Sandy surprise

PLOTTWIST

Sandy surprise
John Grisham’s publisher got a nice surprise last January. Grisham, whose yearly delivery of a legal thriller is as reliable as the sunrise, had written a little something extra on the sly: a lawyerless caper. It had a picturesque Florida setting, a fun-filled story about book lovers of many stripes and a heroine who spent time in a bikini and sandals. Mr Courtroom had written a beach book. His first.

Camino Island, his 30th novel, is out, but in mid-May he was already getting a huge kick out of what a surprise it would be to his fans. As he sat in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, backed by a wall of books too fashionably designed to be his and dressed in non-black, the 62-year-old guy, who has sold nearly 300 million books, went completely unspotted as he talked about his career’s latest plot twist. Does anybody ever recognise him in New York? “Never!” and he likes it that way.

Grisham and his wife, Renee, dreamed up the idea for Camino Island on a drive from their home outside Charlottesville, Virginia, to their beach house in Florida. Its working title was the name of the place where they have a vacation home, but he eventually changed it for reasons of privacy. Its cover still looks just like the view from the Grishams’ boardwalk to the beach.

Helping hand?

It was Renee who suggested working literary treasures into the plot, which involves the theft from Princeton University of the original manuscripts of the five novels written by F Scott Fitzgerald — or ‘FITZ-gerald’, as the Arkansas-born, longtime Mississippian Grisham pronounces it. The book features two not-quite-adversaries: Bruce Cable, a rare-books dealer on Camino Island, and Mercer Mann, a stymied young writer hired to get close to him.

Grisham briefly thought the novel might include parts written by his wife. He wanted her to write the chapters involving Mercer, the female lead. “By the time we got to Florida 10 hours later, she had made up her mind: she’s not writing a word of this,” Grisham said. Nor has she written a word of any of her husband’s other books either.

Grisham collects rare books by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner, all of whom were candidates to star in the story. But Faulkner wrote too many books to steal. The locations of Steinbeck’s and Hemingway’s manuscripts are too scattered. Only Fitzgerald had a conveniently portable five-book collection stored in a single place, Princeton’s Firestone Library.

As a point of principle, Grisham never set foot in there as he worked out the totally credible unfolding of the fictional theft. For anyone who wonders where he gets the precise details on which his books’ suspense depends, the answer isn’t shoe leather. It’s often Google. “I faked every bit of it,” he boasted. He wants as little real information as possible in order to avoid inspiring copycat crime. And he enjoys the challenge. “I love piecing together intricate thoughts that people find compulsively readable and they can’t put down,” he volunteered, and he will never need a better blurb than that. Literary status is not what he cares about. Selling books is.

Grisham is garrulous and funny when talking about himself, much more so than the tone of rectitude in some of his books might suggest. But another unexpected side of him also stands out: the accountant. Much is made of the fact that Grisham, whose father was a construction worker and cotton farmer, went to law school at Ole Miss and served from 1983-90 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Not much is made of the fact that he also has a bachelor’s degree in Accounting. He still has that old fiscal pragmatism when it comes to the state of the Grishamverse after nearly 30 years.

His breakout hit wasn’t his first book, A Time to Kill (1989). It was The Firm, which came out two years later. He has very happy memories of 1991, and mentions that year a lot. It was the first year friends sent him pictures of many people reading his books in the wild. But it was also the year he made what was arguably his biggest financial blunder. A small publisher, Wynwood Press, had printed 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill, many of which wound up stacked unsold in Grisham’s office. He got rid of them. Bad idea, especially for a guy who now collects first editions. Doubleday bought the rights to republish the debut novel in 1991, after Grisham’s reputation had been established and after the author had passed on the opportunity to secure the rights himself.

The movies worked, too, on a global scale. “They’re on cable TV somewhere tonight, being recycled, and they still sell books — that’s the amazing part. That model doesn’t work anymore.” That model’s enemy, he believes, is the superhero blockbuster that might make $1 billion in China. It just so happens that Camino Island, with its female lead, inviting location and huge plot whammy, is his most Hollywood-friendly book in years.

The next traditional thriller, as yet untitled, will be about student debt, a subject that has lit a fire under him. It will be topical, like The Confession (2010), which was about the death penalty and mostly set in Texas — with a preening, ambitious governor who bore an amazing resemblance to Rick Perry. “Ah, well, no,” Grisham jokily insisted. “Fictional character. Rick is a very devout Christian who doesn’t drink, and the governor in The Confession was drinking some very good bourbon every afternoon.”

Liquid courage

I asked Grisham why alcohol issues come up in so many of his books. Does he have an agenda, points he wants to make about drinking or recovery? “Nah. I’ve never been close to the edge of the cliff,” he said. “I’ve been very careful. We have a wine collection. My wife is a very light drinker. We’ve all had friends who got in trouble. I have writer friends who battled it a long time, and it’s not a pretty sight. But I really enjoy it so much that I don’t want to quit.”

This was an interesting moment for Renee Grisham to appear. She’d been out shopping, and she was a little taken aback when she heard her husband explain what he’d been discussing. “We’re talking about drinkin’ and what,” he said, the Southern accent suddenly strong. “You’re lookin’ worried.” Well, yeah, she was, but she seemed used to his loose cannon side. They have been married for 36 years.

Grisham’s friends, family, publisher and close associates are the only people who can reach him. He lives nearly off the grid outside Charlottesville and has an office in town, where he says he’s seldom bothered. If there’s an emergency he can be found, but he long ago decided he liked lying low.

But 25 years since he last toured, Grisham is going out into the world again. He will visit 12 cities to promote Camino Island, doing Q and As with local writers and meeting up to 200 fans at each stop. And looking forward to it enormously. What does he have to lose? He’s someone who candidly says, “It’s all about selling books,” and the tour will certainly do that.

Readers of Camino Island will learn a lot about how Grisham sees the rest of the writing world. In the novel, we mingle with several writers who gather at the fictional island, and together they present a Grisham’s-eye view of what fellow authors look like to a superstar. The popular ones want literary credibility. The literary ones want to be more widely read.

Where’s the John Grisham type? Maybe there’s no such thing. There’s only one of him, and that one was beginning to sound tired a couple of books ago. He mentioned how closely his books are tracked by his publisher, and that The Whistler (2016) has been a bigger success than Rogue Lawyer (2015). I murmured that that’s because Rogue Lawyer wasn’t as good. He shot me a “What?” and a momentary sidelong look. But then: “OKAY, doesn’t hurt my feelings.” And he’s fine. He’s not going to spend much time worrying about it.

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