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A Q&A with John Grisham

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John Grisham, as we now know, is not just a writer of legal thrillers. Among other excursions, he has written a series of young adult novels, a novel about baseball, a nonfiction book about the death penalty, a novel about Christmas, and an excellent collection of Southern short stories. Sometime, mid-career, he became unpredictable, not just a thriller machine. I suppose we don't expect writers of bestsellers to tamper with success, to attempt to find the outer limits of their gift. John Grisham is different. So, it was not extraordinary that his newest novel is closer to Donald Westlake than Scott Turow. What surprised and delighted me was that the story concerns a subject dear to my heart and one that has been my livelihood for the past 29 years, the buying and selling of first editions and rare books.

And after reading Camino Island and finding its antiquarian bookstore setting as comfortable as a warm bath — except for the, you know, illegal parts — I formulated a few questions for the author. He was kind enough to craft some thoughtful answers.

The Memphis Flyer: Much of your fast-paced story is set in the world of antiquarian bookselling, especially in its murky underbelly, where stolen manuscripts and doctored first editions are sold. I'm an antiquarian bookseller, though an honest one, and, as you might imagine, I found those parts fascinating. You obviously did your homework. Your discussions among the thieves and fences were peppered with the argot favored by used book dealers. Tell me a little about how you came to write a story set in this milieu.

John Grisham: I have been collecting modern first editions, along with a few older ones, for over 20 years and find it fascinating. I enjoy hanging out in used bookstores and chatting up dealers, and I've met some hardcore collectors over the years. Three years ago, during a long summer road trip to Florida, Renee and I were inspired by an NPR story, can't really remember who it was about, and started kicking around plots for a mystery involving stolen rare books. I tinkered with it for a year or so, and last fall the story fell together. It was quite enjoyable to write.

Have you read some of the bibliophile mystery writers? I thought I detected a clever nod to John Dunning, and his detective, Cliff Janeway, in your story.

A few. Charlie Lovett is good, and he actually read the manuscript for Camino Island and found some areas that needed more work.

Your depiction of the heist of the Fitzgerald manuscripts, which opens the book, is worthy of Donald Westlake. Where do you get your knowledge of spy craft and the tools of high-stakes larceny?

I faked it all. I didn't want to learn and sound too accurate for the same reason I stayed away from the Firestone Library at Princeton. I don't want to inspire some misguided soul in need of an adventure.

Your protagonist, Mercer Mann, the authoress suffering from writer's block, reads only women writers. I liked her a lot though — maybe your best female protagonist since Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief. Is she based on anyone? And do you think of your bookseller, Bruce Cable, as a charming rogue, a sort of modern-day, bookselling Raffles? Should the reader find him sympathetic?

Mercer is quite sympathetic, especially as she slowly gets in over her head. No, she was not based on anyone.

Bruce is not sympathetic. He was developed as sort of a roguish character. Enough said. Don't want to give away too much.

And, finally, without spoiling the ending, tell me if you might return to Mercer Mann, the reluctant infiltrator?

I doubt it. As you and I have discussed before, I find little attraction in sequels or more adventures by the same characters. I tend to forget about them as soon as I start the next book. Which, by the way, is clicking right along. Just wish I had a title for it. After all these books and 30 years of writing, the hardest part is still finding good titles.

Camino Island will be released June 6th.

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