Grisham talks ambulance chasers, eBooks

John Grisham returns with a new legal thriller, "The Litigators."

Story highlights

  • John Grisham is bringing readers back to the courtoom with "The Litigators"
  • Reviewers say it is loaded with legal twists, scheming attorneys and brimming with tension
  • Last month,Grisham was awarded the first Harper Lee prize for Legal Fiction

Whether it's Dr. Conrad Murray's trial or TV's "The Good Wife," on the screen, in books or in real life, everyone loves a good courtroom drama. When it comes to legal thrillers on the page, John Grisham is the undisputed master.

From "The Firm" to "The Confession" he has written more than two dozen books, every one of them an international best-seller. Grisham's novels have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide and been translated into 29 languages.

Now he's bringing readers back to the courtroom with "The Litigators." Reviewers say Grisham is at the top of his game in his latest, calling the book a compelling page-turner, loaded with legal twists and turns, scheming attorneys and brimming with tension.

In the novel, David Zinc, a young but burned-out attorney, is having a really bad day. He walks out on his high paying position at a monolithic Chicago law firm, goes on a serious bender and winds up taking a job at "Finley & Figg." The small Southside office calls itself a "boutique law firm" when in reality, it's a two-bit operation run by a pair of ambulance chasers who have made a career working the seedy side of the legal profession.

One of the firm's partners, Wally Figg, stumbles on what could be a huge case, potentially worth billions, a class action lawsuit against a pharmaceutical giant and their cholesterol reducing drug that may or may not cause heart attacks. Figg smells money, big money, and a chance to cash in, in court.

It's fertile territory for Grisham, who spent years working at a small law firm in rural Mississippi before his days as a best-selling author, and in "The Litigators" he gives readers another unique look inside the legal machine, at the best and worst the American system of justice has to offer. Grisham was recently honored for his storytelling skills. Last month in Washington he was awarded the first Harper Lee prize for Legal Fiction. Named for the author of the classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," the award honors the author who best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.

CNN spoke to Grisham this week about his new novel. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: Tell me a little about "The Litigators." What was the spark behind the book?

Grisham: I think it goes back to what seems to be a deluge of lawyers advertising on television.

The airwaves are just flooded these days with what I find to be unseemly appeals for cases by lawyers, all types of cases, tractor-trailer accidents, medical malpractice, mass tort drugs, asbestos and things like that. You've got these lawyers who come on with these high powered, very expensive ads, who just sign up as many cases as possible and if you have time to read the fine print on the TV screen, most of these cases they bundle them up and sell them to other law firms, so these guys are just peddling their names.

I've been intrigued with that aspect of the practice of law and advertising in general, and one thing led to the other, the idea of a couple of guys on the street who are trying to make a buck and having their own billboards and TV ads and things like that. The story just kind of started growing and I thought it would be clever to get them in a big case, in way over their heads and see what happens to them.

CNN: You worked as a lawyer in a small town for years; you must have known some lawyers like Finley & Figg.

Grisham: Oh yeah, they're everywhere.

They're in the big cities by the thousands, hustling around trying to get cases. They're in small towns where there's not quite as much business and they're still hustling around trying to get injury cases or more lucrative cases, but they're everywhere.

CNN: In your novel, you show the legal system at its best and worst, how it both can help and sometimes hinders the American dream. Does it all even out in the end?

Grisham: I do try to be fair, especially when talking about the legal profession, because I've been criticized so much over the years by lawyers for some of my negative portrayals of the profession. But I don't think I've created a lawyer or a character yet who was not based on someone or a composition of lawyers who I once knew.

They're just like people, like everybody else they come in all varieties.

In the big mass tort drug case that plays out through my novel, in the end the proper verdict was returned by the jury. I still think that in our system, almost always juries do what's right. They make mistakes occasionally, but for the most part they're careful, thoughtful and return the right verdict.

CNN: You recently won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. What was that like?

Grisham: When you write popular fiction, you don't normally win a lot of awards. That's fine, that goes with the territory. But when I was informed of this award and learned that Miss Lee herself had given it her blessing, through her old law school, the University of Alabama where she had studied, it meant a whole lot more and I hope that it will become fairly prestigious over time. But I was deeply honored to win the first one.

CNN: Lee's novel is an American classic. Do you have a favorite book or author on the law?

Grisham: Well, I read a lot of them, I read a lot of the other lawyer writers to kind of keep up with the competition, but also I like those stories. There's nothing as compelling as a good courtroom drama with a mystery angle to it.

"Presumed Innocent," published in 1987, that book by itself re-energized and electrified the genre of legal thrillers. It inspired me to finish my first book, because of its enormous success. It's a very well written book. Scott Turow is a wonderful writer. I tend to read more old stuff than new stuff. I love John LeCarre, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens, "Bleak House" is one of my favorite books about the law.

CNN: Do you follow big trials in the news, like the Conrad Murray case going on now?

Grisham: To an extent, yes. I follow them through newspapers, magazines and television. I don't go watch them. I've been tempted. I've been invited to go watch big trials, but that's where I get my ideas. I watch the headlines and I take ideas for courtroom dramas, law firms, or legal shenanigans or trends in litigation. I'm always watching, with an eye for taking a story and twisting it, expanding it and making it a novel. I'm always on the prowl for a good legal story.

CNN: As an author who has sold millions of books, what do you think about the emergence of eBooks? Have you tried using an eReader?

Grisham: Amazon sent me a Kindle two years ago as a gift. I read a couple of books on it. It was an enjoyable experience. There are so many advantages to doing it, but then I sort of gravitated back to the old hardback. I love to collect books.

My wife and I are big readers and we have thousands of books stacked up all over the house. That's just what we enjoy doing.

The emergence of eBooks is phenomenal. A year ago, my last book, "The Confession" was published. It was the first time we released the digital version of the book the same day as the hardback. After one year, my total sales are 40% digital and 60% hardback and the numbers have gone up. That's obviously good news for me because more people are reading the books.

The question is -- and no one can answer it -- is where are we going to be in five years? Five years ago no one saw this coming. Maybe Jeff Bezos at Amazon did, because that guy can see around corners. I think he's the smartest guy in publishing today, but it's changing all the time and no one really knows where it's going.

It's not all bad, there's a new generation of young people in publishing and they understand the technology, they understand social media and they are very excited about the future. They think there will be more and more outlets to find new readers to market the books. It's changing awfully fast, but I can't worry about it. All I can do is go and write the next book.

CNN: With all of your success, what drives you to keep writing a novel every year?

Grisham: It's what I do. If I didn't write two or three hours each morning, I'm not sure what I would do. I have no other job; I stopped practicing law some 20 years ago. Now my kids have grown, so there's no more Little League Baseball to occupy me, keep me out of trouble.

I go to my office at 7 o' clock every morning and 'til 10 or 11 that's my quiet time. I'm always working on a novel and maybe something else, but after that I'll do whatever I want to do. My wife and I enjoy traveling. I took up golf three years ago, which is a huge mistake when you're 53 years old, a crazy sport.

I write every day when I have a deadline. The pages pile up and before you know it there's another novel that's finished. It's great fun. I'm a very lucky guy; I don't take it for granted.

CNN: What's next for you?

Grisham: Something fun, I just finished my first baseball novel. Doubleday will publish it in April. I played around with it for four or five years, finished it this summer. It should be a lot of fun getting it ready for publication next spring when the baseball season starts.

I'm writing the third in my kids' series, Theodore Boone, right now and it should come out around the first of June, and when I finish that around the first of January it will be time to buckle down and get the next legal thriller going. So, I'm always thinking two or three books in advance.

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