BILL MOYERS: My next guest has written twenty one books in all—with titles you'll recognize. A Time To Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Rainmaker, The Testament, The Innocent Man, A Painted House. Believe it or not they have sold nearly a quarter of a billion copies in 29 languages. Some were made into blockbuster movies
THE RAIN MAKER: I'm asking you, the jury, just do what you think is right in your hearts.
BILL MOYERS: The writer, of course, is John Grisham, the small town lawyer who never wrote a book until he was 30 years old. For all his wild success, John Grisham is not a very public man. He keeps a low profile and makes few speeches. So I was surprised to read that he is going to make a keynote address next week in Atlanta, Georgia before the first meeting of the "New Baptist Covenant". It's a group formed by former President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists "around an agenda of Christ-centered social ministry."
JIMMY CARTER: Strengthening God's kingdom on earth in the name of Jesus Christ our savior.
BILL MOYERS: Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore will speak; so will Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley. John Grisham is a devout Baptist laymen, a member of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, VA, and a veteran Sunday school teacher, like Jimmy Carter himself. He has some strong feelings about social justice and the state of democracy. I invited him to the studio for a conversation. Welcome to the Journal.
BILL MOYERS: You so rarely give speeches that I'm curious as to why you chose this gathering in Atlanta for a forum.
JOHN GRISHAM: I didn't have much of a choice. The phone rang a couple weeks ago, on Saturday morning, and it was Jimmy Carter. And I'd never talked to him before. And he invited me to come down. And I told him I probably couldn't do it because my next book comes out that week, January the 29th. And he said, "Well, can I be pushy?" You know, I don't know how you tell a former president they can't be pushy. And I said, "Sure." And he said, "I really want you to come." I said, "Okay. I'll be happy to do it." So I'm looking forward to it.
BILL MOYERS: What is the new one?
JOHN GRISHAM: It's called The Appeal. You'll love it. It's got more politics than anything I've written. It's tons of politics, tons of legal intrigue. It's about—all my books are based, in some degree on something that really happened. There's an element in truth in all these books. This is about the election of a Supreme Court justice in the state of Mississippi.
Thirty some-odd states elect their judges, which is a bad system. Because—they allow private money. Just like a campaign. Just like the campaign we're watching now for president. You got corporate people throwing money in. You got big individuals. You got, you know, cash coming in to elect a judge who may hear your case. Think about that. You've got a case pending before the court and you want to reshape the structure of the court, well, just to get your guy elected. And that's happened in several states. Big money comes in, take out a bad judge, or an unsympathetic judge. Replace him with someone who may be more friendly to you. And he gets to rule in your case without a conflict.
BILL MOYERS: Is this the story of the corporation that dumps the toxic poisons into the stream. Ruins the community's drinking water?
JOHN GRISHAM: It starts off with a verdict. Chapter one is a verdict where this big chemical company has polluted this small town to the point where you can't even drink the water. It's become a cancer cluster. A lot of people have died. And so there's a big lawsuit. And that's the opening of the book. And then it's all the intrigue about what that company does. Because the guy who owns that company doesn't like the composition of the Supreme Court. And he realizes he can change it. And so—
BILL MOYERS: By buying an election. He can buy the judge.
JOHN GRISHAM: Buy your judge. It's bad at the Supreme Court level, but even at a local level, you know—
BILL MOYERS: You mean at the state Supreme Court level.
JOHN GRISHAM: State Supreme—oh, yeah, state Supreme Court. All these are state Supreme Court—
BILL MOYERS: What practical consequences issue from the fact that judges in Mississippi are often determined by the most money that goes into the campaign? What's the practical consequences for citizens?
JOHN GRISHAM: In a state like Mississippi, where the court has now been realigned in such a way where you have a hard right majority—six or seven, two or three dissents. When you've got a majority you only need five. Virtually every plaintiff's verdict is reversed.
BILL MOYERS: Virtually every one?
JOHN GRISHAM: Virtually every one. So if you have a—if your neighbor's son gets killed in a car wreck, and there's a big lawsuit, and there's a big verdict against the, you know, the guilt of the negligent party—or if your friend is injured by a negligent doctor, or a hospital, whatever, you're pretty much out of luck.
BILL MOYERS: So the court is now decidedly biased, in your judgment, in favor of the powerful.
JOHN GRISHAM: Oh, it's not in my judgment. It's a proven fact. You can read the Supreme Court decisions in Mississippi, and Alabama, to those two states next door to each other. And both states have a hard right majority. And so people with legitimate claims are, not always, but generally out of luck.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't there any outrage among all those good Christian folks, as my mother would say, who live there, who are ordinary folks, little folks?
