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AMERICAN MORNING

Mississippi Mystery

Aired February 3, 2004 - 09:42   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: He is the king of the legal thriller and now after 16 books, 17 years, you might say that John Grisham is returning to the scene of the crime. His latest novel is called "The Last Juror." It's in stores now, and it has a huge first printing, nearly 3 million copies.
John Grisham joins us this morning.

Nice to see you.

Three million copies. That is just enormous.

JOHN GRISHAM, AUTHOR: It's a lot of books. It's a lot of books. I hope we sell them all.

O'BRIEN: I'm sure you will.

GRISHAM: Doubleday hope we sell them all.

O'BRIEN: Yes, exactly. You do and they do.

The book is set in a fictional town, which you featured in your first book. Why did you decide to go back, after so many books and so many years?

O'BRIEN: When I wrote the first book, "A Time to Kill," I set up this fictional county, Ford County, Mississippi. It was sort of the plan to go back there and tell a lot of stories. And I thought what I would do initially -- this is before I got published -- I would write a book out of Ford County, and then write a legal thriller and go back and back and forth. And so I started write the "Last Juror" actually 15 years ago. It was the book I was going to go back to after I wrote "The Firm."

O'BRIEN: So why did you shelf it?

GRISHAM: "The Firm." All the legal thrillers became very popular. And it made sense to pursue those for a long time, and I have, and I'll go back to them next year.

O'BRIEN: People describe this as a legal thriller-plus. What's the plus? What makes this different?

GRISHAM: Well, it's set in a small town in Mississippi in the South, and it has a lot of people, a lot of character, a lot of subplots and side stories, and it's more about the people. And it's a slower... O'BRIEN: Less about the intricacies of the law?

GRISHAM: Yes, less about the trials and lawyers. In fact, the principle narrator is not a lawyer, he's a newspaper guy.

O'BRIEN: A newspaper guy. It sort of got thrown his way.

GRISHAM: Woke up one day, and he owned a local newspaper. It was bankrupt, and it was his, and he sort of chronicles a 10-year period. And he starts with this horrible murder, and then the trial, and then the murderer comes back to the town. And it's his story of telling about the people in this small town. And guess what, it's slower pace, it's more about folks, and it's -- eccentric people, and all the wonderful local color in a small town, the deep South. That's where I grew up.

O'BRIEN: Where does the title "The Last Juror" come from? Because it seems like "The Last Juror" is this black woman, who's really the first African-American juror.

GRISHAM: Yes, you know, it's really funny, I've written 17 books now, and this was the hardest time I had with a title.

O'BRIEN: Because you're running out of titles. You've got so many.

GRISHAM: I'm running out of titles. I have burned so many of them. And a lot of times when I start a book, I have got the title, you know, for the next book. And the one I'll write this year, I've had it for a long time. And then sometimes, the title pops up as I'm writing the book. And then sometimes, like this one, I really got in trouble. And we were going use "The Juror," but that's already been used. It was a book and a movie a few years ago. "The Last Juror" is this lady on the jury, the first black female juror in this small county. And I don't want to give away the plot, but it becomes sort of appropriate.

O'BRIEN: Seven of your books have been made into movies. Do you see this becoming a movie? As you write them, can you see, this is practically a screenplay?

GRISHAM: Yes. Yes. When I'm writing a book, I think I have a pretty good feel if it's going to work as a film and where it might fit. Like when I wrote "The Painted House," which was another non- legal thriller, I never saw it as a big theatrical release, and we did the movie on television, and it turned out great.

This is the middle of the pack. It would take a real good screenwriter, because you span 10 years, which is tricky in film sometimes. But if I saw the right kind of screenplay, I might do it. But it's not the pure legal thriller that appealed to a lot of moviemakers.

O'BRIEN: I read that you went back to the courtroom, after a long time off. GRISHAM: Yes, it was a few years ago. I went back for my last trial. I hope it's the time I voluntarily set forth in a courtroom. I've been retired for a number of years.

O'BRIEN: Or even not voluntarily, right?

GRISHAM: Yes, yes. Either way, I've had enough of them.

O'BRIEN: You don't want to ever do that again? You won the biggest award of your career, $600,000-plus for your client.

GRISHAM: Yes, I hadn't been in a courtroom for five hours. Trial work is nerve-wracking you do it every day, and I hadn't been there in about five years, and it was really not any fun. It was a good verdict, I had a good jury, and a good set of facts, but when I walked out, I said, you know, I'm not going to be tempted to go back to the courtroom. I'm having too much fun writing about lawyers and courtrooms.

O'BRIEN: What do you like better, the legal thrillers, a little bit of the mix, the very non-legal thrillers, or all the above?

GRISHAM: All the above. I mean, last fall I published a book about high school football set in a small town. When I wrote "The Christmas Book," I thought it was fun, it's going be a film.

I enjoy all of them. It takes a few months to write a book. And if I didn't really love the stories, I couldn't get through writing on them.

O'BRIEN: Are you working on another book?

GRISHAM: Always. Always.

O'BRIEN: Really? Just one? Do you work on a couple simultaneously?

GRISHAM: I work on a couple of ideas, and most of them don't stick. But I think I have locked in on an idea for the next book. I'll write a little bit until...

O'BRIEN: Yes, and?

GRISHAM: I can't tell. What usually happens, if I start when it's this early, I'll eventually throw it out, I'll toss the thing. But I've got some other things that are going to keep me busy this spring.

O'BRIEN: Good for you. John, Grisham, nice to have you.

GRISHAM: My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: "The Last Juror" is the new book, 17th book. Wow.

GRISHAM: Yes, hard to believe, three million. O'BRIEN: Yes, three million. You know what, your mouth to god's ears. Right, let's hope so. Nice to see you. Thanks for joining us this morning.

GRISHAM: My pleasure.

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