A letter to readers from John Grisham about Sycamore Row.
When A Time to Kill was published in 1989 it sold a few copies around Memphis, Jackson, and a couple of other hot spots in Mississippi, but it was unnoticed by the rest of the world. As an eager rookie, I was dreaming of royalties, foreign rights, a movie deal, and perhaps a larger publishing contract. None of these things materialized, not in 1989 anyway. The book was ignored; my tiny publisher printed five thousand copies, and we couldn’t give them away. The Memphis newspaper trashed it and the Jackson paper refused to review it.
But it proved resilient. My second, third, and fourth books followed quickly, along with their movie adaptations, and somewhere in that frenzy A Time to Kill was discovered. One day in the summer of 1994 I caught myself gawking at the New York Times bestseller list—all four books were at the top, with A Time to Kill number one in mass market. By then, it had sold five million copies.
And the book has remained popular. Its own movie version was released in 1996, did well at the box office, and in all likelihood it’s somewhere on cable tonight. Today, after thirty books, A Time to Kill is still the bestselling book I’ve written. And it’s by far the favorite, at least according to those who get close enough to offer an opinion. Countless times I’ve heard, “Hey, I like your books, but the first one is the best.”
More often than not, this is followed up with a quick, “How about a sequel? Another story about Jake and Lucien and Harry Rex?” To which I usually respond, “I’m waiting on a story.”
And so I’ve waited. For over twenty years I’ve thought about Jake Brigance and the characters in his world, and the aftermath of the Hailey trial. I’ve wondered how Jake was doing in Clanton, a deeply divided town, with the Klan hot on his tail, his home destroyed by a firebomb, his friends carrying guns to protect him. How were Jake and Carla coping as they picked up the pieces and started over? Did the Hailey trial make him a star, a lawyer in demand? Or was he still struggling to pay the rent?
I’ve gone back briefly to Ford County in other books, but never one involving Jake. Harry Rex Vonner, one of my favorites, has made a few cameos here and there, but nothing of substance. Lucien Wilbanks has appeared occasionally, but only in passing.
When I finished my second book, The Firm, my plan was to return to Clanton for another story. Then, I would write another legal thriller. Back and forth, back and forth, I would carve out my turf on the literary landscape with two kinds of books—the legal thrillers and the Ford County novels. Surely, somewhere in there I could find my niche and sell some books. The sudden success of The Firm, though, changed things dramatically, and I felt the urgency to pursue the legal thrillers. And, after twenty of them, I still enjoy piecing together the plots and pursuing the issues.
But Jake has never been far from my creative thoughts. Two years ago, a novel began to take shape. Unlike A Time to Kill, a story inspired by real events, this one has no basis in truth. Now that Sycamore Row is finished, I’m not sure where the idea came from, at least not in fact. I suppose the inspiration comes from the characters because, in writing it, I often felt as though I was having dinner with old friends. It was a delight to catch up with them, to hear their voices again, and to remember how they were thirty years ago. I hope they haven’t changed much.
My wife, Renée, wasn’t too keen on a sequel and her reason was simple: When I began writing A Time to Kill in 1984, I was the hungry young lawyer looking for the big case. I was struggling at the office and wondering where the clients were. We were living the life of Jake and Carla in a small town in Mississippi, just getting by and trying to survive. Happy, ambitious, but not sure the law was our ticket to success. That was a long time ago, and Renée worried it would be difficult to recapture the authenticity of that writer’s voice. So much has changed. She was also worried about the possibility of a cool reception to a sequel. “They rarely work, you know?” She said more than once. “Fine,” I said, “we just won’t call it a sequel.”
And so we’re not. Renée read the first chapters of Sycamore Row and was soon on board. The story came together nicely and writing it became a pleasure. As always, it took about six months, not a long time in the writing business, but long enough. The last six weeks are usually tedious and tiring, and the deadline looms and I grow a little tired of my characters. Not so with Sycamore Row. Almost daily, I was tempted to, as we say, “chase a rabbit,” or, in other words, pursue some long- winded and colorful tale involving Harry Rex or Lucien or another character. I could have written a thousand pages, but at some point the story had to end.
So I saved some material for the next time out.
John Grisham Charlottesville, Virginia October 15, 2013
John Grisham takes you back to where it all began. One of the most popular novels of our time, A Time to Kill established John Grisham as the master of the legal thriller. Now we return to Ford County as Jake Brigance finds himself embroiled in a fiercely controversial trial that exposes a tortured history of racial tensionin Sycamore Row.
Questions for Discussion
1. How is the novel shaped by the place in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it were set elsewhere? In a big city? In the North?