JOHN GRISHAM: No. Because they sell it, the Chamber of Commerce sells it. Corporate America sells it and the Republican party sells it—as a way to protect business, economic development, economic growth. "Look at our state. We frown on lawsuits. We frown on unions. This is a good place to do business." That's how you sell it. Sounds good. It's how every politician does it down there. And you end up with a court that that's very unsympathetic to the rights of victims. To the rights of consumers. To the rights of criminal defendants. Yeah, that's what happens when these elections—when those types of people are elected.
BILL MOYERS: What is your understanding of why these good Christian folks, these so many Baptists, voted for the party that is in fact the party of money?
JOHN GRISHAM: They live poor and vote rich. They live poor and vote rich. I mean, it's an effort to—the brilliant thing the Republicans did was get all these guys under one tent. From your traditional Republican base—wealthy republicans, your country club Republicans, your corporate Republicans—and bring in the NASCAR bubbas and all those folks. And then bring—and then get religious right. All these good Christian folks. Get them all under one tent. All voting, really, for one purpose, and that's to protect, you know, the rich folks. That's worked beautifully for the Republican party.
BILL MOYERS: You know I think I've read just about every one of your novels. Predators show up all the time. The little guy does get screwed until one of your protagonists shows up to take on the case. But you're describing—you know, I grew up in a small town, too. You're describing small town justice.
JOHN GRISHAM: Yes sir. That's what I know. I was there. And—but I also study it. Watch it. You know, by reading about cases. The Innocent Man was, you know, the most recent example of—I never wanted to write a nonfiction book. I'm having too much fun with the novels. It's a whole lot more fun—a whole lot more easier to create stuff in the—than to go research a bunch of facts and have to do the hard work. And I try to avoid hard work if at all possible. But I had to go do a lot of research.
BILL MOYERS: The Innocent Man was John Grisham's first foray into non-fiction—a deeply researched investigation into Why Ron Williamson and another man were wrongly convicted of a 1982 murder. Eleven years later, DNA evidence proved their innocence, freeing Williamson from death row.
JOHN GRISHAM: We've sent 130 men to death row to be executed in this country—at least 130 that we know of—who have later have been exonerated because they were either innocent, or they were not fairly tried. That's 130 people that we've locked down on death row. And they've spent years there. Including Ron Williamson, the guy I wrote about. Well, you know, if that doesn't bother you, go to death row. Go see a death row. Go look at one.
Your first reaction is—how could someone survive here? How could you live? You're in a very small cell. Just a few feet by few feet. And you're there usually with a bunkmate, roommate, or whatever—a cell mate, I should—celly. For 23 hours a day. And you know, how do you keep your sanity? They do, most of them. They function, they survive. It's you know, they are very, very harsh conditions. And perhaps they should be.
I'm not saying prison should be, you know, an easy place. But—imagine, it's tough enough if you're guilty. If you're a serial murderer, there—it's tough enough. But think, if you're an innocent man? If you know you didn't do the crime. And the guy who did do the murder is still out there. You're serving his time, and nobody's listening to you. Nobody's listening to you. Those are powerful stories.
BILL MOYERS: I found The Innocent Man my favorite of your last number of books, because I could recognize so many of those characters. And what struck me is, the prosecutor was reelected unopposed, despite the fact that the town knew he had convicted the wrong man. What do you take from that?
JOHN GRISHAM: Let me say, exonerations are—there have been a lot of them. We've kind of gotten used to them. They happen all the time now. But it's still unusual, you know, for the wrong person to be convicted of a murder. However, in this one town there were two men who were wrongfully convicted for this murder. There was another crime, a rape, that happened about the same time, that they got the wrong man there. And he spent 20 years in prison. Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country. And they happen for all the same reasons. Sloppy police work. Eyewitness identification is the most—is the worst type almost. Because it's wrong about half the time. Think about that.
BILL MOYERS: Eyewitnesses?
JOHN GRISHAM: Eyewitness identification. They get it wrong about half the time. And that's sent more men to prison than probably anything else. Sloppy police work. Sloppy prosecutions. Junk science. Snitch testimony. What—it happens all the time. You get some snitch in a jail who wants out, and he comes in and says, "Oh, I heard your defendant confess." And they'll say, "Well, okay, we'll reduce your time and we'll let you out if you'll testify at trial."
So there should be rules governing snitch testimony. But there are a lot of reasons.There are five or six primary reasons you have wrongful convictions. All could be addressed. All could be fixed with the right statutes. And it would save a lot of wrongful—the human cost of wrongful convictions is enormous. But the economic cost is huge, too.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
JOHN GRISHAM: Keeping a guy in prison costs 50,000 bucks a year. Executing one costs a couple million. I mean—
BILL MOYERS: A couple million dollars?
