Thank you so much--
For joining us. So we have been talking with all these great people about storytelling and like could we find a better person who would have more to say on this topic than you? I don't think so. So I wanna start at kind of the highest level. Why do you think that we are so obsessed with story?
I have no idea. (interviewer laughs) It's just what we do. We tell stories. I come from a family of storytellers. Father, grandfather from a very rural part of America where there was... When I was a kid there was not much in the way of entertainment. The only contact with the outside world was radio to pick up Saint Louis Cardinal baseball games every night. Television came along later but we spent hours on the front porch, late at night when I was a very small child, talking and telling stories. Stories were repeated for generations. Most of them are probably false. But you know that was the family history. And storytelling was an...
Did you admire it?
I didn't think to admire it. It was just a way of life. I heard the same stories and new stories. Later, I never thought about being able to tell a story. When I started thinking about writing, I had never studied writing; I was a lawyer and I had never written anything but I was always a big reader and... So I started reading all the bestsellers and I realized, I mean I didn't learn anything but I realized it was a lot of crap that got published and I said, "I can beat that guy."
I totally had the exact same moment.
Yeah, I'd read a bestseller and say, "You know, "this is really not very good." Although I'd read somebody else and say, "You know, I could never be that good "but there was room for me somewhere." I guess I just sort of absorbed the basics of, plotting and planning. The dialog is all natural and easy.
Well, that's probably the stuff you pick up on the porch in Mississippi, right, as you just develop an ear for what sounds like real people talking.
I guess. I mean I never consciously accumulated the dialog or absorbed it. I just listen to it and I guess it sticks.
Is that your favorite part of storytelling, is the dialog?
I have to really watch when I'm writing a novel because I could do it all in dialog.
I know. I feel the same way.
And that's real fast and when I get in a hurry... Well, sometimes I get in a hurry when there's a deadline and my publishers get eager, I catch myself writing too fast and I can make pages turn real fast with dialog.
I can too and I feel as reader, that I love it so much it's when I start to feel like I know the character best; like it's one thing to know what they're wearing and what the first thing they do is when they wake up everyday and how big or small their house is but when I hear their voice, then I think, "Oh, alright now. Now we know each other. "Now we're people."
You have to have a mix of both. It's always a struggle even when you're writing suspense in thrillers and mysteries and whatever. It's a struggle as to how much dialog to use.
Then you're having to pull out.
Yeah. I could almost do the whole thing in dialog.
Have you ever thought of experimenting with something like that? It could be kind of cool.
I've read a couple of books with all dialog, didn't like them. So I didn't... Because I do like beautiful writing. I love to read beautiful descriptions of people and place and things, events. We all enjoy that so again, you gotta... There's a mix between how much you're gonna describe in Camino Island. How much of the town I'm gonna describe? How much of the beach? How much of the bookstore? How much of the, you know, physical? And you've gotta do a fair amount of that to put the reader there and so there's always this back and forth about how much description--
How many pages can you go before you break out in dialog again?
Tell me this. Do you have a like an animating issue or an animating set of issues? Like it seems to me, as a reader of yours that you are into social justice.
And you're into ambition.
But do you have a sense of what you can't stop thinking about, you can't stop trying to solve on the page?
I can't... In popular fiction you can't preach too much because you can't assume that your readers share your views. I think most of mine do but I respect those who don't and again, you don't wanna beat your readers over the head with your own politics but some of the issues I choose to write about, death penalty or wrong convictions or environmental destruction or whatever. It's pretty obvious what side of the street I'm on. The issues that I... That keep me awake are still there. Instead they almost all deal with social injustice. From a lawyer's point of view, it's very frustrating to see so many things wrong with our systems, our legal system and our penal system and not be able to address it. The older I get, the more mature I get, the more I want to address it and I think the last... If you look at the last 10 books, they almost all had an issue. And that's... It does keep me awake at night. I wrote a book 10 years ago called The Innocent Man and it's about wrongful convictions and there are two guys still in prison in Oklahoma that I'm not sure we're gonna get them out and I visited those guys, 12 years ago when I was writing the book and I still correspond with them and I send them a little money so they can buy stuff at the canteen but those guys are completely innocent. It's a non-DNA case so we can't get the conclusive proof to get them out so they're there and there're 1000s of them there and that's you know...
