As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, authors John Grisham (A Time for Mercy) and Ian Rankin (A Song for Dark Times) discussed their new books, revisiting long-time characters, writing crime novels, and frankly, anything else they wanted to discuss.
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Watch this event (transcript provided below):
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“Grisham has returned to the place closest to his heart… The trial is riveting…it’s striking how suspenseful the story is…how much we’re gripped by the small details.” —Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
“Rankin has found fresh ways to explore his insightful, cantankerous and independent character in each of Rebus’ reappearances… The superb A Song for the Dark Times—a prophetic title if ever there was one and a metaphor for Rebus’ life—works as a tale about mortality, lost opportunities, regrets and growing older… A Song for the Dark Times doesn’t miss a note in showcasing Rankin’s strong storytelling.” ―Oline Cogdill, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Thanks to the Gamma Knife Center at UVA for their support of this program.
Thanks to our community partner for sharing information about this event: Wisconsin Book Festival
JANE KULOW: Welcome to Dark Times and Mercy, featuring John Grisham and Ian Rankin, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop, please visit vabook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. We greatly appreciate the support of our sponsor for this event, the UVA Gamma Knife Center, and we appreciate the help of our community partners in sharing this event.
Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. John Grisham, author of A Time for Mercy, has written 35 novels, a work of nonfiction, a collection of stories, and six novels for young readers. He is a longtime member of the board of directors for the Innocence Project. Ian Rankin is the author of A Song for the Dark Times and dozens of other bestselling novels, plays, teleplays, and more. He has received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including the top crime writer’s award from any countries and an OBE for services to literature. In their newest books, John and Ian offer stories in which their longtime characters, Jake Brigance and John Rebus, face new challenges. John and Ian, thank you for joining us. Tell us more.
JOHN GRISHAM: Thank you, Jane. Ian, since you’re on my turf, I’m here in Virginia, I say welcome to Virginia, to the book festival. We tried to get you here last year. COVID intervened. We tried again this year, and so it intervened again. We’re virtual. You’ve got to promise that next year, in 2022, you’ll be here live and in person, okay?
IAN RANKIN: Well, as long as there’s no new pandemic, I’ll be there.
JOHN GRISHAM: And I want to come to Edinburgh. You have a great book festival there, right?
IAN RANKIN: We do. And again, last year, it had to be virtual only. In some ways, that made it easier because you could be there, John, without getting out of your slippers or leaving your house. This year, they’re hoping that it will be partly virtual and partly real. Again, we’re just hoping that everybody has been vaccinated by then and travel is okay. Readers are desperate, as you know. They’re desperate for books, and they’re desperate for book festivals. They want to keep keeping up that conversation with their favorite authors.
JOHN GRISHAM: We actually met at a book festival in Lyon, France, about five years ago. Wonderful. Probably the best festival in France. I’m going to ask you, do you do a lot of those European festivals?
IAN RANKIN: Yeah, I did. I say did, past tense, because who knows what Brexit is going to mean to the traveling author? We may have to get visas and things, which we didn’t have to do when the UK was part of the European Union. Yeah, that festival, Quais du Polar, in Lyon is certainly one of the best, one of the best organized, one of the biggest.
I didn’t think I would miss it, John. I’m a bit of a homebody. I like walking to my local bar, walking to my local bookstore, sitting around in my home. Jumping on planes, trains, and automobiles going all around the world was getting kind of tiring, because I’m getting older, but I do miss it.
I miss the travel. I miss meeting readers. I miss meeting other authors, and just as you and I did, we had five minutes backstage when we just sort of met each other. Who knows where it leads? In our case, it leads to this. It leads to us, at last, having a conversation where I get to ask you all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask you.
JOHN GRISHAM: For twenty years, I didn’t tour at all. I don’t know, from the mid-1990s, after the first wave of books and movies, and life got kind of crazy, I realized I didn’t have to tour. I could stay at home and write books, and they would sell without me being on the planes, trains, and going everywhere. I got spoiled to just becoming almost a recluse, and the books were still selling. I thought life was good. A few years ago, I was talking to Stephen King, a good friend of mine, a guy I really respect, and we were talking about bookselling and booksellers and the reading public, and how difficult it is for so many booksellers to survive, and this is before COVID. So we both decided to start touring some more and to hit the road.
I did it three or four years ago with a book called Camino Island that was a non-legal thriller and went to about 25 different bookstores. I realized how much I enjoyed going to great bookstores just as a customer, but also to meet the booksellers, to meet a lot of the fans, to meet the people who were buying the books. And I’ve been to more book festivals. It’s fun meeting the other writers, as we met, and hanging out with them. I think once we all get vaccinated and once this thing does go away, you’re going to see a lot of writers very eager to hit the road again and get out and see the bookstores and meet the booksellers.
IAN RANKIN: Sure. Bookstores, and in particular in the USA, were very important to me in my early years as an author. Every small town in America seemed to have a specialist mystery bookstore, passionate sellers of books and passionate readers of books, and those were my first champions. I was writing books about Edinburgh, Scotland, a place many of them didn’t know or hadn’t been to, but they just loved the structure of the crime novel. They loved the character of Rebus. And that word of mouth. Booksellers saying to people, “Oh, if you like Michael Connelly, you might like Ian Rankin. Why don’t you give him a try?” that kind of thing was hugely important.
