GRISHAMOkay, this is page one, chapter one. This is how the story starts. "They found Seth Hubbard in the general of where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind. A front was moving through, and Seth was soaked when they found him, not that it mattered. Someone would point out that there was no mud on his shoes and no tracks below him. So, therefore, he was probably hanging and dead when the rain began.
GRISHAM"Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not. The logistics of hanging oneself from a tree are not that simple. Evidently, Seth thought of everything. The rope was three quarter inch braided natural manila, of some age and easily strong enough to handle Seth, who weighed 160 pounds a month earlier, at the doctor's office. Later, an employee in one of Seth's factories would report that he had seen his boss cut a 50 foot length from a spool a week before using it in such a dramatic fashion.
GRISHAMOne end was tied firmly to a lower branch of the same tree and secured with a slap dash mix of knots and lashings, but they held. The other was looped over a higher branch, two feet in girth and exactly 21 feet from the ground. From there, it fell nine feet, culminating in a perfect hangman's knot, one that Seth had undoubtedly worked on for some time. The noose was straight from the textbook, and with 13 coils, designed to collapse the loop under pressure. A true hangman's knot snaps the neck, making death quicker and less painful, and apparently Seth had done his homework.
GRISHAMOther than what was obvious, there was no sign of a struggle or suffering. A six foot step ladder had been kicked aside and was lying benignly nearby. Seth had picked his tree, flung his rope, tied it off, climbed the ladder, adjusted the noose, and when everything was just right, kicked the ladder and fell. His hands were free and dangling near his pockets. Had there been an instant of doubt, of second guessing, when his feet left the safety of the ladder, but with his hands still free, had Seth instinctively grabbed the rope above his head and fought desperately until he surrendered?
GRISHAMNo one would ever know, but it looked doubtful. Later evidence would reveal that Seth had been a man on a mission. For the occasion, he had selected his finest suit, a thick wool blend, dark gray and usually reserved for funerals in cooler weather. He owned only three. A proper hanging has the effect of stretching the body, so Seth's trouser cuffs stopped at his ankles, and his jacket stopped at his waist. His black wingtips were polished and spotless. His blue necktie was perfectly knotted.
GRISHAMHis white shirt, though, was stained with blood that had oozed from under the rope. Within hours, it would be known that Seth had attended the 11 a.m. worship service at a nearby church. He had spoken to acquaintances, joked with the Deacon, placed an offering in the plate and seemed in reasonably good spirits. Most folks knew Seth was battling lung cancer, though virtually no one knew the doctors had given him a short time to live. Seth was on several prayer lists at the church. However, he carried the stigma of two divorces, and would always be tainted as a true Christian.
GRISHAMHis suicide would not help matters. The tree was an ancient Sycamore Seth and his family had owned for many years. The land around it was thick with hard woods, valuable timber Seth had mortgaged repeatedly and parlayed into wealth. His father had acquired the land by dubious means back in the 1930s. Both of Seth's ex-wives had tried valiantly to take the land in the divorce wars, but he held on. They got virtually everything else.
REHMNow you tell me how someone listening to that would not be totally grabbed in. John Grisham, reading from his new novel, "Sycamore Row." I gather when you first thought about writing a sequel to "A Time to Kill," your wife didn't think that was such a great idea.
GRISHAMOver the years, I've thought about it a lot. It all goes back to story. Every book goes back to a story. You can't write anything until you have a story. And I did not have a story for a sequel to "A Time to Kill," to go back and visit with Jake and Harry Rex and Lucien, all these wonderful characters that I think about all the time. A couple years ago, I started getting the initial idea for a story. And about a year ago, I finally mentioned it to Rene, and we talked about it at length.
GRISHAMAnd she was not too -- she had reservations, because, and her points were very valid, she said, look, when you wrote "A Time to Kill," 30 years ago, you were that young lawyer. We were living that life. And we were in that small town. And you were in court every day. And it may -- and things have changed a lot since then. And it may be difficult to recapture the authenticity of that voice. And I said, that's, I agree.