Yeah, I wish I could write all their stories.
Right. It's so interesting to me. I mean that sort of speaks to the power of story because you could write up as about that all day long and you could do a 60 minutes or a 20-20 segment on wrongful convictions and you would reach some number of people at some level of intellectual or emotional engagement but if you write a big juicy novel, and you bring those two guys to life on the page, you're gonna have way bigger audience and way more a lasting emotional impact. Did you feel that way?
Sure. I don't like writing editorials and I have done a few of them but that's not what I enjoy doing or even essays, I just don't wanna do that. (clears throat) I'd rather write a novel or the real story.
And appeal to the audience because, you know, I'm lucky that there's a big audience out there and even in the context of fictional story, you can explore a lot of issues and a lot of people are gonna read the book.
Yes and you can show a lot of different sides to an issue because first of all, you have the space. I mean you have three or 400 pages to work in and then you have this cast of characters that can represent all the different points of view around a single case and you might actually be able to hold people long enough. Hold their attention long enough to really open it up and show how such things happen and why they don't get overturned and make them feel. It's pretty amazing power you have to galvanize public opinion.
I take the book serious but I also realize I'm a famous writer in a country where few people read. I mean there aren't a lot of readers. Okay, few and fewer, okay. So it's not like you--
And you have them all. (both laugh)
Yeah but I want more.
Don't take mine. I just got my little pile.
I mean I can have an impact but again, you're talking about awareness as one thing. Change in the way people think or get them to think about an issue through the course of a book but it's still, in the scheme of things, it's a small segment.
Is there an issue you wouldn't touch? That's kind of too hot or too divisive?
Abortion is the one I've been thinking about for a long time and I'm not sure how... I don't have the story yet. I keep waiting to get the story.
So it's kind of on an agenda somewhere. That if you were to find the right story that would be something you might wanna...
I mean, look at the headlines. The opioid crisis in this country has so many different angles from the doctors or drug makers to the, you know, and there's a novel in there somewhere that can expose what... You know, one hand we say, well you do not have much sympathy for people who get hooked on drugs, it's their fault. But it's not that simple.
No, of course not.
There're reason they get hooked and that's an issue. I'm about to finish the next legal thriller. Come out the fall. It's about student debt.
Which is a huge problem where it's, you know, we have $1.3 trillion in student debt and it's adversely impacting a lot of people.
And so that's the whole issue of student debt. I keep a list. Mass incarceration is another one I wanna write about. I'm waiting for the story--
And are you just pouring the newspaper everyday? What is your source of all these ideas? Just being super plugged in.
Newspapers, magazine. It's what you read everyday. When people say, "Where do you get your ideas?" Well, I read the newspaper and I watch some news and how you can you avoid these issues? Look at what's happening now in the justice department, you know, where we are taking steps to go back toward an attitude that we need to incarcerate even more people. Okay well, that's not working because on both sides of the street, we're talking about criminal justice reform because liberals want fewer people in prison for their certain reasons. Right wingers say it costs too much money. When you have a aging prison population, it's gets horribly expensive and that's what's happening to this country so we keep these guys in prison for 30 years with no parole. You gotta feed them. You gotta provide some level of healthcare and it's breaking some studies, okay so we're gonna meet in the middle we were until--
For different reasons.
For a different reason, we were gonna meet in the middle. I'm not sure where it's gonna go now, given the current climate but those are great issues to write about.
Yes, and that's also great way to open up a character, is just to show the conflicts that each of us have with any given issue and how, you know, the how strange bed fellows are made, for say, like somebody is taking a case for ambition and now the person is taking a case because it's satisfies their moral need to take a stand but both things are pointing them in the same direction and then you get this kind of unholy pair and voila, you have drama.
Yeah and where they meet, when they meet that's where the novel is or the story is and it doesn't always happen and I meant for years I've said I would love to write a big thick novel about Washington politics with all, you know, the actors and the lobbies pass they like making and the clout they have and they money they're making with off of the system. I'm still thinking about it because I can't get the story, it's too big. It's just a big book.
How many unfinished projects do you have?
