Skip to main content

Grisham talks ambulance chasers, eBooks

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
October 28, 2011 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
John Grisham returns with a new legal thriller,
John Grisham returns with a new legal thriller, "The Litigators."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Grisham is bringing readers back to the courtoom with "The Litigators"
  • Reviewers say it is loaded with legal twists, scheming attorneys and brimming with tension
  • Last month,Grisham was awarded the first Harper Lee prize for Legal Fiction

(CNN) -- Whether it's Dr. Conrad Murray's trial or TV's "The Good Wife," on the screen, in books or in real life, everyone loves a good courtroom drama. When it comes to legal thrillers on the page, John Grisham is the undisputed master.

From "The Firm" to "The Confession" he has written more than two dozen books, every one of them an international best-seller. Grisham's novels have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide and been translated into 29 languages.

Now he's bringing readers back to the courtroom with "The Litigators." Reviewers say Grisham is at the top of his game in his latest, calling the book a compelling page-turner, loaded with legal twists and turns, scheming attorneys and brimming with tension.

In the novel, David Zinc, a young but burned-out attorney, is having a really bad day. He walks out on his high paying position at a monolithic Chicago law firm, goes on a serious bender and winds up taking a job at "Finley & Figg." The small Southside office calls itself a "boutique law firm" when in reality, it's a two-bit operation run by a pair of ambulance chasers who have made a career working the seedy side of the legal profession.

One of the firm's partners, Wally Figg, stumbles on what could be a huge case, potentially worth billions, a class action lawsuit against a pharmaceutical giant and their cholesterol reducing drug that may or may not cause heart attacks. Figg smells money, big money, and a chance to cash in, in court.

It's fertile territory for Grisham, who spent years working at a small law firm in rural Mississippi before his days as a best-selling author, and in "The Litigators" he gives readers another unique look inside the legal machine, at the best and worst the American system of justice has to offer. Grisham was recently honored for his storytelling skills. Last month in Washington he was awarded the first Harper Lee prize for Legal Fiction. Named for the author of the classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," the award honors the author who best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.

CNN spoke to Grisham this week about his new novel. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: Tell me a little about "The Litigators." What was the spark behind the book?

Grisham: I think it goes back to what seems to be a deluge of lawyers advertising on television.

The airwaves are just flooded these days with what I find to be unseemly appeals for cases by lawyers, all types of cases, tractor-trailer accidents, medical malpractice, mass tort drugs, asbestos and things like that. You've got these lawyers who come on with these high powered, very expensive ads, who just sign up as many cases as possible and if you have time to read the fine print on the TV screen, most of these cases they bundle them up and sell them to other law firms, so these guys are just peddling their names.

I've been intrigued with that aspect of the practice of law and advertising in general, and one thing led to the other, the idea of a couple of guys on the street who are trying to make a buck and having their own billboards and TV ads and things like that. The story just kind of started growing and I thought it would be clever to get them in a big case, in way over their heads and see what happens to them.

CNN: You worked as a lawyer in a small town for years; you must have known some lawyers like Finley & Figg.

Grisham: Oh yeah, they're everywhere.

They're in the big cities by the thousands, hustling around trying to get cases. They're in small towns where there's not quite as much business and they're still hustling around trying to get injury cases or more lucrative cases, but they're everywhere.

CNN: In your novel, you show the legal system at its best and worst, how it both can help and sometimes hinders the American dream. Does it all even out in the end?

Grisham: I do try to be fair, especially when talking about the legal profession, because I've been criticized so much over the years by lawyers for some of my negative portrayals of the profession. But I don't think I've created a lawyer or a character yet who was not based on someone or a composition of lawyers who I once knew.

They're just like people, like everybody else they come in all varieties.

In the big mass tort drug case that plays out through my novel, in the end the proper verdict was returned by the jury. I still think that in our system, almost always juries do what's right. They make mistakes occasionally, but for the most part they're careful, thoughtful and return the right verdict.

CNN: You recently won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. What was that like?