It saddens me a little bit that now when I come to the States on tour, a lot of those bookstores are no longer there. The physical bookstores are no longer there. The internet has taken over in a lot of cases. The owners have retired and can’t find anybody else to take it on. There’s been a passion for them, but when they go, they can’t always find another young passionate person to take on the store. That’s slightly frustrating, but as you say, when good independent bookstores are still with us, please let’s keep them going.
Certainly, during the past year in Edinburgh, where we’ve had this pandemic, and a lot of the bookstores have had to be closed, physically shut, the local population have kept them going. You can order on the phone, you can pay with your credit card on the phone, then you go along and it’s almost like a furtive experience. You knock on the door, and the bookseller opens the door and hands you the paper bag with your book in it, and off you go back home to read it, or else they deliver the books by bicycle in some cases. They’ll actually deliver to your door and leave them at the door and phone you and say it’s sitting on your doorstep.
People are just hungry for books, and publishers and booksellers have found ways to adapt very quickly, and the same with festivals. Book festivals have found a way to adapt to still keep providing something for readers who just want that connection.
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah, what we’re seeing here, and I think it’s probably true over there too, people, they’re stuck at home. They have more time to read. They want the books. The books are a connection to the life they remember recently, their normal life. Books are a connection to their past. You and I are lucky. We sell a lot of books. I’m constantly amazed at how attached some readers get to our books and to our characters, and that’s very gratifying. During the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of people, a lot of book buyers and booksellers, who are really eager to get the books and get them published. We sold more books last year in the U.S. than the year before. Our book sales are pretty strong. Most of our bookstores here have managed to hang on. Some have closed, a few of them. But doing the same thing, curbside service, limited browsing indoors, home delivery, you name it.
Early in the pandemic over here, Amazon, who now sells two-thirds of all books in this country, Amazon downgraded the importance of books behind medicine and groceries. They had to prioritize, and so books got knocked down a notch and you couldn’t get them as fast. When that happened, people started calling local bookstores again, “Hey, we want these books. We don’t really care what the price is. Can we come get the books?” Overall, it’s been, I can’t say a boon for us, but certainly the business has stayed there. The question for you as a writer, because I get asked this question every week, people want to know, how has it impacted you?
IAN RANKIN: Well, like you, I had a book that was published during the pandemic. I don’t know if you were writing your book during the pandemic, John. You can maybe tell me that after. But it was written. The latest Rebus novel was written during the pandemic. Luckily, I decided to set it in the summer of 2019, because if it’d been set in the summer of 2020, it would’ve been a very different book. The crime would’ve been solved by Zoom because Rebus couldn’t travel around Scotland the way he does in the book.
The lockdown, in some ways, was great for me. I’d just done all the research for the book. I’d been on a road trip all around Scotland to the places where it was going to be set. Then lockdown came along, and I just sat in this very room, this is my office, and I sat in this very room and just wrote. Writing, for me, was an escape. It was like I was tunneling out of the pandemic into a world that made sense and a world that I could control. I found the writing was just very refreshing.
A little bit, as you’ve been suggesting, as a successful writer, sometimes you don’t always get the amount of time to write that you would like. You’re too busy doing other things. You’re traveling, you’re doing interviews, etc. There was none of that. As you’ve said, the event with you in Virginia last March was the first event of mine to be canceled because of the pandemic, and then everything after that got canceled. No more tours. No interviews. No nothing. So I just sat in this room and wrote, and it was glorious. It was like being a kid again in my bedroom when I was growing up, and I just sat and wrote song lyrics and poems and short stories for the sheer joy of it. The joy was ignoring the outside world and creating a world that actually made sense, and a world that would have a happy ending, such as you can have in crime fiction.
What about you? What about publishing? Did you write the book during lockdown?
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah, I start a book every January with the goal of finishing by the first of July, so I get a lot of work done this time of the year. January, February, March, those are great months because obviously you can’t get outdoors. You can’t travel that much. You don’t want to travel that much. That’s just been our cycle for 25 years. I kind of go in the bunker January, February, March, and start coming out a little bit in April as the weather gets nicer. So when the pandemic hit a year ago, today is, yeah, February, March, when it really hit, suddenly I was in the middle of the book. The book got thicker because I had more time to write, which is not always a good thing.
In the spring of last year, I was going back to Lyon, France. I had that booked. I was going to a book festival in the UK, several book festivals around the U.S. All that got canceled. Suddenly, you’re stuck at home and really nothing to do.
The writing has always been an escape for me. I go to my office at 7:00 in the morning with a strong cup of coffee five days a week, sometimes six. There’s nothing else in the office but me and the big screen, the big desktop. I still treasure those moments. After doing this for 30 years, it still… I did it this morning. It’s a lot of fun to go create, to go work on the novel, to go plot the next chapter, to see the characters again. That has always been an escape, so I’m lucky to have that.
