The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog hauled up to Random House on January 27 to talk to John Grisham about his 22nd book. The conversation quickly led elsewhere.
Hi John. So what do you think about the news these days? Must be good fodder.
I tell you what. Since the meltdown, in September, I’ve read The Journal a whole lot more. I read it every day now. I don’t know why, because the news is always bad. But I want to know how bad it is, and how long it’s going to be bad.
Some criticize the business press for taking bad news and making it worse.
Maybe. But how are you going to ignore Bernie Madoff? I mean, come on. You can’t believe it.
Of course, you guys have forgotten about my favorite story, Marc Dreier. I haven’t seen a Dreier story in weeks. But it’s incredible. Pretending to be someone else? Taking over a conference room? I knew something was wrong when I read about his 120-foot yacht. When you’ve got a yacht that big you’re living like a billionaire. And you can’t do that as a New York lawyer. I don’t care how big your firm is. (Editor’s note: Marc Dreier is being held in a Manhattan jail. He has not been indicted. His attorney says he’s looking for a fair and reasonable settlement for his client.)
I about kick myself laughing at it, because it’s so good, it’s so rich. It’s all the stuff I love to read about and write about.
Might we see a Marc Dreier knockoff in the next Grisham novel?
I don’t know about Dreier. It’s like Madoff. It’s already been covered so much. And I couldn’t make it any better. I couldn’t improve on it. The sushi restaurant (Dreier) owned? All the cars? The secretaries making $200,000 a year? It’s too much. When I see stuff like that my imagination just goes into overdrive.
How about your friend Dickie Scruggs?
I correspond with Dickie in prison.
Can you give us an update?
He says that [in prison] you realize how tough you are. The only thing I’ll say – the one story he told me – is that he’s working with inmates to help them get their GED’s. That’s like Dickie. He’s always going to be doing something. He told me he was astounded at the low level of literacy among inmates. He also said he’s got a white-collar crowd he hangs out with, and they take long walks together.
It’s hard to imagine Dickie Scruggs in prison. Just like I’m sure it’s going to be hard to imagine Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier in prison.
For some people, it won’t be hard. So what do you think of these long white-collar sentences we’ve been seeing?
It’s bad stuff. We have 2.5 million people in prison in this country. We’re not thinking. We’re warehousing these young black kids, we grind them through the mill for minor drug charges – or even, you know, more serious drug charges – and we spend $40,000 a year to incarcerate them. But we spend only $8,000 a year to educate them. We’re not using our heads. It’s costing a fortune and nobody’s talking about it.
And the white-collar guys, they don’t deserve prison. They deserve punishment. They deserve to be financially punished. But what is going to come from putting someone like Bernie Madoff or Marc Dreier or Dickie Scruggs in prison? You ought to say, OK, start a non-profit and run it for ten years. Make them do something good because they’re smart as hell. Of course, no politician is ever going to get elected by talking about lighter sentences for criminals.
Sorry to cut you off, but let’s talk about the book a little, because that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about.
Oh we are? OK. [Laughter]
You’ve mentioned that this novel, “The Associate,” is, in some ways, a sequel to “The Firm.” Has the perception of big law firms changed in the past 20 years?
Yes. I have a hunch that, in the past 20 years, life in big firms has deteriorated to the point where they’re filled with very unhappy lawyers. And the way they treat their star talent fresh out of law school is a pretty crappy way to live. The book explores that.
So what accounts for so many bright people heading to large firms, year after year?
I don’t know. I suspect it happens the way it’s portrayed in the book. I don’t know why you went to law school. And I’m not sure why I went to law school. I guess it was a chance to have a better life. I’m not sure what that better life was. But it’s an honored profession and it’s a way to work hard and attain all the things we want to attain. Nowadays, I think you find a lot of bright students go to law school sincerely believing they can take their law degree and do something productive, something good, whether it’s teaching or working in government They know what the big firms are but they don’t plan to go to them.
And then, at some point, halfway through, something changes. They get an internship at a big firm. It looks like fun. The money is incredible. And so they change. The cream of the crop, Ivy League kids, take these jobs knowing it’s going to be a brutal lifestyle.
You opted out. What urged you to sit down that first day and start writing “A Time to Kill”?
After four years of practicing I got this idea for what I thought was a very compelling courtroom drama – small town, the South, a racial conflict – all seen through the eyes of an attorney who was basically me. A guy who wanted to be a big trial lawyer. That was my dream. I wanted people to call me – people who could pay me for the big case.
But I’d never written anything. I’d never dreamed of being a writer. I never thought about being a journalist. So when I started it was like a secret hobby, a little diversion. No one knew about it but my wife. She’d read each chapter on a legal pad. And she’d say, ‘Keep going, this is good.’ I got in the habit of writing every day, which is the most crucial part of being a writer. You’ve got to write a page a day.
When I finished the first book and started trying to find a publisher, I had an idea – for “The Firm” – that was as blatantly commercial as anything I could think of, without the sex. And that’s how it happened. Those two books were written back to back over a five year period. Nobody had read “A Time to Kill.” But when “The Firm” came out in March of 1991, everything changed overnight. And here I am, 18 years later, writing the sequel.
Good talking to you.