Grisham Tackles Football Tale in 'Playing for Pizza'

In his latest work, author John Grisham departs from legal thrillers and heads for the world of sports. Based on a real-life league, Playing for Pizza tells the story of an aging American football player who joins an Italian team; the players are paid in food.

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

In the book world, when it comes to legal thrillers, no one is more closely associated with the genre than John Grisham. In the 1990s, he was among the bestselling, if not the bestselling U.S. author with seven books racking up a total of more than 60 million copies sold. You know many of the titles - "The Firm," "Pelican Brief," "The Client," "The Rainmaker." He's written 20 books in all. But Grisham's latest work is a departure from the courtroom setting. It's titled "Playing for Pizza."

John Grisham joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

Mr. JOHN GRISHAM (Author, "Playing for Pizza"): Happy to be here.

HATTORI: John, "Playing for Pizza" has nothing to do with Papa John's or Shakey's but rather American football in Italy, a country where most people think of football is soccer. Tell us a bit about the story.

Mr. GRISHAM: Well, there is American football in Italy when I was researching a book called "The Broker" that was published, I think, in '05. I sort of stumbled across this football league and became fascinated with these Italian guys who loved to put on the pads and helmets and beat each other up once a week.

The intriguing part of the story is that each team is allowed to have three Americans. And so I was sort of intrigued by the notion of how a kid, who grows up in the U.S., how you would ever end up playing for the Parma Panthers in the Italian version of the NFL.

HATTORI: And the title "Playing for Pizza" is literally what they do. They play football and their reward is to get that pizza once in a while.

Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. The first guy I met - he was this big, tough Italian guy, wonderful fellow. And he was telling me about this league and a lot of stories about American football there. And I asked him, I said, well, you know, the Americans get paid a little bit of money. Not much. And I said, do Italians get paid? He said, oh, no, we play it for pizza. And that's what they played for, the beer and pizza after practice and after the games.

HATTORI: In the book, the team is out to win the Super Bowl. Is there really a Super Bowl contest in Italy?

Mr. GRISHAM: Oh, in July the 14th of this year, I watched the Italian Super Bowl - my first ever Super Bowl - in a town of Reggio Emilia, which is about an hour from Parma. And the Parma Panthers played the Bergamo Lions just like in the novel - I'd finished the book by then. And I was hoping Parma would make it to the Super Bowl. They did and they lost in double overtime.

HATTORI: Hmm. You know, for me, some of the most tantalizing passages in the book are about food - Parma ham, tortellini in brodo, fine wines, Parmesan cheese. That research must have been hell, huh.

Mr. GRISHAM: It was really tough. If these restaurants', these chefs, they kind of know who you are and if you walk in with a - like a notepad and you're taking notes about their food, they keep bringing you more and more food, more and more wine, and they don't charge you for it. So just, you know, you walking out the street with a notebook and introduce yourself and the food is incredible.

But also, I had the - in Parma, there were three Americans there, all young men from - who play college football here, including the coach. And they took me to the restaurants and the good places around Parma. It was tough, tough research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HATTORI: So, the food there - that was nonfiction, in fact.

Mr. GRISHAM: All legitimate. And I wrote so much about the food and the wine that I knew when the book arrived at Doubleday, that my editor there would say you got - this is great but you got to take out some of the food and, which happened once in "The Broker." It happens a lot of time because I enjoy writing about the food.

HATTORI: What was the reaction among the football players there when they learned that an American had come to write a story about football in Italy?

Mr. GRISHAM: Pretty curious. I tell the coach up front what I was doing and I was not going to embarrass anybody. When I arrived, they were guarded at first. But as the weeks have gone by and the book is about to be published over there, I think they're genuinely excited about the fact that they're going to - about to get a lot of attention because of the book.

HATTORI: I'm curious, too, what they think about American football played in America.

Mr. GRISHAM: They follow the game. Believe it or not, I was surprised at the amount of English that is spoken. The coaches are all Americans. Virtually every Italian - and there're probably 40 of them on a team - some are fluent in English. The plays are called in English in a huddle. And sometimes, they - one of the other players who is fluent would translate quickly and sometimes, they would not. But they love the sport. Their equipment and gear is first rate. And they're very content with playing the game for the love of it and for the pizza.

HATTORI: Author John Grisham, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. GRISHAM: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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