Initially, when it hit last year, things were so frightening and so chaotic on so many different fronts. We had never lived through this before. It was truly historic. I did find it hard to concentrate on reading. I’ve always got two or three books going, different types of books, and I read every night. I have always loved that. But for a while, it took me some time to get beyond the distractions of the 24/7 news cycle, the next bad story. But I got over that. I’ve been reading a tremendous amount in the past year, so that’s been a blessing.
My wife and I are big college basketball fans. We live here in Charlottesville, and we follow the teams here. She’s from North Carolina, so she’s a big… Anyway, we go to a lot of college basketball games. In March last year, suddenly March Madness, our big college tournament, which is the biggest sports tournament in America, was canceled for the first time ever. It was really a shock to fans. It’s like your Premier League. It’s just what we live for.
I thought, “Well, I’ve got some time on my hands coming up pretty soon when I finish the legal thriller. I’ve always wanted to write a book about college basketball, a novel,” and so I started that in July, August, really out of boredom. Had nothing else to do for the fall. I finished that, and that book comes out in a couple of months. Yeah, a long-winded answer to your question. I’ve had a lot more time to write. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. But I did write more words last year in twelve months in 2020 than any other year that I’ve been writing. I’d like to back off of that a little bit.
IAN RANKIN: Yeah, I think I did the same, because I finished the Rebus novel May, June, and was immediately approached by a publisher with a project to finish a novel that had been started by a writer I really admire who died a few years ago, a Scottish writer called William McIlvanney. He’d left an unfinished book, a barely started book, to be honest with you, and he said, “Look, would you finish it?” It was featuring his detective. He’d been a big influence on me in my early days. So I took that on.
In 2020, I ended up writing two books, which is one and a half more than I would normally write in a year, and did other projects on top of that. I’ve started something else now, and there’s something else waiting to go after that. As you say, what else are you going to do?
Let me take you back, though. Before we run out of time, I do want to get some of these questions in that I’ve always wanted to ask you. One is to do with write about what you know, which if you go to creative writing classes… I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a creative writing class. I never have. But if you go to creative writing classes, they say write about what you know.
With your first novel and afterwards, you did write about what you knew. You were a criminal lawyer. I just wondered two things. I didn’t do that, so we can maybe talk about that later. But were you writing before you started that novel? I know it was rejected many, many times, but had you always been writing? Had you been writing as a hobby, or did it just suddenly come to you one day as a criminal lawyer, “I’m going to also write a book”?
JOHN GRISHAM: Just the opposite. I never dreamed of writing. I never studied creative writing. I never took a class in writing. I’d always been a big reader. It was not a childhood dream. It was not something I thought about as a student. I was a lawyer. I thought I’d be a lawyer forever.
Then one day, something happened. One day, in a matter of a few minutes, something very dramatic happened in my life, or something I witnessed. I did not realize it at the time, but it would dramatically change my life. It was this very powerful moment in a courtroom in a small Southern town, my courtroom, the courthouse I practiced in. And I was inspired to start thinking about this story as seen through the eyes of a young, idealistic attorney kind of like myself who was dreaming of the big trial, the big courtroom victory that lawyers dream of. That’s how it got started.
After playing around with this idea for a few weeks, it became an obsession. I, for some reason, on a whim one night just said, “Okay, I’m going to see if I can write chapter one.” I started writing in longhand on a legal pad, and that’s how I started my writing career. Had no idea what I was doing. Had never written before. Didn’t know if I was going to finish, didn’t care. I was busy as a lawyer. I was busy as a politician. My wife was having babies. Life was pretty crazy, and life was good. It was a secret little hobby for a long time, and then finally finished the first book and got it published, and that led to something else.
IAN RANKIN: It was rejected a lot, right?
JOHN GRISHAM: It was rejected a lot. Back then, in the mid-1980s, unlike now, long before the internet, you could submit hard copies, believe it or not, to both editors and to agents. Now, I’m told, it’s all different. It all goes through an agent. You have to have an agent. I’ve had editors say they won’t even look at something that does not come from an agent.
I had a lot of rejections from editors and from agents, and kept plugging away, the classic submission-rejection back-and-forth. I thought it was kind of fun that people would reject my stuff. I wasn’t doing this for a living. I wasn’t going to get all depressed over it. Then after 15 or so agents said no, I got the first of many wonderful phone calls one morning when I was not expecting anything. An agent from New York called and said he wanted to represent me and the book, and that was a big turning point.
So let me ask you, what inspired you to pursue a career writing about crime?
IAN RANKIN: I’d always written. When I was a little kid sitting in my bedroom, I was writing. I was trying to draw comic books, strip cartoons, you name it, writing song lyrics for bands that didn’t exist. I just always wrote. It was how I made sense of the world. It was enjoyable. Like you, I read a lot. My parents weren’t big readers. They were blue-collar people. They left school at 14, 15, got jobs in factories and shops, stores, what have you. Weren’t many books in the house, but I just was fascinated by the written word. I was fascinated by storytelling.
There was a lovely little library in our town, which Andrew Carnegie, from the same part of the world as me, he had instigated this library, like many others. It wasn’t enough just to read stories. I wanted to write them as well. That followed me all the way to university, and started writing short stories and trying to get them published. One novel was rejected out of hand by everybody it was sent to. The first Rebus novel eventually was turned down by six or seven publishers, but then picked up by the final one on the list. As you say, it was back in the days when you just had the one copy and you would put it in the mailbox and send it off one at a time to publishers. I didn’t have an agent.
