A Conversation With James -- 2001Q: Do you still practice law, or are you a full-time writer these days?
A: I wrote my first two novels, The Pardon and The Informant, while working at a huge Miami law firm that is a lot like the big firm I describe in A King's Ransom. Then in 1996 HarperCollins Publishers signed me up to a multiple book deal that essentially required me to deliver a manuscript every ten-to-twelve months, so I had to make a choice. I could either continue arguing with people for a living (which is the nature of the beast when you're a trial lawyer), or I could make up stories. I chose the storytelling, though I suppose some people would say that lawyers make up stories too!
Q: Do you treat your writing like a "normal" day at the office, sit down, write from 9 to 5 and then switch off?
A: For me a "normal" workday means walking around the house in my oldest pair of shorts and favorite t shirt, wrestling in the yard with my Golden Retriever, visiting the fridge every half hour, and explaining to my three-year-old son why he can't play Barney on the 'puter because Daddy has to write a book. I'm pretty good about not waking up in the middle of the night to write, but you never know when inspiration is going to strike. For the most part, morning is my most productive writing time.
Q: What's the first book you ever read?
A: Bambi. The story of young deer whose mother gets shot. Turned me off to hunting for good.
Q: What's the best book you ever read?
A: To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is what every honest lawyer aspires to be, and what better way is there to address serious issues like racial prejudice than through the eyes of an eight-year-old narrator who likes to catch snowflakes on the end of her nose?
Q: The worst book?
A: Raging Rita's Wild Sex Weekend. I was thirteen, my best friend stole it from a drugstore, and Idon't remember a thing about it except the cover. That's pretty bad.
Q: Is there a book that changed your life, or at least changed the way you look at life?
A: The Plague, Albert Camus. "Life is meaningless, but worth living, provided you recognize it's meaningless." Camus had me believing that stuff for a while. Then I got married and had kids.
Q: What book has had the most enduring influence on you?
A: It's not technically a book, but I read the Pulitzer Prize winning play A Man for All Seasons in high school, and it's unforgettable. It's the story of Sir Thomas Moore, who was tried for treason and beheaded after he refused on principle to sign an oath approving the marriage of King Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn. It stuck with me throughout my career as a lawyer, especially early-on, when I was young and na´ve and appalled to discover how many witnesses lied under oath. People complain that lawyers are always trying to trip them up with their clever questions, but in my experience witnesses too often had to be tricked into telling the truth. In my most cynical moments as a trial lawyer, I'd go back to Sir Thomas Moore and the sanctity of an oath.
Q: What writer has had the greatest influence on you?
A: My mom. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my father coming home from work on Saturday afternoon from the printing factory and my mother giving us a bath (there were five of us children) before she headed off in her starched white nursing uniform to work the Saturday night late shift at the hospital. Somehow she managed to raise five kids, work, and take courses on the side to get a doctorate degree in education. Her dissertation was later published and became one of the top textbooks in the country for nursing students. A quarter century later it's still going strong in its sixth edition. I hope I can have a run like that.
Q: What person has had the greatest impact on your writing career?
A: A King's Ransom is dedicated to my agent Artie Pine, who passed away last fall. I would never have become a published author if it weren't for Artie. I spent four years writing a novel while practicing law full time, writing nights and weekends. Artie believed in that book, pitched it hard for an entire summer, but not a single publisher would touch it. Not many people could have persuaded me to start all over again with a new idea, page one, chapter one. But Artie had a way of making you believe that rejection was just another step along the road to success. "Jim," he said, "you got the most encouraging rejection letters I've ever seen." Sounds goofy, but what else can you say to an author who's taken his best shot and landed face down on the floor? Artie the optimist, I called him. Seven months later I had a new book written, and in two weeks he sold it to HarperCollins. I'm now writing my seventh and eighth novels for the same publisher.
Q: What's your favorite work of art?
A: The ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Of course it's breathtaking. You almost think that the person who created this can't possibly be a mere mortal, and then you hear that the face of Satan was actually the face of some creep who rubbed Michelangelo the wrong way. Now that's beautiful. Kind of brings it all down to a very human level, doesn't it? When people really bug me I sometimes think about working them into my next book as a drug-addicted, axe-murdering child molester, but I don't really have to guts to carry through with it. Go Mich!
Q: Is there a special place now or in your past that you draw on for inspiration?
A: Loon Lake, Antioch, Illinois. It's the little lake at the end of the dirt road where I grew up. It's where I spent hours playing ice hockey in the winter, swimming in the winter, and doing all those things that parents worry their children might be doing. I mean really - does anyone actually fish inside an ice fishing shed?
Q: What book do you wish you'd written?
A: Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. Everyone thinks it's easy to write a children's book, but it's not. This one has been casting a magic spell over kids for over 50 years.
Q: How do you physically and/or emotionally distance yourself from your writing when you want some down time?
A: I'm married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and we have two amazing kids. 'Nuff said?
Q: The events in your novels - kidnaps, serial killings, espionage and political scandals - are the stuff of headlines in our newspapers. How much research do you have to do to bring readers the insider's perspective?
A: Tons, but I love research. That's the great freedom of a writing career, being able to dive headlong into any subject matter that interests you. Research not only gives the book an authentic voice, but it helps keep me as a writer connected to the real world. By research I really mean getting out in the field and talking to people. For A King's Ransom, I did eighteen months of research, traveling throughout Latin America, to New York, Washington, D.C., and deep into the Colombian exile communities of my own city of Miami to interview kidnap victims, their families, hostage negotiators, and people at various levels of law enforcement. A King's Ransom would have been a very different book if I hadn't had the chance to meet face-to-face with the people who have actually experienced first-hand the Colombian kidnapping nightmare.
Q: Who is your toughest critic? And why?
A: I think most authors are their own toughest critic, and I'm no different. In some ways writing is a very intimate, almost private exchange between the author and the reader. That's a very comforting image in my mind, to think of someone swinging in their favorite hammock quietly enjoying this delicious feast of entertainment I've created for them. But as a lawyer I used to tell clients never to put anything in writing that they didn't want to see blown up as big as a billboard and picked apart in front of a jury. That warning sometimes haunts me as a fiction writer.
Q: How can I get an autographed copy of one of your novels?
A: E mail me at James@jamesgrippando.com.