GRISHAMAnd she said, also, sequels don't work. As a general rule, they don't work. And I said, Okay, look, let me write 100 pages, because I love the story. By now, it's the end of the story, and I said, I'll write 100 pages, and you read them, and let's go -- let's have the discussion then. And that's what we did.
REHMIs she your toughest critic, aside from yourself?
GRISHAMShe's the first reader, the toughest critic, and we talk about ideas all the time. She reads, usually in clumps of 100 pages as we go through a book, and she does not spare any opinion. Or, she reads them with a red pen and loves to mark them up.
REHMAnd you trust her?
GRISHAMI always have. Always have. And, don't always agree with her. You know, we've had some pretty good spats over the fiction. There was one book I wrote 15 years ago. I loved the story, and this just shows you how you can screw up. I read 100 pages, and -- I wrote 100 pages, showed it to Rene. She said this is some of the -- I thought -- she said, I hate these people. I don't want to read. I said, Okay, I'll show you. So, I sent it to my agent in New York, and he said, basically, I don't like these people.
REHMHow about that.
GRISHAMAnd so I'm not going to fight both of -- I'm not gonna fight Rene and my agent, so I said, Okay, let's put this one aside and forget about it. So, yeah, I listen to her.
REHMSo, you put those 100 pages in the trash.
GRISHAMOh, burned them. Yeah, they're gone. I don't know where they are.
REHMAnd did that hurt?
GRISHAMNo, you know, I don't dwell on what's hurt or what's -- criticism or what has not been written. I'm focused on the next story. I mean, I'm always looking at the next story.
REHMAnd the next story is right here. It's titled, "Sycamore Row." John Grisham is with me. You are invited to join the conversation. 800-433-8850. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here is our first email from Susan for John Grisham whose new novel with many of the same characters you grew to know and even love from "A Time To Kill," this is titled "Sycamore Row." This email from Susan says, "The book is fabulous. I was up all night reading it. My question is, how long after you wrote "A Time to Kill" did you get the idea for the sequel?
GRISHAMWell, "A Time to Kill" as written from 1984 to 1987, so that was a three-years period 25 years ago. The book came out in 1989. It didn't sell. I mean, it was a nonevent when the book was published. So we're talking 24 years since publication. The movie came out in '96, you know, was a big movie and fun movie and all that. But even by then I did not have the idea for -- a good idea for a sequel. And to be honest, when "A Time to Kill" was published in '89 -- I mean, again the book didn't sell -- "The Firm" came along two years later and it did sell and it sold big.
GRISHAMAnd I was going to go back to Ford County and write another Jake Brigance novel and then write a pure legal thriller, go back and forth And that was sort of my plan to stake out some kind of turf in the -- you know, on the -- literary terrain. That's what I was -- how can I sell some books? Well, after the success of "The Firm" I realized these legal thrillers could be pretty popular. And my publisher sort of prevailed upon me, let's stick with the legal thriller for a while.
GRISHAMSo I did that, "Pelican Brief," "The Client" and, you know, "The Chamber." And before I knew it, you know, ten years had gone by and the movies were coming out. And I was having so much fun with the legal thrillers, I really wasn't thinking much about Ford County. I just didn't think about it, you know, as a setting for a sequel. You know, probably 20 years went by -- to answer her question I'd say 20 years went by before I started really thinking about how much fun it would be to go back to Ford County.
REHMSo it was after "The Firm" came out as a movie that then they went back and made "A Time to Kill?"
GRISHAMWell, sort of. "The Firm" was published in '91, "The Client" in '92 -- "The Pelican Brief" in '92 and "The Client" in '93. Okay. Those three -- three years in a row. The movies of those three books came out within a 12-month span from the summer of 1993 to the summer of 1995.
GRISHAMAnd they were all big cast, big movies, big box office successes. And they're still somewhere tonight on cable. I mean, they're still out there.
GRISHAMAnd it was a really crazy time in our lives because suddenly, you know, things have really gotten out of control in many ways. But there was this -- "A Time to Kill" was discovered and brought back as a Best Seller in hardback and paperback at the same time.
GRISHAMAnd so suddenly everybody wanted to buy the film rights to "A Time to Kill." And I wasn’t' too keen on doing it at that time. I waited three or four years before I agreed to do it.
GRISHAMWell, I just didn't -- I didn't -- I hadn't talked to anybody I could trust with it. And then after Joel Schumacher directed "The Client" he came to Oxford, Miss. We walked around the square and he said, I'd like to do this and that and do this with the story. And I want to do this movie. And I said, okay, let's do it. And we filmed it in -- they filmed it in '95. It came out in '96 and again was a very good movie, a very popular movie and had a big cast. And so anyway, I forgot what the question was.
REHMWell, it was simply...
GRISHAMI could ramble for a long...
REHM...it was simply how long after you wrote "A Time to Kill." But you said it was kind of a crazy time. What do you mean?
GRISHAMWell, you had -- I remember in the summer of '94 one day I picked up the New York Times Best Seller list and all the movies were out. A movie -- a popular movie brings back the paperback of almost any book and takes it to the top of the list. That's what used to happen. And that's what had happened with these three books. "The Chamber" had just been released in hardback and was at the top of the list. And then there was "A Time to Kill." So all five boos were at -- you know, were doing very well.
GRISHAMAnd there was just a lot of intrusions. And we, you know, are very private people and we lost a lot of privacy. And when you treasure your privacy and you start losing it then, you know, you do things -- you take steps to protect it. And , yeah, for period of time it seemed like life was kind of out of control and it was a lot of fun. I'm not, going to -- you know, I'm not going to pretend like it wasn't fun. It was -- when you see these -- your books adapted to popular film and you see your books as Best Sellers it's a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
REHMHow did you have to go about protecting your privacy?
GRISHAMWell, we cut back on a lot of -- I never have done a lot of publicity for the books. I enjoy doing things like this, you know, and a few interviews each year with good publications. Didn't want to be seen as much. And we moved to Charlottesville, Va. We found an old house way out in the country and bought it, and that was our hiding place for a year or so. And we used to love to sneak into town. We didn't know anybody. Nobody knew we were there and we'd, you know, have a quiet weekend with the kids and really shut down.
GRISHAMAnd after doing that for a while we decided to go live there for a year. And that was 20 years ago. We're still there.
REHMYou're still there.
GRISHAMYeah, and it's a, you know, a quieter way of living.
GRISHAMRita May Brown is in that very area.
GRISHAM...just around the corner, yeah.
REHMYeah, she's come on this program many times. I read that introduction to this program talking about 300 million copies of your books. Doesn't that really give you pause?
GRISHAMIt's certainly a nice number.
GRISHAMI don't know who's doing all the counting. I see those numbers -- hey, last year it was 250 million. I guarantee you I've not sold 50 million books in the past year. I don't know who's in charge of the auditing here, who's doing the counting but keep counting. I like the way you do that.
REHMWell, clearly it's going up. Clearly it's going up.
GRISHAMWell, yeah. Well, you publish a book, you know, in 42 languages and the books do well in certain markets. And -- but I swear I don't know how you can count the books that are sold in, you know, 42 different countries.
REHMAll right. Now, tell us a little more about this book, "Sycamore Row." We started with Seth hanging himself in a very meticulous fashion. We learned in that book he had been -- in that reading he had been divorced twice. There was some sort of mention of the land itself, the trees themselves. Where do we go from there?
GRISHAMWell, you go from there straight to Jake and you catch up with Jake who's doing okay but not doing great since this -- it's three years after the trial of Carl Lee Hailey.
REHMRight. And I'm surprised...
GRISHAMYeah, Jake thought Carl Lee Hailey would make him the big superstar trial lawyer, and he still thinks that's going to happen. But the three years have not been that prosperous. He's living in a cheap rental house because the Klan burned down his beautiful Victorian. And he's fighting with the insurance company over the arson claim, has not settled that yet. And, I mean, he's doing okay but not, you know, knocking homeruns like you thought he might be.
REHMI was surprised at that.