Crime, I don’t know, because I wasn’t that interested in crime fiction as a reader, the mystery novel. My older sister was a big fan of Agatha Christie, but I wasn’t. I read thrillers. Robert Ludlum, I used to love his books. There was a Scots author called Alistair MacLean, who wrote war thrillers. I loved them, and my dad loved them as well. But I got an idea for a story, and I thought the main character might well be a detective. It was a story really about the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Edinburgh, the city where I was living at the time as a student. That was it. I called him Rebus, which means picture puzzle, because he was solving a picture puzzle. He was solving a puzzle that was being sent to him by someone who was goading him, who was teasing him.
Not knowing that he would be around 30-odd years later, I’d still be writing about this guy, a bit like you with your first book. Sometimes you get attached to a character, and they refuse to let you go. As long as you can think of things that you want to do with them that challenge you and make sure that the character has growth, then I think why would you get rid of the character?
I did get rid of Rebus. I bumped him off. I killed him at the end of the first draft of the first book, and then in a second draft, for some reason, brought him back. He’s injured but not killed. That was fortunate, as it transpires. After I’d written that book and published it, the first Rebus novel, I went and did a spy novel. I did a thriller. Neither of them was very successful. Then my editor said, “What happened to that guy Rebus? I liked him as a character.” I said, “Yeah, I liked him as well, and I do want to keep writing about Edinburgh, so maybe I’ll bring him back.” That was it. Two books, three books, four books, and I just found myself really attached to him.
I didn’t know how the police worked. I just made it up mostly. Eventually, I had a network of police friends and people who would talk to me and answer questions. People out there who’ve read my books will notice the books end with the perpetrator being arrested, charged, whatever, but before the criminal trial, because I have no idea what happens during a criminal trial. This write-about-what-you-know thing, I just go, “Well, let’s just stop there because that’s a whole bunch of stuff that I then don’t need to know about.”
JOHN GRISHAM: Okay, you just said you didn’t know about police procedure, but your novels are so authentic when it comes to the cop-speak, the cop talk, the cop interactions, the paperwork, the procedure, the supervision, the internal affairs. You can’t make that up. You have to know it. How’d you learn?
IAN RANKIN: I don’t want to say it out loud, but you kind of can make it up. If you know your craft, you can persuade the reader that you know what you’re talking about. I think sometimes the problem is doing too much research. Often, I’ll read a book and think, “Oh, whoa, you have really researched this subject, and you want the reader to know you have researched this subject.” Suddenly, you’re not in the novel anymore; you’re having a conversation with the author, not the characters in the book. No matter how much research I do, I try and make sure I only maybe use 5% of it, so that the reader knows that you’ve done a little bit, they know you’ve done it, but they’re not hearing you say it; they’re actually still involved in the storytelling aspect of it.
That’s why a lot of cops who sometimes give me their novels that they’ve written, they can’t do it. They can’t do a novel because there’s too much of the information, the jargon, stuff that goes nowhere, a lot of knocking on doors asking questions, getting no satisfying answers that don’t push the story forward, because that’s what police investigation is like. Cops who like my books often say they like them because they leave that stuff out. You’re aware it’s happening somewhere on the periphery, just off the page, people are knocking on doors, there’s stuff happening that isn’t leading us any further forward; we’re going to stick with these two or three people who are pushing the story forward.
JOHN GRISHAM: I was going to ask, how do cops react to your books? Because I know how lawyers react to my books. How do cops react to your books?
IAN RANKIN: Well, usually people will say to me everywhere I go in the world, “Oh, we have a guy like Rebus on the force” or “I know a guy who knew a guy who was like Rebus.” It’s almost like an archetype, hopefully not a stereotype, but an archetype of this grumpy, middle-aged cop who’s seen it all and is a bit of a maverick and isn’t going to follow the rules. He would not be able to do that these days in the modern Scottish police force. He wouldn’t get away with not being a team player, with bending the rules, breaking the rules, being a maverick, going off and doing his own thing. He’s always operated more like a private detective than a police detective, a realistic police detective. I like it when cops around the world say, “Oh yeah, I knew a guy like him” or “My dad knew a guy like him. He was in the force.” That’s always thrilling.
I’ve told this story before. I’ll keep it short. The first research I did, I wrote to the chief of police in Edinburgh and said, “Will you help me?” I was sent a letter that sent me down to a police station to ask these two detectives some questions, but I didn’t know that they were investigating a crime that was very similar to the one that was going to be in my book. So when I laid out the plot to them, I became a suspect. They thought I’d done this crime or I was some kind of weird voyeur who had come in here to try and get information or something. They took all my details down, and I became a suspect in a murder inquiry my first shot at research. After that, John, I did not go near the police for many years, until a police detective came to one of my signings and said, “I like your books, but you make a lot of mistakes.” He then became my point of contact, and he helped me make fewer mistakes in the rest of my series.
I guess you know it, right? Do you still have to go and ask people? Has the legal situation changed so much, the way that the law is structured in the States?