2. How is the novel shaped by the era in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it occurred today? How would the existence of cell phones and the Internet change this story?
3. If Seth is of sound mind and not unduly influenced by anyone, why do you think he attempts to right his family’s wrongs in this manner—through a posthumous letter and a holographic will— knowing that it will provoke such intense conflict? Are his actions considerate of Lettie? Are they unfair to his family? Do they put Jake in an unnecessarily difficult position? In the same situation, what would you have done?
4. Do you think the verdict—all five parts of it—was correct? Do you think Judge Atlee’s modification of the verdict was fair?
5. Do you think Judge Atlee was a good judge? In the instances where he allowed legally questionable evidence to be presented, did he make the right choices?
6. On page 92, Lucien and Jake debate the differences between the Carl Lee Hailey trial and the upcoming Hubbard trial. Jake tells Lucien, “That was all about race. This is all about money.” Lucien replies, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” Who do you think is right? Are they both right?
7. How does the theme of forgiveness shape this novel?
8. Public opinion can play a significant role in influencing juries and, therefore, verdicts—but public opinion isn’t necessarily shaped by objective facts. How did gossip, exaggerations, rumors, and out- right lies (both printed and spoken) shape the trial outcome?
9. What role did memory play in the legal proceedings? For Lettie? For Ancil? For the jury?
10. What did you learn about the legal process in reading this novel? Did it change your perception of lawyers or America’s judicial system?
11. Who in this novel exhibits selflessness? Who exhibits selfishness? Are there characters who exhibit both? Who is the hero of this novel?
12. How responsible are we for the actions of our ancestors?
Have you ever wanted to sit down with bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand to chat with her about her writing, Unbroken, Louie, and more? Well, we got a chance to do that here at Random House Reader’s Circle, and we want to share everything with you! For even more of the additional bonus features check out the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken.
RANDOM HOUSE READER’S CIRCLE: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?
LAURA HILLENBRAND: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.
Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.
So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in par- ticular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.
It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.
RHRC: You’ve written about two exceptional, unlikely running sensations of the first half of the twentieth century, weaving deeply moving, inspirational narratives around them. What, to you, is a good subject— what do you look for?
LH: In times of extremity, ordinary individuals must reach into the depths of themselves, and there they find the true content of their character. Some find emptiness, frailty, even dark impulses. But others find wondrous virtues—courage, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, daring, ingenuity, the will to soldier on when will is all they have left. These are the virtues that turn history, and these are the virtues that enable individuals to prevail in the supreme trials of their lives. It is in times of superlative hardship that individuals live their epic adventures, stories that thrill, fascinate, inspire, and illuminate. Theirs are the stories I’m drawn to.
I also think the best subjects offer the opportunity to use a small story to tell a much larger one. One could approach Seabiscuit as simply a rags-to-riches racehorse who lived seventy-five years ago. By itself, it’s a marvelous tale. But in his remarkable life, and in the lives of his automobile magnate owner, his frontiersman trainer, and his former prizefighting jockey, lies the far larger story of America in the Great Depression. I gathered as much detail as I could about the intimate lives of my subjects, but also backed up to show their context, the era of tremendous upheaval in which they were living, and the way in which they embodied the spirit and struggle of that era.
Louie, like Seabiscuit, is just one individual. But his odyssey carried him into the greatest cataclysm in history, giving me the chance to tell a tale vastly broader in scope than that of any single athlete or soldier, one encompassing Hitler’s Olympics, the Pacific war, and the experience of American military airmen, Japanese POW camp guards, prisoners of war, and veterans. You can’t truly understand an individual unless you understand the world he or she inhabits, and in illustrating that individual’s world, you will, hopefully, capture history in the accessible, tactile, authentic way in which the times were actually experienced. In Unbroken as in Seabiscuit, I tried to paint portraits not just of individuals, but of their times.
To continue reading this interview, check out the RHRC materials in the back of your paperback copy of Unbroken!
Five Star Billionaire is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel that offers rare insight into the booming world of Shanghai, a city of elusive identities and ever-changing skylines, of grand ambitions and outsize dreams. Bursting with energy, contradictions, and the promise of possibility, Tash Aw’s remarkable new book is both poignant and comic, exotic and familiar, cutting-edge and classic, suspenseful and yet beautifully unhurried.
Below are discussion questions for you and your book club to join as you dip into this vibrant work of fiction. Happy Reading!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the roles of money, ambition, and status in the novel. Wealth seems to bring respect. But in what ways are money and success a kind of burden for the characters? At the novel’s conclusion, which character comes out the most successful, and why? How do you think the author defines success?