Well, I have a lot of ideas that rattle around for a long time. Some ideas, I'd get and write the book right then. It's so inspirational. I'll pick the idea or just literally it drops in from nowhere. I'll see a case or something or I'll read something about a law firm that blew up, whatever. Where the story is and I'll say, "That's gotta be the next book." And I'll start the outline and I'll work on it to make sure the story works. Start researching it. Put it together and write the book. Other ideas ravel around for years. I've got notes. I keep files. I'll read a magazine article about mass incarceration today and put it in the file that's been open for 10 years and it's a thick file and I'm not sure I'll ever get to it so I can't tell you what's gonna be next. I've learned not to predict, you know, what the next book's gonna be.
But once you start... Once you get through an outline, has there ever been a case where you thought this has everything I need to make a great story and you've completed the outline and then you start writing then you say, just don't know why, that's it's not working--
One time. Yeah.
And I'm gonna set it aside.
Yeah, one time I had this great idea for a legal thriller and I wrote the first 100 pages. It was based on the Bhopal chemical spill in India, 30 years ago, the Union Carbide killed (mumbles) their plant leaked stuff that killed 3000 people and it became--
That's rephrasing now.
Yeah and it became about a huge law suit here and Plainsboro went nuts, the Mass Tort lawyers went crazy, trying to chase cases in India. Anyways, a lot of fun and I just knew it's gonna be brilliant and I wrote 100 pages and my wife said, "I don't like "any of these people," and I said, "Okay, I'll show you." So I sent it to my editor that time, David Gernert who's now my agent and he read it and he said, "I don't like any of these people." So well, I'm not gonna fight both of them, okay. So if it's not working, it's not working. So I put it down and wrote--
Did you like any of the people?
I loved them. Yeah.
They were all a bunch of roguish trial lawyers, chasing cases in India. I thought it was really fun so that book never got written.
I started a novel once and I sent it to my agent and she said, "I cannot stand the people in this book and I was like, "That seems like a bad thing."
So you don't have reader?
I have my internal readers but in this case, she convinced me to share it with her, way before i probably should have, right because there're early stage readers and there're later stage readers and that's probably something that you've learned over your career is that not everybody can see through the mess to the magic. You know, it's like people, you know how they always stage houses now if they're trying to sell it? Because some--
They look so staged. They look terrible.
They look so staged but most people need to see something in the house before they can fall in love but there are people who can walk into a house and think, "Well, I could remodel this thing. "I could tear that down. This could be an incredible house." But as readers, there are only few people that can look at your crappy draft and say, "Oh, this could "be an incredible book." You know, if you just move this and take that wall out and put a new I-beam down the middle to support your second floor, there's something here. Have you discovered who your early reader is? Well, you probably--
Well no, it sure is my wife. I mean she read... She used to read the books chapter by chapter. She got tired of that. She's really tired of all my books but I'm making her read. She has no choice. This is business, alright. But she... I tell students this when I talk to students about writing, because you can't teach writing. You can teach editing, maybe but you can't teach writing but there's certain things you can do and you've gotta have somebody, first of all, who loves you and who wants you to succeed and can be brutally honest with you about what you're writing and it could be a spouse or a parent or a teacher or somebody that you are very close to who can be very honest and if you don't have that, you're really missing something important. I got lucky from the very beginning because, it was 30 years ago and I was writing my first book. Renee was an English major so she was voracious reader. She loved all types of books, still does and she read the first. A handwritten chapter of A Time To Kill over 30 years ago. (mumbles) I say, "Hey, I want you to read something." And I gave her, it was on a legal pad and I said, "This is the first chapter," she said, "What have you done?" I said, "I'm trying to write a book." And she said, "Oh okay, I never heard this before." And we'd been married five years and she says, "Okay, I'll read the first chapter." Late at night and I was so nervous, I left the house and walked around the block a few times. Came back and she said, "This is pretty good. "I'd like to read some more." I said, "Okay, I'll go write some more. "I don't have anymore. "I'll go write some more."
One second (blows)
And then chapter two and chapter three and that went on for three years and I was practicing law many hours a week.
You were like in the state legislature.
I was in the state legislature which took about half my time, away from home. She's having babies, I mean life is pretty crazy and the only time I had to write was early in the morning so I was pretty disciplined about it. Also pretty down several times and not quitting but just got tired of it.