JOHN GRISHAM: When it comes to the law, it still is very easy because, again, that’s what I know, that’s what I’ve done. You talk about cops writing books. When I read a legal story or a courtroom drama that I’m not sure who the writer is, within five or 10 pages of the first chapter, I can tell you if that writer is a lawyer, because there’s just so many mistakes that they make. It’s hard to fake some of that stuff.
At the same time, just exactly what you said earlier, too much research can kill you. Most lawyers who try to write novels fail because they want to impress you with how much they know about the law, and most of the law is very dull. They load you down with terms and procedures and things that you do not advance the story. I have tried to point that out to a few people over the years. It doesn’t work.
Every lawyer thinks he or she can write a novel because you see a lot of really fascinating stuff, kind of like cops, in your daily practice. You witness white collar… Court-appointed criminal work, corporate work, whatever, there are a lot of fascinating cases and a lot of fascinating people. That’s where I get my ideas from. But most lawyers tend to overdo it, and they just write stuff that nobody can read. Most of them are great storytellers, but they cannot connect with the reader. That’s what kills a lot of them.
With me, there’s a fine line you have to walk down when you write courtroom stuff because, as I said, most courtroom stuff is pretty dull. It’s a real challenge to write a big, thick novel about a trial and keep it exciting. You can’t have a dramatic confrontation in every chapter. It just doesn’t work that way. That’s where being a lawyer really comes in. I also know how to research the law. If I want to research it, I know where to go and find what I need to find.
As far as police work, I have a lot of FBI guys in my… I’m not a crime writer, but there’s a fair amount of crime in my stuff. I’m really on thin ice when I’m talking about police procedure and forensics and investigative stuff, so I’m always struggling. I’ve had a couple of agents over the years in a nice way say, “Enjoy your books, but boy, you really get it wrong. Boy, you really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Even a couple of retired guys over the years would give me their card and say, “Look, if you want to, for fun, give me a call, and I’ll walk you through it and tell you how we do it.”
I’m writing a book right now, the next legal thriller that’s got a fair amount of crime in it, and the FBI is going to get involved with some really complicated forensics. I have no clue what I’m going to do. I’ll figure it out. I’ll fake a lot of it, but you can’t fake too much. You’ve got to be fairly accurate.
IAN RANKIN: It’s true. Last year, because we were going to do this thing at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I’m not going to say I reread all your books, but I reread a fair number of them. I reread A Time to Kill. I thought it just was… Is prescient the right word? I thought, “This could be happening right now,” because I was looking at America, I was looking at what was happening with the politics in America, with society, with unrest, with police violence against Blacks, etc., with, it seemed like, a resurgent hard right, and I just thought, “Wow, that book just seems as fresh as the day it was written.”
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, it’s about racial conflict. This country, race is so complicated here because of our history. The history is so tortured and complicated. We’ve made so much progress in the last 50 years, and then George Floyd happens last summer and you think, “How in the world could this happen?”
These police shootings have been going on for years, and Black people know that. White people did not until now because there’s a camera in every pocket, and so these are now being recorded. White people are shocked to see so many unarmed Black people being killed by the cops. Black people are saying, “We’ve known this forever. We’ve been trying to tell you. Now listen.” That’s what is fueling Black Lives Matter and Black protests, and I hope that those protests go somewhere and listened to.
But race is always going to be a complicated issue in this country. I didn’t realize that 35 years ago when I started writing A Time to Kill. I knew that there would be a lot of racial conflict in the book, because I was living in Mississippi in 1985. The Ku Klux Klan was still around. They were not that active. They’re still around now. But they were close by, and there was a lot of racial conflict back then that was just not too far under the surface.
I think things have improved a little bit. Things continue to improve. I look at improvement in race relations in this country by looking at my parents and myself and my children, three generations. My parents were the typical white Southerners, Southern Baptist, fundamentalist, staunch segregationists. I went to white schools until I was 15. Our world was always going to be white, no integration, no desegregation. We had our white world, and they had the Black world. That’s the way we grew up. That’s how I was raised. We were all like that in the deep South, or virtually all white kids.
My parents had no tolerance for any minority of any kind. They had no tolerance, and they were a product of their generation. I was raised that way, and my siblings and I were raised in that environment, and because we were able to get out of it and go to college and live a little bit, we changed dramatically. Still struggle with where we came from, because once it’s in your DNA, it’s really hard to get it out, to scrub it clean. Racism is still something that I struggle with.
I look at my kids, who are in their mid-30s. They don’t get any of that. They don’t understand why it was so difficult back then, why we fought integration, why we fought civil rights. Those three generations have progressed tremendously, and I think the next generation will be even more tolerant and more open and more willing to say we’re all in this together. It’s always going to be complicated in this country and-
IAN RANKIN: You know what, though, as a fiction writer, could you invent the attack on the Capitol? I’m not sure I would’ve dared to write that kind of scene.
