The Pelican Brief Interview
with John Grisham by Ellen Kanner
According to John Grisham, author of the runaway best seller The Firm and the newly released thriller, The Pelican Brief, his best material comes from his background in law.
Attorneys see a lot of things that are hard to believe. Everyone who walked through my office door had a big problem, he says, on the phone from his new home in Oxford, Mississippi. I was constantly amazed by the way people can screw up their lives.
Other people’s lives may be messy, but Grisham has his well in hand. He has left behind his career in law and his seat on the Mississippi legislature in order to concentrate on his writing. He couldn’t be happier.
I guess I have a fairly short attention span, he says, amused. I mean, this is my third career in ten years. But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
Not only is he having fun, he’s had success beyond anything he imagined. The Firm, Grisham’s tale of Mitch McDeere, a hungry new associate caught between his shady law firm and the FBI, captured everyone’s imagination. The Firm has sold mightily, and a film deal is in the works. No one could be more surprised than the author.
I underestimated the appeal of The Firm, Grisham admits, with his rich Southern drawl. I almost didn’t send it off. It wasn’t that important a book to me, not at first. He pauses, than laughs at himself. I fell in love with The Firm when it became number two on the best seller list.
Many authors are daunted by success. What if they never write anything else as good or as popular again? Grisham, 37, avoided this pitfall by working on The Pelican Brief at the time The Firm was released.
I didn’t sit back and wait to see people’s reaction to The Firm. I started writing it right away. I knew what the story would be, and had it well outlined. When I finished The Pelican Brief last summer, I had a lot of confidence in it.
The book’s protagonist is Darby Shaw, a brilliant, beautiful Tulane law student. When two Supreme Court justices are assassinated, Darby prepares a brief accusing a powerful and unlikely suspect. The brief has some truth to it, and when it falls into the wrong hands, Darby is forced to go underground, running for her life.
Grisham’s new book combines fantasy and fact. Darby’s brief making its way to the heads of U.S. government and the FBI is, says the author, a leap of faith. The rest is all true.
If you had two judges taken out, constitutional law scholars would go bananas. There would be really intense research. That a law student would be intrigued is not at all surprising.
While Darby tries to evade those who mean to do her in, the FBI, the president, and the whole country try to cope with the deaths of two powerful men. The president, looking for people to fill the two vacancies on the Supreme Court, says, These men must be free from warts and skeletons in the closet. No dope smokers, or illegitimate children, or DUIs, or radical student activity, or divorces. Understand? No surprises.
The surprise is that Grisham completed The Pelican Brief before the Clarence Thomas hearings. That the book discusses the moral fiber of Supreme Court justice nominees was merely coincidental.
And good fortune, adds the author.
Grisham created tough and canny Darby Shaw, The Pelican Brief’s main character, because he felt the women in his previous books were not strong enough. Using a woman’s point of view was challenging, especially because Grisham’s toughest editor is Renee, his wife.
My wife reads each chapter as I finish it. She’s very involved in my work and never hesitates to let me know how I come across. Sometimes, I’d have a situation in The Pelican Brief, and I’d question how a woman would react. But Darby’s on the run for a lot of the book, and when you’re in a life-threatening situation, what you do to survive – that’s genderless.
I have a fascination with life on the run, Grisham says. I really get into it. I did a lot of criminal work as an attorney, and learned a lot about it from that. It’s not as difficult as it may seem, to disappear. I always wonder why people would voluntarily show up in court and go to jail for ten years. Some people have absolutely nothing to lose if they disappear.
Grisham may have a criminal bent to his mind, but he was serious in his role of attorney.
Of course, I never told my clients to get out of town or anything. I did have one guy who went to jail, and he escaped. He changed his name and got a job. I was pulling for the guy not to get caught. Grisham sounds wistful. He was, though, after two years.
Grisham realizes many people will read The Pelican Brief solely because they’ve read The Firm, or have heard of it. His favorite of his works, though, is his first novel, A Time to Kill, which did not receive the recognition he feels it deserved.
Set in Clanton, Mississippi, A Time to Kill explores the inequity between blacks and whites. It is, like many first novels, autobiographical in nature, and is, says Grisham, very dear to me. It’s a Southern book, it’s more thoughtful than the other two, I think, with richer, deeper characters.
With a new book just released and a film being made of a previous best seller, John Grisham could be sitting pretty, if he would only just sit. He is already looking ahead to his next project. I’ve got a book contract with Doubleday, to do a book every year for the next three years. The ideas are coming pretty fast, he says. It’s time to get busy.
Ellen Kanner has interviewed many authors for BookPage. She lives in Miami, Florida.
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