Over the course of his three-decade writing career, John Grisham has regaled readers with stories about the criminal justice system, sports, small-town lawyers, and big-time rapacious law firms. In his next, yet-to-be-titled legal thriller (Doubleday, Oct.), he takes on the Dixie Mafia, a criminal organization dating to the late 1950s.

“They’d open bars and strip clubs and gambling houses, bribe all the public officials, and run the town into the ground,” Grisham says. “They were extremely violent, and I couldn’t leave that alone.” The book follows two childhood friends from Biloxi, Miss., whose lives take different paths—one becomes district attorney and the other turns to organized crime.

Before Grisham’s next novel, though, comes his first novella collection, Sparring Partners (Doubleday, May). The author explains that over the years, he’s come up with a slew of tales that he wanted to get out in the marketplace, but that didn’t work as full-length novels. “Generally, I’m too long-winded for short stories,” he says, “so I thought I’d put three novellas together to see how they work.”

The title story, about feuding brothers who inherit their father’s law firm when he’s sent to prison for killing their mother, was inspired by a pair of adversarial bookstore owners. “They had a falling out, but wouldn’t give up the store,” Grisham says. “I thought, that sounds like a bunch of lawyers.” In “Homecoming,” Grisham revisits small-town lawyer Mack Stafford from “Fish Files,” a story in his only previous shorter-work collection, 2009’s Ford County. “Strawberry Moon” expands a piece the author wrote 13 years ago for the Rome International Literature Festival. “Europeans are fascinated with our death penalty, so I wrote about a kid sent to death row who wants to see the moon before he’s executed,” Grisham says. “I read that in the middle of lit-up Roman ruins, in front of an audience seated in 5,000 folding chairs.”

It’s a scene that seems almost unimaginable in the Covid era, but Grisham, who plans to speak about the pandemic’s effect on publishing in his U.S. Book Show address, is focused on the positive. “The increase in sales has been a pleasant surprise all across the board,” he says. “Two years ago, it was total panic. But before long we realized, yes, we can publish books remotely and get them in stores, and the stores did a great job staying open. As for me, I’ve been in isolation for 30 years, so it was no big deal. That’s why I’ve been writing two books a year—I’ve got nothing else to do but write and read a lot.”

John Grisham will be in conversation with Julie Slavinsky, director of events and community relations at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Calif., on Wednesday, May 25, 11–11:30 a.m. ET.

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