JOHN GRISHAM: The thing about fiction, and you know this, you can write anything in fiction, but it has to be plausible. If you created someone like Donald Trump, a politician, as a fictional character, nobody would believe it, first of all. It’s not plausible. A man with all of his marriages and bankruptcies and deals and all this, no one like that could ever be elected president, because of all of his problems, his history, his dealings. I’m not sure how bad things are, but they appear to have been really bad. A guy like that could never make it. A reality TV star gets elected president. I’ve been asked for four years, could you create something like this in Washington? I always say, “There’s no way. There’s no way I could…”
None of us could predict what happened at the Capitol on January the 6th. The FBI couldn’t even stop it. The police knew something was coming, but they were caught asleep. They did not prepare for it. That’s the power of the internet these days, that things can organize real fast. I would love to write… I still want to write a big, thick political novel. I’ve been saying that for 25 years. I’m probably getting further away from it because the politics here are so unpleasant. Yeah, I don’t know, I’ll probably stay away from politics and stick to the law.
IAN RANKIN: In Scotland, Scotland is a very small country with a very complex political identity, or crisis of identity at the moment, and I just stay out of it. I say, if you want to know what I think about the world, look at my novels. That’s where I do my talking to the world and my making sense of the world. I tend to stay out of the political debates in the real world as much as possible because you can mostly only make enemies. You’re not going to make too many friends.
Also, there’s very little place for nuanced debate, I find these days. It’s very polarized. In many countries, in many cultures, there is no debate. You’re either with us or against us; you’re friend or enemy. Partly, that has stoked up what’s happened here in the UK with Brexit. That was saying those in the rest of the European Union were the enemy, were different, were other, and we had nothing in common with them. We had to mistrust them, and we had to go off and do our own thing.
I just find that whole… It was very polarizing and very binary. I just find it desperately sad that that’s where we are. It’s one more domino in this set of dominoes that are there, and Trump is yet another one of these dominoes, I’m afraid.
JOHN GRISHAM: You’re right. You really have to watch your politics in fiction. You cannot assume that your readers share your political views. My views are probably easy to figure out if you read what I’ve written about the death penalty and about mass incarceration and about wrongful convictions and all those issues that I enjoy writing about, because I care about them. It’s pretty easy to figure out what my politics are. But I do face criticism occasionally from people who don’t share those views but enjoy a good thriller.
Yeah, I’m always kind of walking… I’m always struggling with, how much should I say? How bold should I be in taking a position? What is expected of me or any other bestselling writer? Is anything expected? I’m not sure anything should be expected. Just do what we’re supposed to do. Write. Make movies. Make albums. Whatever you’re supposed to do in popular culture, do it, and keep your views to yourself. That’s probably the safest way to go. That’s kind of what I tend to do. I-
IAN RANKIN: You do get involved in projects that you’re passionate about, such as the Innocence Project. I know that. So you will put your head above the parapet to that extent.
You bring up the death penalty. I was going to ask you about the death… I was going to ask you a little bit about it, but mostly just so I could say that I did once visit death row in Texas. Huntsville, Texas, where the death row inmates were kept before execution. I was making a program many years ago, a TV documentary about evil, about the nature of evil, the concept of evil. What does evil mean, where does it come from, and what do we do about it?
As part of that, I did get access to death row. It was an extraordinary thing because, of course, in the UK, we’ve not executed anybody since the ’50s. The 1950s, I think, was about the last one we did. Ironically, if they put it to public vote, there are times when the public would say yes, we would like the death penalty back, please, but politicians won’t allow that vote to happen.
Yeah, I was going to ask about that, that and gun control, because the other thing we don’t have in the UK is much in the way of gun crime, although it is a problem in some of our cities, specifically London, young people getting access to firearms. But firearms are very hard to come by in the UK generally. I guess my question about the death penalty would be, under Biden, are we going to see it’s going to be harder to execute people?
JOHN GRISHAM: Well, what’s happening in this country in the last 10 years is the death penalty has been dying rapidly, not even slowly, not because of courageous lawmakers, not because of courageous judges, but because of courageous jurors, people on juries. We’ve changed the way we prosecute these cases in certain ways in that nowadays, the individual jurors, these are your average voters off the street who have to show up for jury duty, they get a better picture of the defendant.
Almost all of them are guilty. Some are guilty of crimes that defy description, horrible crimes. But that being said, their backgrounds are revealed to the jury, where they came from. Most of them never had a chance in life, most of them were abused, on and on and on, whatever the full picture is, whereas used to, jurors did not see all that. It allows the jurors, and every case is different, but the jurors are allowed to show some compassion for this individual who never had a chance in life, committed a horrible crime or crimes. Juries now are opting to go with no death, but life without parole. That’s what’s happening now in this country.
At the same time, there’s still a movement… My state here in Virginia last month voted to end the death penalty. That’s slowly happening. I think we’re now down to probably 32 states have it. But of the 32 states, most are not what we call active death states. California is a death state. They have 600 people on death row. They’ve executed two in the last 20 years. They’re not serious about it. New York is the same way. Some states, Texas, is very serious. I’ve been to Huntsville. I’ve been to the death chamber. I’ve been to death row in Huntsville researching a book. I’ve been to death row in six or seven states, and they’re always amazing places to visit.
I think with time, the death penalty will go away. We will still punish severely those who need to be punished, but with a small bit of compassion there to allow them to serve their time without killing them. I tell people all the time, or I make the point all time, if we can all agree that killing is wrong, why do we then allow the state to kill? That’s the one argument that is hard to counter when you support the death penalty.
