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Not My Job: Legal Thriller Author John Grisham Gets Quizzed On (Men's) Briefs

BILL KURTIS: From the most popular soprano to one of the most beloved authors. John Grisham joined us last year to talk about his latest novel, "The Reckoning."


I asked him about his first novel, "A Time To Kill," which did not, in fact, set the world on fire.


JOHN GRISHAM: No. It came out in 1989. And it was published by a small, unknown publishing company in New York. They printed 5,000 hardback copies, and we couldn't give them away. I bought a thousand copies and couldn't give them away, so it was a total disaster.

SAGAL: Really? How did you ever get the gumption to try again?

GRISHAM: Well, it was a hobby. It was not a job. I told my wife I was going to write one more book. And if the second book didn't work - if it flopped, too, I was going to forget this little, secret hobby and just go, you know, sue people all the time.


SAGAL: Yeah.

GRISHAM: And so the second book turned out to be "The Firm," and that changed everything.

SAGAL: It sure did. Did you, like, sit down and think to yourself, OK, the first one didn't do well, so what do I need to do to write a book that will? Did you actually calculate how you needed to up your game on that?

GRISHAM: A little bit. I mean, I had the idea. And it - the idea became better, and my wife really liked it. And so I said, OK, I'm going to be a little more commercial, a little more, you know, popular. It was a naked grab for money.

SAGAL: Yeah.


MO ROCCA: That's a good title, "Naked Grab For Money."


SAGAL: What's amazing to me is how - I don't know how best to put this, but how relaxed you seem. I've read that you have a schedule, where you start writing a book in - what is it? - the middle of the summer, middle of August.


SAGAL: You finish by Christmas, and then you take the rest of the year off.

ROCCA: Jeez.

GRISHAM: That was the old schedule. The new schedule is I start a book every year on January the 1st and finish July the 1st. That's - the goal is July the 1st. And so I give myself 6 months. And, you know, it's easy to write during the wintertime when things are slow and all that. I mean, I have no real job, you know? This is not a real job.


GRISHAM: I have plenty of time to write. I haven't worked 40 hours a week in, like, 30 years, OK? So it's not a real job.

ROCCA: You've got great titles. So your books have good titles. Are there any titles that you rejected that you look back on and think, I can't believe I ever considered that? Like, what are some of the rejected titles?

GRISHAM: "Gone With The Wind"...


GRISHAM: ..."To Kill A Mockingbird," "In Cold Blood."


GRISHAM: Every year when I start a book, I think, OK, I want a great title. I want something like "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "The Grapes Of Wrath" or "Sophie's Choice" - you know, some great title. And I just can't find them, so I stick with The Something, you know?


SAGAL: I read that you are really big into Little League Baseball. I understand you have six Little League fields on your property.


SAGAL: Seven.



SAGAL: So...


SAGAL: And who plays on these fields?

GRISHAM: We have about 400 kids every year from our neighborhood - from this part of the county. And we have 35 teams, and we have seven fields. And we have tons of baseball, T-ball, softball every year.


GRISHAM: I'm the commissioner because I own the damn place.


GRISHAM: And I make all the rules. I paid for it, and I make all the riches. It's a wonderful place, and we have kids now who play in our ballpark for 10 straight years. And they grow up here, so it's...

SAGAL: That's awesome.

DICKINSON: That's fantastic.

SAGAL: Do you ever throw your weight around as commissioner? Do you ban kids for, like...

GRISHAM: You know, when you have a dictator as a commissioner, people have to behave.


SAGAL: I know.

KURTIS: Hey, John, I understand your wife plays a big role in your writing.

GRISHAM: She plays a big role. She has to approve each story before I start writing it...


GRISHAM: ...Which can lead to some really testy moments around the house...


GRISHAM: ...When I have a brilliant idea for a novel, and she thinks it's just not going to work. I get about 30 seconds to pitch an idea to her for a novel, which is really the way you should write. If you can't pitch the thing in 30 minute - 30 seconds and convince your listener that it's a good story, you're probably in trouble.

SAGAL: We read somewhere that one of the things that your wife did for your writing, at least early on, was to nix the sex scenes.