What made you believe that anyone would ever take you on as a client like because I got stuck. I mean I didn't do it until I was because I just couldn't imagine why any agent would ever even open an envelope from me.
I didn't think about that as much. I would walk in a bookstore and I'd see the wall of brand new books, New York Times' bestseller list. Writers that I was reading and I would stand there and think it's hopeless.
Who wants to hear from me? I have nothing to say.
What could the world need less of than another one of these.
That was when I got discouraged. But again, I kept plugging away. I loved the story.
And maybe you loved thrilling Renee. I mean, it's pretty cool to have your spouse think you're onto something like that's very motivating for me.
Yeah and she--
You were serialized ready. You were like Charles Dickens of the south. There's something right because you're giving her this a little bit at a time.
Yeah and a couple of times she said, "Where's the book?" And I would say, "I'm not writing, I put it down." And she would say, "No, you gotta finish it." A couple of times and that was pretty was crucial. Again, once I was probably more than halfway through it, I began to get excited about finishing it and honestly, the goal was to just tell this story and finish the book and be able to say, "I've written a novel." That's when I started. Once I was halfway finished, I started thinking about; it'd be kind of fun to get this published, you know, and make a buck or two off of it.
And you dare not think those thoughts and it's so intense.
No but at the same time, I had the bug to write it. I was really tired of being a lawyer. After a few years I was bored with the law and I had a small office. A lot of clients who couldn't pay and stuff like that. It was not rewarding. I also had the dream of writing and I could think, okay maybe I can... I started reading the Travis McGee novels, John D. MacDonald a series, well I'll put together a series with a lawyer in a small town and get crimes and all that, you know, I could publish a series of these and you know, maybe expand the readers. So that's what I was thinking and I read all these books about how to get published the writer's dodges tips (mumbles) it was a lot of fun and I started--
It's fun to have a dream. I mean, it's an incredible thing to be in the hunt, I call it; it's so exciting.
I used to love to get the mail because it was more rejection letters.
It makes it real, it's like physical.
Somebody in New York said, "no," again. I was shipping it back and it was long before the internet. We were running copies and I'd send the first three chapters and the cover letter and the synopsis. It would come back, I had a list. I had a list of agents and a list of editors.
I've had a book. I've had a hardcover book of agents. Like 7000 agents that's pre-Google.
I didn't have that yeah, pre-Google, this is pre-internet. I had the Literate Marketplace was a big thick book.
Totally, that's what I had.
All the agents. I was reading all this stuff so I'd see the agent's name that I recognize and so I'd put him on the list or her on the list and I'd gone through probably 15 agents and 15 publishers with the time to kill when... It's kind of a funny story. I don't know how much time we have. I had been gone for the week. Came home and got the mail. There was a bunch of rejection letters. (mumbles) Renee we have a dinner. Kids were small and I say, "I got a bunch "of rejection letters this week." She said, "I'm sorry to hear that." She said, "You know, you're sending them "the first three chapters of the book "and that's not the best part of the book. "Why don't you send where this happened "and that happened, that happened. "Send those chapters. "Just three chapters at random." And I said, "That's pretty stupid. "Who wants to read three chapters at random?" She said, "Well, you're not doing so hot with "the first three so why don't you try something different?" And I did, I said, "Okay this is all fun.
This is a secret little hobby I've got going, why not? So I picked chapter one and chapter five and chapter seven or eight where something, important happened and sent those to the next five people on the list. My secretary's doing all the work. She's copying and within a week, two of had called. Two of the agents have called from New York and the first guy who called was a guy who had been around for a long time and he said, "I want you as a client." And the other guy called and said, "I wanna talk about your book." There was a big difference there. So I signed up with the first guy and it took a year. He went back to all the big publishers who had already said no and they said no the second time around and it took him a year to sell it so--
It really worked out for him though,
It was a good phone call he made that day.
(laughs) And how about all those other guys? The 15 people that passed on you must have just was be like their denying words like, I should have said yes to John Grisham.
It's the way it goes. You know that's the business. They said no for very good reasons. I actually found the fork, you know I'm a lawyer so I kept everything. I found the file (mumbles) all the letters I sent and the rejection letter so--
You have to publish it just for every young storyteller in the world.