Yeah, that’s easy to write about. It’s fascinating. Wrongful convictions, the Innocence work is not really a liberal or conservative issue. At the Innocence Project, our mission is to… It’s not a mission. We believe in putting guilty people in prison and keeping innocent people out of prison. It’s that simple. That sounds simple, but it’s not, because we have tens of thousands of innocent people in this country who are in prison, and some are on death row. We litigate in all 50 states to try to get the innocent people out of prison. About half the cases where we are able to get DNA testing to exonerate innocent people, that testing also leads to the real killer or the real rapist, so we’re helping law enforcement do that. Again, these are issues that are just fascinating to me, and I’m sure I’ll write about them time and time again.
IAN RANKIN: Yeah. It’s one of the things that when I go and look at the early Rebus novels, the technology available to the police in the 1980s in the UK was just so basic. Even things like DNA analysis weren’t easy to get, and it was very basic what you did get. Some things had to go off to a laboratory in Germany and could take six months before you got anything back, and it might still not be conclusive. The changes have just been extraordinary. Same with stuff like technology with CCTV and everything else.
I’ve got to be aware of that when I write the books now, that all this stuff is available. As you’ve said, the cell phone. If you’re being kidnapped now, just get on your cell phone and tell the police you’re being kidnapped, end of story. As writers, we’ve got to somehow take that out of the equation, “Oh, I can’t get a signal. Battery died. Oh no.” You see it in films all the time, don’t you?
The reason I decided that I wanted to write about a detective, I’ve gone back to why you were asking me that originally, was a detective allowed me access to different levels of society. I thought a CID detective, a cop, could talk to the politicians and the bureaucrats and the CEOs one minute, and the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the people at the very bottom of the ladder another minute. I could talk about a city from top to bottom. I could talk about a society from top to bottom, a nation from top to bottom, using one character.
I just wondered, part of your reason for writing the books that you do, is it to say something about society? Is it to throw up questions about the way the political world is, the social world is, social justice and injustice? If so, I guess you find a lawyer a pretty good way of doing it.
JOHN GRISHAM: We see so much as lawyers. We’re involved in so many levels of politics. We have on hundred U.S. senators. I bet two-thirds are lawyers. When I was in the state legislature in Mississippi 30-some-odd years ago, more than half, this is a rural state, more than half of us were lawyers. But there are all different types of lawyers, lawyers in the big corporations, the big Wall Street firms in New York that I’ve written about gleefully, had way too much fun skewering those guys with several books, to the small-town legal aid lawyer who’s working for a very low salary trying to help poor people. There’s so many different fascinating levels of the law and lawyers who work there.
You mentioned technology. When I wrote A Time for Mercy, which came out last year, I set the book in 1990 to deliberately stay away from technology. Life was pretty good in 1990. We had just got our first car phones, not cell phones in our pockets, but we had car phones. That was pretty good. We still communicated just fine. My first book, The Firm, was published, well, 30 years, 1991. That was in the modern era. We were able to publish back then, long before the internet.
When I was writing A Time for Mercy, on two occasions I recall, I had Jake, my hero, type an email. It took me a few minutes to realize, “This is 1990. It’s five years before the internet.” And one time, he had a cell phone in his pocket, and I thought, “Nope.” We are so spoiled, are so accustomed to the devices and the technology now, it’s kind of nice to go back a few years, the 1980s, the 1990s, before all this technology. I’m overwhelmed with it.
IAN RANKIN: Yeah. It’s one of the things I liked about taking my guy out of Edinburgh in the last book and taking him way up to the north of Scotland, was that I knew that cell phone signal would be problematic. There would be no local police station. If there was a local police station, it would be unmanned, it’d be locked up, and you’d have to phone to get a cop. And how would you phone them when there’s no phone signal? So I was taking him out of his comfort zone and taking me out of my comfort zone, and just making him work that little bit harder, and possibly harking back to that simpler life.
JOHN GRISHAM: You do such a great job with Edinburgh. Your hometown, I feel like I know it very well. With the whole country, as you said, this one is on the upper coast of… It’s delightful. I’m almost finished with it, your latest Rebus book.
But the two things I love about your books are the plots, the plots are very clever, and the way the cops work, the procedures, the interaction between the cops. That’s a foreign area to me. I don’t know about that. Also, I loved your local color, the way you write about Edinburgh, the way you write about Scotland, the countryside. We’re a long ways away from that. Our ancestors probably came from there, but it’s truly another world for us. To be able to be taken back there time and time again with Rebus is always a treat. And you just said you have a foot of snow on the ground, right?
IAN RANKIN: Yeah, we’ve got a foot of snow on the ground at the moment. It’s still falling, as far as I know. It’s a late winter for us, and it’s a big winter for us. We don’t always get snow in Edinburgh because we’re on the coast, but we’re getting it big at the moment. No excuse to go outside. I’ve just got to sit in here and keep writing.
Yeah, I write about a real city, and that has negatives and positives for me in that I can’t suddenly have things happen or invent places that don’t really exist. I try and do my best to make it the real place. You’ve decided for some of your books, not all of them, that you’ll have this fictional town in a fictional county. I guess there are probably pluses and minuses to doing that as well. Do people say to you, “Oh, that’s obviously there”?