Grisham: When you write popular fiction, you don't normally win a lot of awards. That's fine, that goes with the territory. But when I was informed of this award and learned that Miss Lee herself had given it her blessing, through her old law school, the University of Alabama where she had studied, it meant a whole lot more and I hope that it will become fairly prestigious over time. But I was deeply honored to win the first one.

CNN: Lee's novel is an American classic. Do you have a favorite book or author on the law?

Grisham: Well, I read a lot of them, I read a lot of the other lawyer writers to kind of keep up with the competition, but also I like those stories. There's nothing as compelling as a good courtroom drama with a mystery angle to it.

"Presumed Innocent," published in 1987, that book by itself re-energized and electrified the genre of legal thrillers. It inspired me to finish my first book, because of its enormous success. It's a very well written book. Scott Turow is a wonderful writer. I tend to read more old stuff than new stuff. I love John LeCarre, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens, "Bleak House" is one of my favorite books about the law.

CNN: Do you follow big trials in the news, like the Conrad Murray case going on now?

Grisham: To an extent, yes. I follow them through newspapers, magazines and television. I don't go watch them. I've been tempted. I've been invited to go watch big trials, but that's where I get my ideas. I watch the headlines and I take ideas for courtroom dramas, law firms, or legal shenanigans or trends in litigation. I'm always watching, with an eye for taking a story and twisting it, expanding it and making it a novel. I'm always on the prowl for a good legal story.

CNN: As an author who has sold millions of books, what do you think about the emergence of eBooks? Have you tried using an eReader?

Grisham: Amazon sent me a Kindle two years ago as a gift. I read a couple of books on it. It was an enjoyable experience. There are so many advantages to doing it, but then I sort of gravitated back to the old hardback. I love to collect books.

My wife and I are big readers and we have thousands of books stacked up all over the house. That's just what we enjoy doing.

The emergence of eBooks is phenomenal. A year ago, my last book, "The Confession" was published. It was the first time we released the digital version of the book the same day as the hardback. After one year, my total sales are 40% digital and 60% hardback and the numbers have gone up. That's obviously good news for me because more people are reading the books.

The question is -- and no one can answer it -- is where are we going to be in five years? Five years ago no one saw this coming. Maybe Jeff Bezos at Amazon did, because that guy can see around corners. I think he's the smartest guy in publishing today, but it's changing all the time and no one really knows where it's going.

It's not all bad, there's a new generation of young people in publishing and they understand the technology, they understand social media and they are very excited about the future. They think there will be more and more outlets to find new readers to market the books. It's changing awfully fast, but I can't worry about it. All I can do is go and write the next book.

CNN: With all of your success, what drives you to keep writing a novel every year?

Grisham: It's what I do. If I didn't write two or three hours each morning, I'm not sure what I would do. I have no other job; I stopped practicing law some 20 years ago. Now my kids have grown, so there's no more Little League Baseball to occupy me, keep me out of trouble.

I go to my office at 7 o' clock every morning and 'til 10 or 11 that's my quiet time. I'm always working on a novel and maybe something else, but after that I'll do whatever I want to do. My wife and I enjoy traveling. I took up golf three years ago, which is a huge mistake when you're 53 years old, a crazy sport.

I write every day when I have a deadline. The pages pile up and before you know it there's another novel that's finished. It's great fun. I'm a very lucky guy; I don't take it for granted.

CNN: What's next for you?

Grisham: Something fun, I just finished my first baseball novel. Doubleday will publish it in April. I played around with it for four or five years, finished it this summer. It should be a lot of fun getting it ready for publication next spring when the baseball season starts.

I'm writing the third in my kids' series, Theodore Boone, right now and it should come out around the first of June, and when I finish that around the first of January it will be time to buckle down and get the next legal thriller going. So, I'm always thinking two or three books in advance.