(mumbles) would never embarrass anybody like that.
Oh, we can black it out. I just was at school showing my daughter and at this high school they had the rejection wall and it was all the letters from all the schools that had rejected seniors and they just tape them up on the all so it's like Princeton saying no and Duke saying no and whatever and then the kids can scribble on it whatever they want, like, "I didn't wanna go to your school anyway. or, "University of losers," or whatever but it is sort of satisfying. Then it all turned for you.
Yeah, I mean the first book was published. A Time To Kill, they published 5000 copies and it was a flop. I mean we didn't sell.
And all that energy and work and dreaming and imagining and then...
Yeah it was a--
But 10 million now, I think I saw.
Closer to 20, but who's counting? We don't keep up with numbers. We don't watch the numbers. But I had very good...
My agent, when I sent him 1000 pages of A Time To Kill, we cut it by third by the way which was a year of my life. We sent the manuscript... I sent the manuscript to him FedEx and he got on call the next day, I said, "Okay, what are we gonna do now?" He was this tough old guy here, New York. He said, "Don't call me everyday." He said, "I'm just sell this book but don't be calling "me all the time." I said, "Okay." He said, "Let me give you some advice. "Start writing your next book "and by the time you have it written, "I'll have this thing published. "It will keep you busy "and you won't be calling me everyday." I said, "Okay." He said, "You got any ideas?" And I said, "I got a great idea. "I got a great idea that Renee has liked for some time "and he said, "Send me a one page summary of your idea." And the working title was; The Firm because I didn't have any other title. That was just gonna be the working title of this story and I sent him the one page synopsis of The Firm and he started calling me back. And he said, "This is a big book." He said, "This could really be fun "if you can get the book written." And I said, "Okay," and Renee was crazy about it too so even though A Time To Kill took a him a year to sell it and a year for it to come out. When it came out in June of 89. I mean again, it was a flop but I was almost finished with The Firm so I'd been busy in the meantime and I told... I told Renee, I talked about it; I said, "The first book "doesn't sell, it hadn't sold. "I'm gonna write The Firm and if it doesn't sell, "I'm quitting, okay, I've got a real career "as a lawyer and this is just taken up too much time. "I never dreamed of doing this "or maybe I have for the past few years "and it wasn't a childhood dream. "It was something I thought about in college. "You know this is not something... "I'm gonna do it one more time with The Firm "and if it doesn't work, forget it. "I'll put it down."
I guess we know how that turned out. What did they pay you for Time To Kill? Do you remember?
$15000. Which was pretty nice. In 1988, when we signed the contract, I got the magic phone call in '88 that it was gonna be published, that was a big phone call. And Renee and I rushed to New York. Our first trip to New York. We paid for it. To meet with the editor and we were on cloud nine. And a year later the book came out in ' and that was a big moment for us.
That's incredible. Alright so we don't have anymore time left but I wanna ask you these five questions real quick.
Name a book you wish you had written.
Grapes of Wrath.
What was the last story that made you cry?
Not reading a story.
John. Grisham you need to get in touch with it, baby.
You know, I just--
Nothing gets you chocked up when you're reading?
When I'm reading?
I'm gonna give you one of my books and see if you can make it through.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Well, she's very devout. It would have to be something, The Gospel according to Saint John.
(laughs) I think I know the answer to this. So other than your wife, who can you not live without, creatively speaking?
Nobody. There's no one.
Yeah, nobody else has any input into the beginning of the story. I mean I have a life, a long time editor/agent I've been with for 27 years. David Gernert bought The Firm in 1990. He was an editor at Doubleday and we're the same age and we grew up in the business together. And then 22 years ago, he became my agent. We're very close and we talk about ideas and things like that. He reads it after I've finished with Renee's edits and his input is crucial, crucial as an editor.
If you could get everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be?
I can't even begin to think that. I don't know.
The Firm? I would know they already all read it.
They've already read it. (both laugh) A smug answer, they've already read it. They've already read it.
Thank you so much, I'm at a pleasure to talk to you.
My pleasure, (mumbles) thank you very much. (upbeat music)