GRISHAM: Well, she reads a lot of books. And a lot of books - of her books have some sex. I'm not sure how much because I don't read those books. But she's always said that men cannot write sex. And so 10 or so years ago, I wrote a sex scene in one of my legal thrillers. And she reads it chapter by chapter. And so I gave her the chapter to read with the sex scene, and I heard her laughing upstairs.



ROCCA: Oh, man, ouch. Ouch, ouch.

GRISHAM: She said, you can - men cannot write sex scenes. I haven't done that. I tried one time, and she laughed at me.

SAGAL: Well, John Grisham, it is a pleasure to talk to you. We have invited you here today to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: The Comfy Cotton Brief.

GRISHAM: Comfy Cotton Brief.

SAGAL: Yes. You write about legal briefs, so we're going to ask you about men's briefs.




SAGAL: Answer two out of three questions about underwear, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is author John Grisham playing for?

KURTIS: Courtney Bond (ph) of St. Louis, Mo.

SAGAL: Here's the first question, John. In olden times, men's underwear was extremely valuable and prized by the wealthy and powerful. How do we know this? A, King Henry II of England had a royal supplier of unmentionables; B, King Tut was buried with 145 pairs in his tomb; or C, Peter the Great of Russia invaded the Crimea just to capture a particular tailor who made underwear?

GRISHAM: Wow. I mean, are - I'll go with C.

SAGAL: You're going to go with C. Actually - it was actually B. King Tut was buried...


SAGAL: ...With 145 royal loincloths because, you know, if you're going to the underworld, you want to need support.


SAGAL: Next question. According to a 1933 issue of the trade journal Men's Wear (ph), a man's underwear should be what? A, quote, "should be like a Fort Knox for the bits"...


SAGAL: ...B, quote, "should have the grace of Apollo, the romance of Byron, the distinction of Lord Chesterfield and the ease, coolness and comfort of Mahatma Gandhi"...


SAGAL: ...Or C, quote, "should let a man know that whether he stagger, falter or fail, at least he will not wiggle"?


ROCCA: These are great.

GRISHAM: Wow. I mean, I'm supposed to respond to this?

SAGAL: You are, yes.


GRISHAM: So, Peter, I can ask for help?

SAGAL: You can do whatever the hell you want.


GRISHAM: OK, Mo, which one do you want?

ROCCA: I want C.

GRISHAM: OK, go for C. Good. I pick C.

SAGAL: No, it was B.


ROCCA: What? You're kidding.


ROCCA: No, I can't be responsible for this.

SAGAL: I'm afraid you are.

ROCCA: I'm so sorry, John Grisham.


GRISHAM: I still - I thought A.

SAGAL: It's not your fault. It's Mo's fault.

We have one more for you. GQ magazine, an authority on men's fashion, of course, urges you not - not - to wear one kind of underwear. Which is it? A, briefs with pictures of animal faces on the front; B, tighty whities because, quote, "they remind every woman of their dorky little brother"; or C, anything that costs over 20 bucks because by the time anybody else sees it, they've already made up their minds about you.

GRISHAM: I don't like B or C. Let's go with A.

SAGAL: You're right. Yes.


SAGAL: You did it. You did it.


SAGAL: Apparently, it is obvious you should not wear the underwear with the big tiger face right there in the front, but GQ apparently felt they needed to let their readers know, do not do that. All right. How did...


SAGAL: ...John Grisham do on our quiz?

KURTIS: The defendant has been found guilty...


KURTIS: ...With one right out of three. John, you're still a winner.

GRISHAM: Hey, Courtney in St. Louis, I'm really sorry about this. Look; I'm going to send you an autographed copy of my next book...

DICKINSON: (Gasping).

GRISHAM: ...Which is not that big of a prize, but it sure beats what these guys are giving out, OK?


SAGAL: Counselor, you win that argument. I also happen to know that John Grisham's new novel, "The Reckoning," is fantastic. It's available in stores on October 23. John Grisham, thank you so much for all the books...


GRISHAM: Thank you, Peter.

ROCCA: Thanks, John.

SAGAL: ...And for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

GRISHAM: My pleasure - lot of fun. Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.