Grisham and McLachlin get forensic on crime writing
The former lawyer turned prolific novelist meets up with a former chief justice and rookie author to talk with Judith Pereira about how to craft a dramatic courtroom scene
By JUDITH PEREIRA
Saturday, October 19, 2019 Print Edition, Page R1
In John Grisham's latest novel, The Reckoning, the master of legal thrillers takes us back to Canton, Miss., the setting of his first book, A Time to Kill, published 30 years ago. Beverley McLachlin knows a thing or two about courtroom drama: She was the first female chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court and last year she released her first thriller, Full Disclosure, followed by a memoir, Truth Be Told, which came out in September. Judith Pereira spoke recently with Grisham and McLachlin about the art of writing courtroom scenes, their work habits and why Law and Order is so maddening.
JP: Let's start with why both of you decided to write thrillers and what excites you about the genre.
BM: I had wanted to write fiction before I went on the bench many years ago, but it wasn't compatible with a judicial career. But as I approached retirement, I thought that before I died, I wanted to try this. I didn't think it would go anywhere, but it did, in fact, get published. And why courtroom drama fiction? Because that's what I knew. I've seen a lot of the drama and pain and conflict lawyers have to work with, so I started to write about it.
JG: Well, I love courtrooms. Uh, not necessarily as a defendant - I do get sued occasionally. They're filled with people, lawyers, juries, businesses and you have the full-blown drama of a big trial. Most of them are old-fashioned courtrooms and they're historic. I don't like modern courtrooms that much. In 1985, I had been practising law for four years and I was in my home courtroom in a small town in Mississippi, observing a trial that was very dramatic. I was just there as a nosy lawyer and I saw something that would eventually change my life, because it inspired the story of A Time to Kill. That's how it all got started - in a courtroom.
BM: It's the same for me. I just love the courtroom, whether as a lawyer or a judge. I love the human drama that plays out within the room.
JG: If I'm reading a legal thriller or procedural about a courtroom drama, I can usually tell pretty quickly if the writer is a lawyer who has spent time in a courtroom. If they're not, there's just not the edge of authenticity that a real lawyer brings to the description, to the tone, the setting, the dialogue, the conflict. Most lawyers are pretty good writers and storytellers because we see so much. Rarely can lawyers put both those together, but when we do, the stories are very authentic.
BM: I, too, have read books where the courtroom scenes just fall flat, sometimes for technical errors, but sometimes just because the voice isn't there. Even though you're writing fiction, you have to be authentic.
JP: Sometimes fiction can feel so real and affect me even more than non-fiction. How do you get your story ideas?
JG: Probably all of them have some kernel of truth - maybe something that happened to me.
But I do a lot of reading of news magazines and newspapers. I'm not necessarily looking for stories, but I like to read about issues involving lawyers, the law, prisons, capital punishment, wrongful conviction. It's not always pleasurable, but it's always compelling. The Reckoning goes back to a story I heard someone tell 30 years ago - I think the story is true, but I'm not sure. For some reason, I kept it for 30 years and then embellished it a whole lot and wrote the novel. Writers are always on the patrol for an idea or a story, a face, a word, a bit of dialogue or a cool setting.
BM: I'm an amateur compared to you, John, but I find myself compelled by the stories popping up in the paper about some justice situation, and maybe you can see some of the characters there and you take off from there.
JP: Do you find the genre has changed since you began writing, John? Are people looking for something different today when they're reading crime or mystery novels?
JG: The genre is pretty sleepy.
Thirty years ago, Scott Turow published Presumed Innocent and that book just electrified the genre, because it's such a beautifully written, smart book and it did so well. There were other people writing before Scott, but I didn't pay any attention to them.
He inspired me to finish my first novel. It didn't work, but when The Firm took off in 1991, I was really motivated to stick with the legal thriller. But the book I'm writing this morning, in my opinion, is the same that I've written over the last 30 years.
BV: I also found Presumed Innocent so compelling. I think it's easier today because people are used to and love courtroom scenes. The usual comment I get about Full Disclosure is that they loved the last third of the book, which was all about the courtroom. It's hard to write it, because you start with Day 1 and Day 2, and trials tend to take a while, and I thought people wouldn't be able to follow it - maybe it'll be too technical. But they loved it. I was told that some Canadian criminal law professors are using the book to illustrate how trials could go and to generate discussion on some of the ethical and other issues that arise. So I think the genre has come into its own because people are interested in the law and in some of the issues. I haven't started my second one yet, but I'm going to be looking at some sort of cutting-edge issue where people have different views and try to build the book around that.