GRISHAMYeah, yeah, and so he arrives -- well, the suicide takes place on a Sunday. Jake gets to the office on Monday and opens the mail. And there is a letter from Seth Hubbard, a man he has never met, a man he doesn't even really heard of. And it's a very personal letter, from Seth who's been dead 24 hours, to Jake. And he includes in the letter a handwritten will that he had prepared on Saturday, the day before he killed himself. He knew exactly what he was doing. He changed his will, redid it on Saturday morning...
REHMBecause there was a big preexisting will.
GRISHAMHe had a big thick will done a year before by a big law firm that gave most of his assets to his children and grandchildren, trusts and all these fancy things that make wills 2" thick. And -- because he had a lot of lawyers. He had a lot of property. He renounced that will and he wrote a handwritten will, which you can do in most jurisdictions if every word is written by you in your will, it's dated. You don't have to have witnesses. You don't have to have anything.
GRISHAMIt's a valid will.
GRISHAMIf you are of sound and disposing mind and memory and not being unduly influenced, all those other legal hurdles, those wills are still valid. And that's what Seth -- Seth was a smart guy, new the law. So on Saturday he changed his will. On Sunday he goes to church and then kills himself. And on Monday, Jake receives the new will with some very specific instructions from Seth Hubbard about what to do with the will, about who to -- who's going to contest it, who to fight. Jake has his marching orders from a man he's never met.
GRISHAMAnd Jake knows immediately that it's going to be for him a very nice payday, which he needs desperately. He knows there's going to be a huge will contest and that's where the story goes. It ends up in trial.
REHMAnd we've got to tell our listeners that what he does is instead of his children, his grandchildren, he leaves 90 percent of all his assets to his African American caregiver.
REHMHousekeeper, caregiver, she was doing everything.
GRISHAMYeah, Seth was a very sick man. He was dying of lung cancer and he was in tremendous pain. And, you know, that sort of tempered some of the reactions you have to a suicide because he even tells Jake in the letter, he says, I don't know if you're a smoker but if you are stop smoking. I smoked for 50 years and I'm paying a price for it. And he says, you know, I'm in terrible pain. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of living with the pain. He had a very -- he had a month or so to live anyway. He was a very sick man.
GRISHAMBut during the past year, undergoing chemo and radiation, he never -- he was a cranky old guy. He was not any fun to be around. But he had run off a bunch of nurses and all that. And Lettie, his black housekeeper, had become his caregiver, very intimate caregiver. I mean, cleaning up after him when he -- you couldn't -- feeding him and everything. And he'd gotten very, very close to her. And under Mississippi law, there is a presumption that the caregiver in that situation has unduly influenced the person making the will.
REHMThe assumption is that?
GRISHAMThe presumption, yes, yeah. And you have to overcome the presumption at trial. It's very tricky legal stuff. And it sets up this beautiful trial with all the legal maneuverings and all the...
REHM...all the lawyers.
GRISHAMNo one know how much money's at stake initially.
GRISHAMBecause Seth was very secretive. He had been through two terrible divorces. He was hiding everything. He hated lawyers. No one knew how much money he had.
REHMAnd in fact, he had more than $20 million. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." there are so many callers who'd like to talk with you.
GRISHAMOkay. I'll put the headphones on.
REHMYeah, let's put the headphones on and 800-433-8850. To Robert in Plantation, Fla., you're on the air.
ROBERTYes, hi. John, what an honor. I wish my wife was here and witnessed this conversation.
ROBERTA big fan and she's reading the book right now. So I haven't read it but I had a question, a comment. One, the question is, it seems like this is a theme or motif coming back with Scott Turow in 2010 bringing back his character Rusty in "Presumed Innocent" and "Innocent."
ROBERTAnd Stephen King now 37 years later after "The Shining" in "Doctor Sleep" which is -- you just passed on the Best Seller list -- has brought back the character Danny. So I'm wondering if I'm going to be disappointed having read "A Time to Kill" with the sequel with Jake Brigance, just as I was with those other two. And I really liked the book. I did not like the movie depiction. But that was my question and I'll take that off the air.
REHMAll right. Thanks, Robert.
