ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
John Grisham has sold more than 60 million books. His back-to-back best-sellers made him the bestselling author of the 1990s. And then there were the movie adaptations. "The Firm" has grossed more than $270 million worldwide.
But before his prodigious career as a writer of popular fiction, John Grisham was a lawyer and a politician, a member of the state legislature in his native Mississippi. His new novel, "The Appeal," is set in Mississippi. It's the story of a dirty political campaign for a seat on that state's Supreme Court.
NPR's Jacki Lyden spoke with him earlier this week.
JACKI LYDEN: John Grisham joins me now. And welcome to the program.
Mr. JOHN GRISHAM (Novelist): My pleasure.
LYDEN: This book is a gripping read. Two trial lawyers have basically leveraged everything to try a case against a big chemical company. Lots of people have been hurt and killed by this company. And they win a local verdict, but then comes the appeal. So what does the big chemical company have to do?
Mr. GRISHAM: After the big verdict, obviously, there are going to be a lot more lawsuits. And so the chemical company looks around. They survey the political and judicial landscape and they realize that in Mississippi, like a majority of the states in this country, the appellate court judges on the Supreme Court are elected by the people. So they dive headlong into Mississippi politics with the goal of replacing a judge they consider to be unfriendly with one that they think will be more sympathetic to the chemical company.
LYDEN: So I gather, John Grisham, that you would think that state Supreme Courts in this country are in danger of being bought and sold.
Mr. GRISHAM: Yes. And it's a terrible problem. It's not unusual in a lot of states for litigants - people with cases on appeal to the state's Supreme Court - Ohio, Texas, Alabama - it's all over the place - where the litigants - the big corporations on one side, the big trial lawyers on the other, make huge campaign contributions to the elections of the very judges who are going to be deciding the case. And oftentimes, these judges do not recuse themselves. It is a terrible system.
LYDEN: You know, there was a time when novelists were really known for writing about social issues. I'm thinking of people like Upton Sinclair who wrote about the meatpacking industry in Chicago or Lincoln Steffens, Bret Harte, others, who, as the country became more industrialized, wrote about a lot of what happened to workers and what used to be called the common man. Do you see yourself in that tradition?
Mr. GRISHAM: Occasionally. The last book was "The Innocent Man," published a couple of years ago. And it was a story about wrongful convictions and exonerations. And it...
LYDEN: A non-fiction book.
Mr. GRISHAM: Non-fiction book. And there was a lot of anger in that book, because once I've researched the story and realized what had happened at these two guys, and how it could have easily been prevented and the way they were abused by the system, and also the death penalty system. You know, I think I write two different kinds of books. Some books are just pure entertainment. Others deal with an issue. And I think those are the better books because they make the reader stop and think about something that he or she may not be thinking about.
LYDEN: Let's go back into "The Appeal," your novel. You've written a real love letter here to trial lawyers in the book. May I just quote?
(Reading) "Trial lawyers, always a colorful and eclectic bunch. Cowboys, rogues, radicals, longhairs, corporate suits, flamboyant mavericks, bikers, deacons, good old boys, street hustlers, pure ambulance chasers, faces from billboards and yellow pages and early morning television - they were anything but boring."
Mr. GRISHAM: Listen, I still love them. They are...
LYDEN: Come through.
Mr. GRISHAM: Now, they're outrageous and they drive you crazy. I was a member of the trial lawyers for 10 years. I would go to state conventions and we're going to almost have fistfights. But it's a group of independent individualists, cowboys, eccentrics, but they love a good fight. They love a good courtroom battle. And they are united in their belief that they are representing little people who have been injured by corporate wrongdoers.
LYDEN: I'm just wondering if there's times when you missed the sort of passion and drama, the crucible that the courtrooms can have and wish you were in there. Or does writing fiction sate that for you?
Mr. GRISHAM: I don't think I have ever missed practicing law. I never had any fun in a courtroom. It is very, very stressful work. You know, I'm fortunate enough to be able to sort of do it vicariously through novels. And there are a lot of people who want to write legal thrillers and I can usually read the first chapter and tell whether or not that person is a lawyer. Because, you know, you have a certain body of knowledge that it's hard to go research if you don't have it. That's one reason that the books, for me, are not difficult to write because it's just something I know.
LYDEN: You know, I've looked through some of the information on you. And you said, well, the book wasn't hard to write. But I can't believe that you don't look at a sentence and think is that exactly where I wanted to go with that thought. So when you say it's not hard to write...
Mr. GRISHAM: When I say they're not difficult to write, sure, it's a lot of hard work. But I never - once I got into "The Appeal" - and I really got into the rhythm of the story and the pacing of the plot, there's never a down day. There's never a day when I sit down and look at the blank screen and say what am I going to write today. Because by the time I wake up that morning and, you know, have the first cup of coffee, I know where it's going to be. And I can't wait to go do it.
LYDEN: I can imagine that writers listening to this all over America are smacking their foreheads and wishing for a little of that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Well, it's been a real pleasure talking with you.
Mr. GRISHAM: My pleasure, too.
LYDEN: John Grisham's latest novel is called "The Appeal."
Thanks ever so much.
Mr. GRISHAM: Thank you, Jacki.
SEABROOK: "The Appeal" will be released on Tuesday. You can read an excerpt about the verdict that set the whole story in motion at npr.org/books.
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SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight are fittingly about the act of writing. There is a wealth of great writing about writing. Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American writer Alice Walker said: Writing saves me from the sin and inconvenience of violence. American aphorist Mason Cooley said: Writing is a refuge from unhappiness, but has its own sorrows. And British novelist Iris Murdoch wrote: Writing is like getting married. One should never commit one's self until one is amazed at one's luck.
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SEABROOK: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.