Author John Grisham Reveals Trade Secrets to Jenna Bush Hager at New Orleans Book Fest | Books
John Grisham, master of the legal thriller, is a big fan of “A Confederacy of Dunces”. But of William Faulkner, not so much.
On the opening day of the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University, Grisham sat in a packed Dixon Concert Hall on Thursday to be interviewed by the presidential daughter-turned-co-host and author of the morning TV show Jenna Bush Hager.
“Are we going to talk badly about Faulkner in New Orleans? asked Hager, falsely surprised.
“He’s dead,” Grisham replied. “He can’t sue me.”
The Grisham-Hager Summit was a highlight of the inaugural New Orleans Book Festival. The festival was originally planned for 2020, but it became one of the first victims of the coronavirus pandemic; the 2021 event has also been cancelled.
Co-chaired by Walter Isaacson, the best-selling Tulane biographer and professor, and attorney Cheryl Landrieu, the 2022 festival features a who’s who of literary stars. All events take place on the Tulane campus and are free and open to the public, although seating is limited. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test is required for admission.
The soft opening of the festival on Thursday also included a discussion on Thomas Jefferson with Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf and a main discussion on “Race and the American Soul” with author Imani Perry, professor of studies African Americans at Princeton University.
The program ramps up Friday with more than 30 events ranging from a cooking demonstration in New Orleans to discussions on Benjamin Franklin, Bob Dylan, prison reform and writings on slavery. Saturday sessions include “Southern Football, Writing and Culture”, “Southern Humor: Why Are Southerners Funnier Than Everyone?” and “Exploring the intersection between memory and fiction”.
Guest speakers and moderators include Don Lemon, Doug Brinkley, David Brooks, Charles Blow, Marc Morial, James Carville, Mary Matalan, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Cleo Wade, Sarah M. Broom, Roy Blount Jr. and Raymond Arroyo.
“I live for this every day”
Hager’s conversation with Grisham capped off a busy day for her. On Thursday morning, she and Hoda Kotb aired a live episode of “Today with Hoda and Jenna” from Jackson Square, then taped a second hour to air on NBC’s morning show Friday.
Several hours later, inside Dixon Hall, Hager chatted with one of the world’s most famous authors.
Grisham, a Mississippi attorney and state legislator before launching his literary career, published his first novel, “A Time to Kill,” in 1989. Since then, he has published an average of one new novel per year, each primarily intended to the bestseller list. Several have been made into movies, including “The Pelican Brief”, much of which was set in New Orleans.
He also wrote a non-fiction book, “An Innocent Man”, about a wrongfully convicted death row inmate, a collection of short stories and seven novels for young readers.
During their awesome 45-minute chat, he and Hager discussed his work with the Innocence Project. It’s “very rewarding work and very frustrating work,” he said. “It’s easy enough to put an innocent man in jail. It’s almost impossible to get him out.”
Grisham is an exceptionally disciplined writer. He starts a new book every January 1 and finishes it six months later. He starts writing at 7:30 a.m. and ends his day around noon.
“I did this morning,” he said. “It’s my time. I live for it every day.”
Before the actual writing begins, he could spend months or years playing with the outline of the story. He always knows the last scene before he writes the first scene.
“I write to entertain,” he said. His strategy is “to hook the reader as soon as possible and somehow keep that tension going for 300 pages to an end you didn’t see coming, it’s satisfying but not predictable”.
300 million sold and counting
He has sold around 300 million copies of his books, but has no plans to stop.
“When my wife stops shopping,” he joked, “I’ll stop writing.”
He never took creative writing classes or dreamed of being a professional writer. Inspired by a court scene he witnessed, he “pulled out a notepad and wrote ‘Chapter 1’. And that’s how ‘A Time To Kill’ started.”
This first novel was rejected by dozens of publishers. Hager asked if he had those framed rejection letters now.
“I’m not that vindictive,” he said. “Maybe a little petty, because I kept them.”
A small publishing house eventually printed 5,000 bound copies of “A Time to Kill”. He bought 1,000 himself, then traveled to libraries in small towns across Mississippi, reading and selling a few copies at a time.
It was her second novel, “The Firm”, that changed her life. The success of this book allowed him to happily leave the legal profession.
“As soon as I was able to walk through the door without turning off the lights,” he said, “I stopped being a lawyer.”