GRISHAMWell, Robert, first of all, I hope you're not disappointed with the book. I don't think you will be but, you know, again I hope you're not. As far as Scott Turow's sequel "Innocent" last year or the year before -- I read all of Scott's stuff and enjoy them -- I never thought about perhaps it was a sequel. It was a prequel, wasn't even a sequel. That did not enter into it. And Stephen's book, I didn't know Stephen was writing a sequel to "The Shining" until I had finished writing "Sycamore Row."
GRISHAMAnd again, it's odd that all three books are published at the same time, which I think is ridiculous. I'm not really in charge of, you know, their schedules but Stephen came out a couple weeks before "Sycamore Row" and I think Scott came out a week before and we're all getting kind of bunched up, you know, at the top, which may be good for publishing or maybe not. Again, I didn't know about Stephen doing the sequel. I didn't think about Scott writing a prequel. And that had no influence on "Sycamore Row."
REHMIs anybody or has anybody expressed interest in making "Sycamore Row" into a movie with Matthew McConaughey?
GRISHAMYeah, when I sold the rights to "A Time to Kill" in 1995, '96, somewhere in there, I made some mistakes in the contract. The contract...
GRISHAMWell, I gave Warner Brothers the right to sort of -- first option -- first right of refusal to make the movie, which I wouldn't, you know, never do now because I have a different lawyer now. And so Warner Brothers is in charge -- not that this is a bad thing but it's -- you know, I'm not in charge, they are. They have the first chance to do it. And we're having those discussions now. It could get really complicated because of that, because they're sort of driving the bus. Some ideas have been floated.
GRISHAMBut there's -- again, it took, you know, five years or so before we -- I agreed to make the movie of "A Time to Kill." And I did so only when I got, you know, the deal I wanted, which was a certain amount of control, things like that. And I'm not going to rush into this one either. If it doesn't get made then fine, but I'm not going to make a movie with people I don't want to deal with. And I'm not saying that's where we're headed but there's been a lot of preliminary talk.
GRISHAMYou know, Matthew is now, what, 16 years older than he was in 1996 or '97. Jake is now 35. You know, they were about the same age when "A Time to Kill" was made. Not that Matthew doesn't look good, because Matthew always looks good.
REHMHe looks great. He looks great.
GRISHAMBut, you know, I would love -- if I had my choice I would love to see Matthew do it again.
REHM...do it again.
GRISHAMHeck yeah, heck yeah. I'd love -- that would be our dream.
REHMJohn Grisham. We'll take a short break here. When we come back we'll talk more about his new novel "Sycamore Row" and take your calls, your questions, email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd John Grisham is here in the studio. We're talking about his newest novel. It's titled "Sycamore Row." It is the sequel to "A Time to Kill," a very, very successful novel that ultimately became a movie. John Grisham, how much control did you have over the making of that move? And by control, what I mean is could you watch the movie as it was being made? Were you working with the script writer? How much did you have?
GRISHAMWith "A Time to Kill," a fair amount of control because I wouldn't sell it until -- they really wanted it bad. So I was in a pretty good negotiating position. I didn't sell it until I knew the studio and the director. It was a New Regency film, and Joel Schumacher was going to direct it. He had just done "The Client." And we were very friendly and liked each other and trusted each other.
GRISHAMSo I knew who I was dealing I with. And Joel even before he signed the contract, Joel said, this is the way I see doing this. And, you know, we had long conversations, so I felt very comfortable. Akiva Goldsman wrote the script. I had the right to look at the script, make notes, make comments, and I knew Joel would listen to me. I mean, if there were -- there were a couple times in reading the script, I'd say, I'm not sure about this. And, fine, whatever, they were very open to it.
GRISHAMAnd then the really crucial part came when I had the right to veto the casting for, like, the top three or four characters. And they -- and it didn't go well because they were ready to shoot "A Time to Kill," and they didn't have the star. They didn't have Jake. They had everybody -- they had Samuel Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, you know, Oliver Platt. They had all these -- Kevin Spacey. You know, that was the cast, okay. And...
REHMBut they didn't have the...