JOHN GRISHAM: It varies from state to state, yeah. It varies from state to state.
BILL MOYERS: Wow.
JOHN GRISHAM: But it's expensive to crank up the machinery of death.
BILL MOYERS: What would you do with someone who's known guilty?
JOHN GRISHAM: Oh, listen, I have no sympathy for violent criminals. And this country was so sick of violent crime. That's one reason we've reacted the way we do. And we still have the death penalty. And we still have two million people in prison in this country right now. Two million. Our prisons are choked they're so full, okay? And most of them are non-violent. You know, most of them—and we're spending between $40,000 and $80,000 somewhere to house them. Every guy in prison.
Now, somebody's not doing the math here. You know, we're spending all this money on these people. But for the violent people, the murderers, rape—or what, you know, whatever. And there are some criminals who do not belong outside of, you know, prison. I'm not in favor of the death penalty. But I'm in favor of locking these people away in maximum security units where they can never get out. They can never escape. They can never be paroled.
Lock the bad ones away. But you gotta rethink everybody else. You gotta rethink the young kids who are in there because of, you know, crack cocaine. I mean, they need help. And if they serve five years they get out there and do the same thing over and over again. So it—we're not, you know—the system's getting worse.
BILL MOYERS: You know, I know writers don't often know the sources that influence their work, and don't often like to be asked about it. But do you think your faith has been responsible for shaping this sense of injustice that comes through so often? Your taking on the predators—
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah, in the later books. In the early books—you know, I write two or three different kinds of books. First you have the legal thriller, the early books --The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client were—that was fresh, it was new, and it was suspenseful, and the books were, you know, very popular. And it was just pure entertainment. There was no message. There was no issue. There was nothing serious about the books—it was just pure entertainment. And they worked beautifully.
But as the years have gone by, I've caught myself more and more taking an issue. When I can take an issue, whether it's the death penalty, or homelessness, or to big tobacco, or insurance abuse or whatever. But when I can take an issue and wrap a novel around it, and make it compelling, make the pages turn and make it very suspenseful, and get the reader hooked up in the book, and also get the reader, for the first time, maybe, to think about a problem from a different viewpoint. Those are the best books.
The more books I write, the more I seem to think about social injustice and the stories I have for future books—there are a lot more ideas dealing with what's wrong with our systems. And maybe how to fix them. Not that I know how to fix them. But I can sure show you what's wrong with them.
BILL MOYERS: You do, in your work, paint a pretty dark portrait of what it's like to be poor, to be marginalized, to be in the minority. Where does that come from?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, I didn't live it myself. But when you grow up in Mississippi and Arkansas you see it. You can still it now. And, you know, the deep south and in other areas.
BILL MOYERS: You were a lawyer eight years, right? In Mississippi before you wrote A Time To Kill.
JOHN GRISHAM: Almost ten years I practiced law in a small town in Mississippi. And my clients were working people and poor people. And people—victims. People accused of—people that lost their jobs, that lost their insurance. But also, on the criminal side, people accused of crimes. And that's shaped my life. Because I was always fighting for these people against, you know, something bigger. The legal experience was formative. I would never have written a first book had I not been a lawyer. I didn't dream of writing. When I was reading Steinbeck in high school I was gonna be a professional athlete. I had no talent, but a lot of big dreams. That didn't work out. I couldn't even play in college. But I I never thought I was going to be a writer. It came later in life, after I'd practiced law for a few years.
BILL MOYERS: Why so much politics now? You seem to be talking more politics.
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Playing more politics. Writing more politics. Which is something risky for a writer to say because your readers may not agree with your politics.
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah, you know, I guess it's risky. I think we're all caught up in politics. I think what—with the war going and how—how could you not be caught in politics? A bad war. A lot of the issues of the day are political issues. And then we just did something in '07 we've never done before—we went through an entire year before the election, 12 months of nonstop politics. We had debate a year ago in January, in '07. It's been the entire year. We'll spend this entire year. It's two years, you know, electing a president. And that's probably the way of the future. I think as a society we just have this insatiable appetitive now for more and more politics. We've got the 24-hour cable shows. Everybody's an analyst. Everybody's an expert, you know. So we get caught up in it.
BILL MOYERS: You once called the war "a moral abomination."
JOHN GRISHAM: I did. Still do.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, it's you know, we attacked a sovereign nation that did, was not threatening us. What was our justification? I don't know. We were lied to by our leaders. It wasn't what they said it was. We have killed, I'm not saying "we" have killed, but, estimates are half a million Iraqis have died since the war started.