JOHN GRISHAM: Sure. Listen, I’d much rather set all of my books there. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I grew up. My families were from there. It’s the rural South. It’s a small town south in Mississippi, with all the good and bad. I know those people. I know the culture, the religion, the politics, the food, the music, the conflicts, the history. When I go back there… I was going to go back there all the time. But when I wrote A Time to Kill, it came out in 1989, The Firm came out 30 years ago, in 1991, A Time to Kill sold 5,000 hardback copies. We couldn’t give them away. The Firm has sold a whole lot more.
IAN RANKIN: Seven million and counting, young man.
JOHN GRISHAM: I realized it may be smart if I stick to the legal thrillers for a few years, and so I wrote another one, I wrote another one, and before I knew it the movies were coming out, big movies with big casts and big productions. I forgot Ford County for a long time, and I was having far too much fun with the legal thrillers and writing all different types of books about lawyers and politicians. I’m not finished with that by any means.
I finally went back in 2013, went back to Ford County with Jake Brigance, our hero, for another big trial. We kind of were surprised, after being away for 24 years from Ford County with Jake, we were startled at his popularity among readers. It was a combination of A Time to Kill and that movie, and then also Sycamore Row, but also because of the movie and because of Matthew McConaughey, people just had this attraction to Jake. The numbers for Sycamore Row were very impressive. I thought, “Okay, well, I’m not going to go 24 more years before I bring Jake back again.”
I went seven years. He came out last year in A Time for Mercy, and again it was very well-received. The timing was lucky because when Jake came out last October, A Time for Mercy, he reminded people of an earlier time, pre-COVID, back in those days when things seemed a bit simpler. He stood for something they could understand, a young idealist who’s trying to do what’s right and find the truth. Anyway, I’m not going to wait seven more years before I bring Jake back, but I’ve got to find another story.
IAN RANKIN: Well, I think there’s quite a lot of John Grisham in Jake, I think. This thing about writing real places versus fictional places, we’ve got a holiday home, a place I sometimes go and write that is up in the north of Scotland, a little fishing village, and for years they were saying, “Write a book set here. Write a book set here.” So I took Rebus up there for a book. There was a murder. Then they went, “Why did you have a murder happen up here?” You know what kind of books I write. What am I going to have happen? A marriage? A wedding? A comedy?
Listen, we’re running out of time rapidly. Can I ask you one more question? At one time when you were interviewed, you said that your favorite author was John le Carré, and I just wondered what it was about le Carré that… Because I’m a huge fan as well. I just wondered what it is about le Carré that you really liked.
JOHN GRISHAM: I was not turned on by the first wave of books that made him famous back when he was still a spy, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Spy Who… I can’t even think of all the titles now, the Smiley novels.
IAN RANKIN: Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s People.
JOHN GRISHAM: Yeah. A Small Town in Germany. I enjoyed all those books. He published a book in 1980, post-Cold War, called Little Drummer Girl, and that book just did something to me as a reader. But a few years later, as a writer, it made me realize how smart good suspense can be, a great plot with really complicated characters in a complicated factual situation in a troubled part of the world. The book just hit everything perfectly. I’ve read that book probably five times since 1980.
My wife and I, last month, discovered, we should’ve known this earlier, the British TV series from about three years ago, Little Drummer Girl, a six-part series, or maybe it was 10-part series. No, six-part. We watched that and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s an all-British cast. It was very well-done. That was one book that really just lit a fire in me.Then once I was turned on to him, I went back and read everything before and since. I thought The Constant Gardener was a really good book, a pretty good film, The Tailor of Panama, all of these books. He became my hero. We were going to meet in London sometime pretty soon pre-COVID, and have dinner and catch up and all this kind of stuff, and he passed away last month at the age of 89, just too young to go.
IAN RANKIN: Yeah, as I’m in my 60s now, I’m starting to think that as well. 89 is far too young. Listen, we’re going to wrap this up pretty shortly, John. I’ve not got through any of these questions. It’s insane. So we’re going to have to do this again, I’m afraid, so that I can ask you a lot of these questions.
But I do hope that people have enjoyed the session. I do hope people will buy and enjoy our books, continue to, especially from New Dominion Bookshop. I don’t know, I hope the pandemic doesn’t go on much longer, but it seems to have been pretty good for both of us as far as getting some writing done.
JOHN GRISHAM: We’re having to work. We can’t go play. We have to work. Next year, 2022, you’re going to be here in Virginia live and in person, and I’m coming to Edinburgh for your festival too. What time of the year is that?
IAN RANKIN: The Edinburgh Book Festival is in August, when all the festivals happen, so it’s a really buzzing time. There’s arts. There’s opera. There’s classical music. There’s comedy. There’s all kinds of stuff. It’s an exciting time to visit Edinburgh. And there’s no snow. If you come in August, I can promise you it won’t be warm, it will not be warm, but there won’t be any snow.
JOHN GRISHAM: It sounds wonderful. I’ll see you there. I’ll see you in Virginia. I may see you in Lyon, France, at the next book festival there. Good to see you again.
IAN RANKIN: Same here. Merci. Take care, everybody. Thanks, folks. Bye now.