Read an excerpt from "The Litigators" on Grisham's website.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Catching up with authors
February 8, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Author Tim Federle has just wrapped a long day at the Atlanta Junior Theater festival, working with several thousand boys and girls who dream of stardom on the Broadway stage. Count these kids as lucky; they've found the perfect mentor.
January 21, 2013 -- Updated 1433 GMT (2233 HKT)
There's good and bad news regarding Robert Crais' new novel, "Suspect." First, the bad: There's no sign of uber-popular, crime-fighting duo, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Now the good: There is a dog.
November 5, 2012 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
In "The Hot Country," U.S. troops invade a foreign country where oil interests are at stake, a rising foreign power is looking to derail U.S. forces using cloak and dagger tactics, and there's a gunfight in the desert against insurgent enemies.
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 1651 GMT (0051 HKT)
This week super fans from around the world are gathering in New York to celebrate the 159th birthday of the legendary consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
October 15, 2012 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
In "The Twelve" it's the end of the world as we know it and while no one feels fine, millions love reading about it.
September 8, 2012 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Fans of crime fiction know the names Connelly and Koryta well. Two Mikes. Two generations. Two masters of their craft.
July 24, 2012 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
"Sorry Please Thank You" is his new collection of mind-bending, moving and sometimes melancholy stories.
July 17, 2012 -- Updated 1531 GMT (2331 HKT)
Crime fiction fans know the name Parker, a single-named anti-hero of the 1960s. As a character, he's a career criminal, hired gun and professional thief, a pulp-fiction prince of America's seedy underworld.
June 29, 2012 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
Werewolves are usually the stuff of B-movies and bad novels, but last year British author Glen Duncan did the unthinkable in literary circles, crafting a howling good tale out of the weary werewolf myth.
June 19, 2012 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
Best-selling author Alan Furst has made a career of capturing the classic cloak-and-dagger days leading up to World War II, bringing the era to life like a literary version of "Casablanca."
June 8, 2012 -- Updated 1622 GMT (0022 HKT)
The night before he turned 40, Rich Roll had what he calls a "moment of clarity." Overweight and out of shape, Roll had to stop to catch his breath while walking up the stairs of his Southern California home. Roll, now a father of four, feared he was close to a heart attack.
June 1, 2012 -- Updated 1714 GMT (0114 HKT)
Craig Johnson looks like he could have stepped out of the pages of one of his own best-selling Western novels. With the late-day sun behind him, he could even pass for his fictional hero, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
jfap
It's one of our simplest yet most enduring inventions. While the games have evolved, the ball in all its various forms continues to play a key role in different cultures around the world.
May 4, 2012 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
mcac
Former O.J. Simpson trial prosecturo Marcia Clark became a household name as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Clark is still mining her past, only now as a successful crime novelist.
April 27, 2012 -- Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT)
wbc
"Waiting for Sunrise," the new novel from acclaimed British author William Boyd, is an evocative mix of sex, spies and psychoanalysis.
April 13, 2012 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
stc
Bookshelves are bursting with a bevy of great new titles this spring but we wanted to highlight a trio of new thrillers that truly bring history to life.
April 3, 2012 -- Updated 1131 GMT (1931 HKT)
ecbc
Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp that escaped and survived to tell the tale.
March 23, 2012 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
jpc
James Patterson may be the top-selling writer in the world; he might very well be the busiest, too. Patterson has three books near the top of the bestseller lists right now.
March 16, 2012 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
sc
Muffled gun shots and squealing tires. A secret midnight meeting in a dark alley. Everyone recognizes the classic elements of a good cloak and dagger story.
March 9, 2012 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
mbc
History, from ancient Greece to hopscotching across time, plays a prominent role in March's best books.
March 6, 2012 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
ebc
Imagine a smoke-filled jazz club, dark and crowded. The sounds of a trumpet solo echo on stage, while a piano, bass and drums pound out a finger-snapping groove.
February 10, 2012 -- Updated 2050 GMT (0450 HKT)
sbc
P.G. Sturges, son of famous director Preston Sturges, writes classic noir novels, like "The Shortcut Man."
January 27, 2012 -- Updated 1955 GMT (0355 HKT)
rcci
We should all be so lucky to have friends like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Private detectives in modern-day Los Angeles, they're the stars of best-selling author Robert Crais' award-winning series of crime novels.
January 20, 2012 -- Updated 2002 GMT (0402 HKT)
elac
Elmore Leonard is something of a living legend among lovers of crime fiction. A favorite of millions of readers, a hero to scores of writers, he's been called "America's greatest crime writer."
ADVERTISEMENT