GRISHAMThey had Jake. They were on the set practically raring to go. The money had hit the ground, as they said. They were spending money shooting -- getting ready to shoot, and there was no Jake. And they were desperate, and Joel suggested one actor. And I said, there's no way this guy's going to get the role. And he suggested another actor. I said, there's no way. I'm vetoing you. I'm exercising my right to veto.
GRISHAMWell, it blew up, and they ran to the lawyers. And, you know, I had a different lawyer by that point. And the lawyers got involved. And the bottom line was they said yes, by contract, John has the right to veto Jake, the casting for the Jake. And Joel Schumacher, to his credit, when everybody was at war, the lawyers are screaming, Joel said, hey, I got an idea. I got an -- there's this young actor who was in a movie called "Dazed and Confused."
GRISHAMHis name is Matthew McConaughey. I love this kid. I'm going to yank him off the set of another movie. I'm going to do a quick screen test, see him on film, and I'll send it to you. I think he'll work. And Renee and I were literally waiting on the FedEx package a couple days later. And it was the old cassette tape, the big bulky cassette tape, you know.
REHMAh, yes, of course.
GRISHAMAnd so this is 1995, I guess. And so we get the cassette. We stick it in the player, watch it on the screen. There's Matthew. We've never seen him before, and he nails the screen test. He looks great. He's from Texas, so he's got the accent there.
GRISHAMAnd he's smoking a cigar. He's got the cocky swagger. And we said, this guy's got it, okay.
GRISHAMAnd I went straight to the telephone. I called Joel, and I said, bingo, go. And they got -- they pulled Matthew off another set -- off a set again and got him to Jackson, Miss. They...
REHMMade him a star.
GRISHAMThey were filming in Canton, which was the real town. Clanton was not based on Canton, but they filmed it in a beautiful little town, the town of Canton, with a gorgeous old-fashioned Southern courthouse. And the movie took off, and that was how Matthew got to be in "A Time to Kill."
REHMAnd Canton became Clanton, maybe short for Klan Town.
GRISHAMYes. Yes. Well, you know, that was not intentional. It was going to be Clayton, N.C. -- I mean, Clayton, Miss. because my wife is from Clayton, N.C.
GRISHAMSo when I wrote -- I wrote the entire book of "A Time to Kill" with Clayton, Miss., okay. And not long after I finished it, I was driving down this highway in the Delta in Mississippi, and I passed through Clayton, Miss. There's a real town. And I thought, well, good grief, I've screwed that up. So I had to change it again.
REHMOh, I see.
GRISHAMSo I -- there's a Clayton. There's a Canton. So I went with Clanton, but the Klan was not involved in it.
REHMAll right. Now, we've got to look at the fact that the play based "A Time to Kill," which has been on Broadway for, what, close to a month...
GRISHAMAlmost a month, yeah.
REHM...about to close.
GRISHAMThey close Sunday, right.
GRISHAMGood question. I don't understand theater. I think it's a, you know, pretty rough business. Two out of three plays on Broadway fail and -- which is remarkable because they're so expensive to put one on. The play of "A Time to Kill," the playwright is Rupert Holmes. And he wrote a wonderful play. I read it about three years ago. I was a little skeptical at first because I couldn't imagine how you could get all that action on the stage.
GRISHAMAnd Rupert did it and did it beautifully with his play. And when I read it, I guess, three years ago, I said, this could be a lot of fun. Again, I'm not involved in it. So they had a six-week run at the Arena Theater (sic) here in Washington two years ago. And we saw it twice. We were thoroughly entertained by it. It's very faithful to the original story. It's brilliant the way they did the stage. And it was so successful that the producer, Daryl Roth, who's, you know, a real heavyweight on Broadway, she said, we're taking it to Broadway.
GRISHAMAnd I said, well, go, I'll be there opening night, you know. I'm not involved in it. And it opened Oct. 20 last month, and it was great. Opening night, I was there with Renee, and we had the kids, and, you know, a lot of fun. And the audiences loved the play. The audience -- the word of mouth is really good. The audiences really react well to it. The...
GRISHAMThe critics did not. And I think on Broadway, if the critics don't like you, it's going to be hard to recover. And, again, I haven't seen any numbers. But I think what happened, we just couldn't get enough traction -- word of mouth traction to generate the ticket sales to keep it going.