JG: Judge, you're right. It is extremely difficult to write courtroom scenes without boring the reader. If you watch a trial, there are some dramatic moments, but for so much of it, for lack of a better term, it's dead time, where not much is happening, especially in civil cases. It will put you to sleep. But for a courtroom thriller, you gotta keep the pages turning. You also have to keep it plausible. It's extremely difficult to tell the complete story accurately in a courtroom without boring the reader.
BM: I'm glad I'm not the only one.
JP: So how do you deal with that?
How do you make sure the pacing is right?
JG: If I'm worried the scene could drag a bit, I constantly read and reread it, and read the chapter before - it's a constant process of making sure the story is moving.
And my wife reads it. She has a real knack for pacing and plotting. My editor in New York also reads it. I listen to both of them all the time. The one criticism that bothers me is when one of them says a section is dragging.
BM: It was a learning experience for me, because I had a pivotal scene the whole book turns on and I did it in three pages, which I thought was good, because any lawyer would use 30 pages. The editor told me to get it down to one paragraph and I thought, how can I do this? Yet, I did. The other thing I found was that dialogue was really important and keeping it smart and rapid seemed to help me keep the pages turning and keep everything alive.
JG: Dialogue, when you use it properly, can really turn the pages. You can have a little bit of explanation, especially when you're dealing with the law, but you can't do too much. And that's where lawyers get into trouble - they feel compelled to share their vast knowledge of the law with their readers. That's why lawyers can't make it as writers - they talk too much.
JP: John, you were talking earlier about how much you read. What do you read when you're writing?
JG: When I'm writing fiction, I don't read fiction. If I'm reading a great novel, I'll catch myself using sentences that are longer or shorter, or maybe a bigger vocabulary - just things I wouldn't normally do. But I have to read a lot of non-fiction for research. For this book, I'm writing about forprofit prisons in the U.S., overcrowding, mass incarceration, sentencing disparities, wrongful convictions. I have to know what I'm talking about.
BM: I'm always reading, but like John, I don't read a lot of fiction when I'm doing this. What I am doing is delving into all sorts of things that sometimes I wouldn't ordinarily read about.
JP: Do you find it hard to get into a writer's schedule after 40 years as a judge?
BM: I write when I can, but I love to get stretches of time, so I'll do it at my cottage or someplace where usual things don't interfere. I started this just as I was finishing up being a judge. So, I got up at 5:30 in the morning to do it and had to stop at seven and then I went to court. That was hard. Ideally, I love to just start in the morning and go till at least noon and then maybe shut the door in the afternoon, read a bit of poetry and come back refreshed the next morning.
JP: What poetry do you read?
BM: Oh, all sorts. Wordsworth, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and lots of others.
I just find that reading poetry is great because it makes you realize how careful you have to be with words.
JP: What about you, John? Do you have a routine for when you're writing?
JG: Much like the judge - and I think it's true for those of us who had demanding careers before we were able to write full-time - we had to do it early in the morning, and that's how I wrote my first two books. Now, I start at seven and write till about 11 or 12 every day. I start writing a book on January 1st of every year. I give myself six months to finish it - so by July 1 - and that's the writing season for me. Once I write for four straight hours, my brain is pretty well mush. Some days are very productive - a good day for me is 1,000 words. A slow day, if I'm researching, is 502 words. I don't give a lot of advice to aspiring writers, but I have said several times, you gotta find your time of day. It's best if you go to one place and have one routine and one spot. Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent while riding the train into Chicago every day. I have a buddy, Greg Iles, in Natchez, Miss., who starts writing at midnight every night. Whatever it takes. Find your one spot and your one hour.
JP: So, do the two of you watch TV thrillers or crime shows and has that impacted your thinking of the crime and mystery genre?
BM: No. I don't watch it.
JG: I don't watch much television.
I've seen CSI and Law and Order, but the legal stuff is not always plausible and I get really frustrated when I see something that's not right. It shows a lot about our culture that the most popular shows on television are about police and crime and lawyers and courts. We have an insatiable appetite for those types of stories. And thank God for that, because it spills over into fiction, and that's where the market is.
JG: I got a question for the judge.
You haven't started your second book. What are you waiting on?
BM: Well, I've been writing a memoir, but it's done. So I'm going to start very shortly. But I'll take inspiration from you. I'll start reading the papers and clipping things out.
JP: What about you, John? Do you ever get tired of writing or think you're done?
JG: No, I have so many stories I want to write. Even now, after 40 books, I just want to write. There are a lot of ideas I want to explore, so I want to stay healthy enough to be writing books 15 years from now.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RACHEL IDZERDA
Beverley McLachlin, left, and John Grisham both cite Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow as a book that sparked an interest in the crime/legal fiction genre when it was published more than 30 years ago.
LEFT: FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; RIGHT: FLAVIO LO SCALZO/ANSA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS