After 41 consecutive bestsellers and a long-running career filled with acclaim, John Grisham is back with something a little different: his upcoming Sparring Partners is a collection of three novellas. For the U.S. Book Show, Grisham spoke with Julie Slavinsky, director of events at Warwick’s Bookstore, about the book, its inspiration, and what readers can expect from the collection.
Slavinsky started the conversation by asking Grisham why he chose to opt for a collection this time around. “I realized I’m a little too long-winded for short stories, and too lazy for long stories,” said Grisham. “Novellas are somewhere in between.” The novella form, it turned out, proved a perfect size for Grisham to explore some of the ideas that he might not have be able to to in a full novel.
A prolific author, many of the stories in the book have roots that go as far back as 15 years. In “Homecoming,” Grisham brings back Jack Brigance, the protagonist of A Time To Kill. However, this time around, he isn’t in the courtroom. Rather, he’s helping a friend named Mack Stafford, who readers first encountered in a story called “Fish Files” in the 2009 collection Ford Country. In the original story, Mack is broke and going nowhere until he comes across money that isn’t his and decides to run away with it, divorcing his wife and uprooting everything to start over on the beaches of Belize. “Homecoming” finds the character yearning to come back and reaching out to Brigance for a safe haven.
Returning to Brigance, Grisham mused “was very autobiographical.” When he wrote A Time to Kill, he explained, the story was imagined through the eyes of an idealistic lawyer. “That was basically me,” Grisham said. “I was living that life, and very much dreamed of being a big time trial lawyer.” Brigance became his way of entering the courtroom and enjoy what might have been: “Anytime I go back to Jake, it’s always a delight.”
The conversation moved to another story in the collection, “Strawberry Moon,” and what Slavinsky calls perhaps “the most impactful of the three,” a point to which the author agreed. During the conversation, Grisham told the origin story of the novella. His friend called him up about an illustrious event in Italy called the Rome Festival of Literature. Writers are invited to fly in and read a brand new story, approximately 3000 words in length. “They translate it into Italian, and you read your story in your native tongue onstage while a teleprompter behind you plays the translation,” explains Grisham. “The theme the year I went was 'the moon.' ” He took the prompt and conjured a story about a young man on death row whose last request before execution is to see the moon, since he hasn’t seen it in years.
“People were sobbing in the crowd,” Grisham said, remembering the experience. Grisham had been kicking the story around in some form for years until returned to it for Sparring Partners. “I took that story and added a lot to it, like new characters,” the author said. “The new version is around 15,000 words.” The end result is an eye-opening and heartfelt novella that tells of the last three hours of a young man’s life, along with all the detailed preparations that go into an execution.
On the topic of the death penalty, Slavinsky asked the author about his nonprofit work, particularly the Innocence Project. Inspired by his research and the writing of his book about wrongful convictions, The Innocent Man, Grisham pursued a way to seek change and education about the brokenness of the criminal justice system. “I wasn’t aware of how many wrongful convictions there are [before researching the book],” the author said. “I interviewed people on death row in Oklahoma and realized through the research that there are thousands of innocent people in prison.” To this day, the author keeps in contact with many of the people he interviewed on death row.
“Every wrongful conviction is, from a storytelling standpoint, a fantastic story,” said Grisham. “It’s due to the amount of suffering and injustice. You just can’t believe how badly people can be treated.”
When asked if there’s anything Grisham would change first about the current state of the criminal justice system, he was quick to point out the problematic nature of the death penalty. “California has 600 people on death row, and it is not an active death state,” he explained. “They are just locked up. It costs probably $100,000 dollars a year to keep someone on death row.”
In recent years, the death penalty has been dying, not because of courageous lawmakers, but rather due to the decisions of jurors who find the act of killing unlawful. They seek punishment, not death. Grisham brought up an important question: “We can all agree that killing is wrong, so why is the state able to do it? If you took out the death angle, you’d not have a lot of bad convictions. You wouldn’t have prosecutors or judges worrying about reelection.”
Moving to a discussion of his writing process, Slavinsky asked if Grisham outlines or sticks to having only the beginning and the end of a book. “I believe in outlining,” he said. “I can’t tell a story or write a book that’s 500 pages or 100,000 words without knowing where I’m going.” The author is always outlining, and often has multiple outlines going while working exclusively on a novel.
A passionate baseball fan, 27 years ago Grisham opened the baseball park of his dreams in Charlottesville, Va., to the tune of $3.8 million. The seven-diamond ballpark, designed for kids, has afforded the author an opportunity to bring the sport to legions of children. “We used to have 500 kids, but now we’re down to 350,” says Grisham. “People just aren’t playing baseball the way they used to.”
Ending the conversation on a lighter note, Slavinsky asked if Grisham is still commissioner of the park. With a laugh, the author replied: “When you own the baseball park, you’re commissioner for life.”