GRISHAMAnd it's so expensive to get it there, and it's so expensive to keep it there that at some point they had to make the decision to pull the plug on it. So it's -- I'm going to go up tomorrow night. I'm going to watch it. I want to see it one more time before it closes.
REHMGood for you. Good for you.
GRISHAMAnd so, yeah, it's a disappointment, but it's -- was fun to be there.
REHMOf course. All right. Let's go to Amy in Durham, N.C. Hi there.
AMYHi. Hi. I'm so honored to speak with both of you.
AMYReally love you, Diane Rehm. And, John Grisham, I know you're just an icon. It's really wild that I turned on the radio today. Today's the anniversary -- well, it's actually my fiancé hung himself on June 11 of 2011. And I turned the radio on at 11:11.
AMYThat's when you began reading your chapter, "And he hung himself from a tree," and really...
REHMOh, Amy, I'm so sorry. Oh, wow.
AMYIt really meant a lot to me.
REHMYeah. I can understand.
AMYAnd even though it's really morbid, it's his birthday today. It's also -- his brother died on this day, too, six months before he died.
AMYAnd so I just -- it was just really wild to hear that. And I don't know what to say. It's just...
AMY...really touched me, and it was -- I don't know. It seems really crazy, some of these cosmic little...
GRISHAMVery sorry to hear that.
REHMI should say, just so sorry to hear about that, Amy. And I wish you well. Let's go to Ramsey. He's (sic) in Cary, N.C. Ramsey, you're on the air.
RAMSEYHi. Thanks for taking my call.
RAMSEYSo I'm a big fan. The first book I read was "The Firm." And I didn't know about "A Time to Kill" until after I read "The Firm." So I was interested about the order of events that you went through when the book came out and when they became popular. But my question is about your career and when or if you stopped practicing law and then how you get your ideas. Is it from your law practice or from the news? Where do you get your ideas for your stories?
GRISHAMI practiced law for about 10 years in a small town in Mississippi and did not find the career, you know, especially satisfying because it was just a lot of competition. Too many lawyers on the street and not enough clients. Also, about halfway through that career, I started -- I got the bug to write, and then I got the dream of being a full-time writer. Once that dream sort of took over, you know, the law was never going to be good enough.
GRISHAMI stopped practicing almost immediately when we sold the film rights and the book rights to "The Firm" in 1990. Suddenly, you know, I could afford to quit practicing law, and I did so quickly and never looked back. You know, I've been accused of being pretty tough on lawyers in my fiction. But the truth is I'm a lawyer, still a lawyer. My son's a lawyer. I'm proud to be a lawyer. And were it not for the law, I don't think I would have ever written the first book. And now that I -- you know, it's 30 books later. I still every day open the newspaper looking for a story.
GRISHAMWell, you know, we're so obsessed with the law and trials and courtroom dramas and litigation.
GRISHAMAnd I'm always on the prowl. And there's so much material. And you take, you know, these trials or courtroom dramas or whatever, Guantanamo. You pick the Trayvon Martin -- pick the headline, okay. And you take that, and you, you know, probably have a hyperactive imagination, and you start feeding that through.
GRISHAMThen the imagination -- try it with the idea of how could you put together a plot. It all goes back to the law. Everything goes back to the law, with the exception of what I call a small book. I might write a book about football or baseball or, you know, skipping Christmas. You know, some wild hair I have, I'll write up a funny book about that or the kids' books. When it comes to legal thrillers, I'm always looking at newspapers and magazines, you know, looking for an angle, a plot twist, a story I can change into...
REHMAnd think about this huge cache of paintings by brilliant painters that's just been discovered...
REHM...apparently stolen by the Nazis, kept in some big apartment. Boy, there's a story for you, yeah.
GRISHAMImagine the litigation there because they're going to trace this stuff back to certain owners 70, 60, 70 years ago, 80 years ago maybe.
GRISHAMAnd the -- it's so valuable, they've got to litigate.
REHMAnd the fights that are going to erupt and...
GRISHAMI can't wait. I can't wait to see the fight.