BILL MOYERS: You can't get an exact figure. It ranges from 125,000 up to—
JOHN GRISHAM: 600,000. It's still a lot of people. They wouldn't be dead, I don't think, had we not gone there. How do you get out? We lost 4,000 very brave soldiers who would love their country, and would go fighting where they were told because they're soldiers. Tens of thousands of shattered lives. We're not taking care of the veterans when they come home. The social cost of this will go—is enormous.
BILL MOYERS: The brutality of war. And the battles of politics couldn't be further removed from A Painted House - my other favorite of John Grisham's books. It tells the story of a little boy growing up on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas. Why did you write Painted House? Is it autobiographical?
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah, it's very autobiographical up to a point. The setting is very accurate. The first seven years of my life I was on a cotton farm. I remember the Mexican farm workers living in the top of the barn. I remember playing baseball with Juan. We had the same name. I remember the floods, losing crops. The house in the book was my grandparents' house. We didn't live with them. We lived not too far away.
So this and the church stuff is very—Black Oak Baptist Church, that's where we went. It was in town. And my mother was a town girl. She grew up in Black Oak. My father was a country boy—he was, you know, five miles apart. But, you know, the social structure in these little towns are very important. And my mother said one time she got in a big fight with two kids. She got in a fight with a kid who lived out in the country. And as the ultimate insult, little girls to, said to my mother, she said, "Yeah, but you live in a painted house." Meaning that you're kind of a uptown snooty girl because your house is painted. And it was very real, very true. And Mother's told that story for years. And the title was always, that was always the title from day one.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that so many southerners do become good storytellers and good politicians? They tell stories from the stump.
JOHN GRISHAM: I think anytime you have a geographical location, a region where you have had and still may have a lot of suffering, a lotta conflict, you're gonna have good stories. You're gonna have great writers. Because there's so much material. You look at the tortured history of the south, the cruelty, the war, the poverty—all the violence in the history of the south—it gives rise to great stories.
BILL MOYERS: There's also the conversation. I remember my mother talking across the back fence to Miss Platt who was our landlord. I remember the voices of the people coming home from the theater at 9:00, at 10:00 at night, walking just five yards from my bed. I went down to the courthouse square and heard the white farmers on one side of town telling their stories and the black farmers on the other side of town telling their stories. It was hard to come out of there and not have stories ratcheting in your head. You remember that?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, I can remember my, not necessarily my grandfather but my father telling stories his grandfather told him. And these were poor folks with no television, maybe radio, no telephones. They talked. They talked. They talked. They told stories.
BILL MOYERS: What about the sermons? Did you hear a lot of sermons?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, good gosh, yeah. I mean, I heard 'em all—from the, from the long sermon on Sunday morning when you're sitting there soaked with sweat to the revivalist, the evangelists who'd come to town for the big crusades, the tent crusades with—where the whole town would show up, And it was kind of exciting at times and boring at times. But I've heard a lot of sermons.
BILL MOYERS: Were you born again?
JOHN GRISHAM: Sure. When I was eight years old first Baptist church in Parkin, Arkansas. I felt the call to become a Christian. I felt the need to. I talked to my parents. I talked to my pastor. And I accepted Christ when I was eight years old, just a little small boy. And, like most of the kids, you know, in my church, and my brothers and sisters, that was very much a part of growing up.
BILL MOYERS: And when you look back half a century later, how do you think that moment has played out in your life and in your work?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, you know, once you make that conversion, you are and always will be something different, a different person. I can't say it impacts what I choose to write. But it certainly impacts how I write. The great secret to The Firm, and this is what, you know, people don't realize—
BILL MOYERS: The second book.
JOHN GRISHAM: —second book, that book was—first printing was 50,000 copies, which is nothing to sneeze at. People read that book and when they finished it, they realized they could give it to their 15-year-old or their 80-year-old mother and not be embarrassed. It sold a zillion copies because of that. My books are exceptionally clean by today's standards. There are things I don't want to write, can't write. I wrote a sex scene one time and showed it to my wife. And she burst out laughing. She said, "What do you know about sex?" But—
BILL MOYERS: Spoken like a true Baptist—
JOHN GRISHAM: —the language, the content, the language, even the violence, is something that is easy to stomach. And I would not, because of my faith, write any other way.
BILL MOYERS: John Grisham, thank you very much for joining me. I've enjoyed this immensely.
JOHN GRISHAM: My pleasure. I enjoyed it too, Bill. Thank you very much.