REHMAnd here we should mention that the son and daughter of Seth are not very attractive people. You really painted them well.
GRISHAMYeah. You know, I...
REHMWe'll spring that out in people.
GRISHAMOh, my gosh. I think every great American fortune's been fought over after death. And some of the stories are just amazing. And as a lawyer, I saw small estates -- families go to war over small estates because it brings out the worst in people. You think you're about to get something for free, and you're terrified your brother or sister will get something more. And so people lawyer up, and here we go. But it's just a source of rich drama and conflict.
REHMAll right. And let's go to John who's in Birmingham, Ala. Hi there. You're on the air.
JOHNHey, Diane, John. How you doing?
GRISHAMFine. How are you doing?
JOHNDoing okay. John, just real quickly, my daughter works with a friend of yours or worked with a friend of yours in Charlottesville, Phil. And she of course is the light of my life. But I'm in the used book business. And, believe it or not, there's a story that's floated around forever about the boxes of "A Time to Kill," first editions, that you supposedly carried around in the trunk of your car. And they were damaged when the gasket on your truck started leaking and filled the trunk with water, and they were ruined. Is that a true story?
REHMSee, there are no secrets, John.
GRISHAMWell, it's pretty close. Well, you know, I got a big mouth. Pretty close, in the summer of 1989, and I was going to libraries all over Mississippi trying to unload. They published "A Time to Kill" -- they printed 5,000 hardback copies, and I bought 1,000 myself to, you know, go to libraries and bookstores and grocery stores.
GRISHAMI went to coffee bars, wherever, trying to sell books. And I was running around, you know, Mississippi, going from one library to the other with a buddy of mine. And I have to be honest. It wasn't a gasket from a gas tank. It was a leaky beer cooler we had in the trunk. And so we had, like, six boxes of "A Time to Kill," 12 in each box or whatever, and it was my friend's turn to go back.
GRISHAMAnd we made a stop and go back and freshen up our beverages. And he yelled because the cooler leaked onto a couple of boxes. And we had a bad day at the library, didn't sell any books. And out of frustration, we just grabbed a couple of boxes and threw them in the dumpster because it was slightly damaged. We were so sick of those books anyway. And for years, my friend would drive by the dumpster hoping to find something long after "A Time to Kill" became a lot more valuable.
REHMAnd there you have it, John. Thanks for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Is it true that those prepublication books become even more valuable once the book is out?
GRISHAMYes. See, there were only 5,000 of them.
GRISHAMAnd I don't have any that were actually sold, but those things have a lot of value now if you can find one.
GRISHAMIf they're in good condition, they're pretty valuable.
REHMSo here's the question: Are you already at work on a new one?
GRISHAMNo. I'm not writing this fall, taking some time off. "Sycamore Row" took a long time to write. It's thicker than the other books. It may be the longest one yet. And normally I finish, you know, by July. This was maybe August into September. And I just didn't -- I didn't have the energy to, you know, pick up and go and...
REHMIt really does take a lot of energy.
GRISHAMYeah. And Renee really wanted us to take the fall off, and a bunch of other stuff's going on in our lives. So we said, let's take some time off and not write. But I'm getting kind of antsy about -- I start January the 1st of each year. And my goal is to finish July 1 of each year. I get...
GRISHAMSix months, but, I mean...
REHMSeven months, and that's it.
GRISHAMYes. Yeah. Mm hmm. I mean, that's the schedule, sounds quick, but, I mean, when you write every day for several hours, the pages really pile up. And that's the schedule. And so to start Jan. 1 -- it's about six weeks away -- I got to start thinking about, you know, what...
REHMAnd you're getting antsy.
GRISHAMGetting pretty antsy, yeah.
REHMHow many kids do you have?
GRISHAMHave two. My son's 30. He's a lawyer in Charlottesville, Va. And my daughter's 27, almost 28. She's a schoolteacher in Raleigh, N.C.
REHMJohn Grisham, congratulations.
GRISHAMThank you. Always a pleasure.
REHMSo good to see you and so much fun to read this book. It's titled "Sycamore Row." It is indeed the sequel to "A Time to Kill." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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