2. The novel takes its title from a fictional self-help book, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, and the chapter titles are mantras such as “Reinvent Yourself,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” and “Perform All Obligations and Duties with Joy.” Why do you think Aw chose to frame the novel in this way? How did this structure affect your reading of the book and your interpretation of the characters?
3. “The first rule of success is, you must look beautiful.” How true does this statement ring by the novel’s conclusion? Does a “beautiful” appearance have a positive or negative effect on the lives of the main characters?
4. “Shanghai is a beautiful place, but it is also a harsh place. Life here is not really life, it is a competition.” Five Star Billionaire takes place in Shanghai, a city that changes as quickly as the characters’ lives. In fact, Shanghai is as much the subject of the novel as the characters are. How does the city itself reflect the lives of its characters?
5. One of the chapter titles in the novel is “Nothing Remains Good or Bad Forever.” Another is “Even Beautiful Things Will Fade.” When describing China today, one woman says, “Every village, every city, everything is changing.” Discuss the role of impermanence in the novel.
6. “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat—a fake.” Everything about Phoebe—from her personal history to the designer clothes she wears—is fake. Why does Phoebe portray herself in this way? Is she, as the statement suggests, symptomatic of our modern society? Do you think the entries quoted within Phoebe’s “Journal of My Secret Self ” contain her true nature?
7. When Pheobe finally takes up with Walter Chao, the Five Star Billionaire of the novel, she loses control and finds herself unable to continue her charade. Why do you think things fall apart so quickly for Phoebe? In what ways do the other characters, in addition to Phoebe, struggle to create new identities? Do you think any of the characters ever succeeds in reinventing himself or herself?
8. “She would become like so many other people in cyberspace, hiding behind an image of something other than themselves.” How do the characters in the novel use the Internet, and what do their online habits reveal about them?
9. The characters in the novel seem to be constantly haunted by their pasts, even though they often try to block their memories and pretend that events never happened, in order to thrive in the present. Do you think we can ever truly put the past behind us? Does the characters’ denial help them in any way?
10. With which character did you identify most, and why?
11. “When will you ever be your own man, with your own life? When will you be free?” Family is important to Justin and Yinghui. How do these familial ties affect their lives. Do they, as Yingui suggests here, restrict these characters’ freedom?
12. Five Star Billionaire ends with Gary returning to the stage to sing. In the final passage, Aw writes, “[Gary] feels, for the first time in a big concert, that he is alone in the auditorium, but it is a loneliness that feels calm, as it did many years ago, when he was still small. Only he can fully appreciate the quality of his voice filling his lungs, filling the vast space above him.” Why do you think Aw decided to end the book the way he did? How does this relate back to the Foreword of the book, in which the Five Star Billionaire tells us, “Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way”?
13. There are many novels that examine the immigrant experience. With its main characters all immigrants from Malaysia, Five Star Billionaire is a fresh examination of the immigrant novel, as the city of hope its characters move to is Shanghai. Discuss Five Star Billionaire as an immigrant novel. By setting the novel in Shanghai, does Aw shed new light on the experience? How does the novel compare to novels about the American immigrant experience?
(An essay as originally published on SouthernLiving.com)
Even after writing eight novels, I am still mystified at the process of writing. Where do the ideas for books really come from? Do writers come up with the ideas on their own? Or are they sent to us from somewhere, or someone, else?
I do know that the idea for Fried Green Tomatoes was literally handed to me in a shoebox. My grandmother’s youngest sister, Bess, ran a little railroad cafe in Irondale, Alabama, a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. I was raised in the city, and when I was a child I used to love to go out and visit the cafe. At the time, the cafe seemed to be one of the happiest places in the world. Not only was Aunt Bess hilariously funny, but the fried green tomatoes were delicious!
When I was eleven, we moved away from Birmingham, and I only saw Aunt Bess a few more times, but I had grown up hearing stories about her that I would never forget—stories of how her humor and generous spirit had helped everyone in the town get through the Great Depression.
After high school and one year of acting school, I headed to New York and got caught up in my own life, as we do. Years later, somewhere along the way, I remember hearing from my mother that Aunt Bess had sold the cafe. Then one day came the sad news that she had passed away.
Over a decade later, on a nostalgic trip back home to Alabama, I decided to drive out and see the old cafe and say hello to the McMichael family, who had bought the little cafe from Aunt Bess. After I visited the cafe, I thought I might drive by the old family home across the railroad tracks, where Bess had lived.
When I knocked on the door, a lady answered. I introduced myself as Bess’s niece. She knew who I was and said, “Oh, Fannie, I’m so glad you stopped by. Before she died, your Aunt Bess left you something and she asked me to make sure it got into your hands. I’ve been keeping it for you for all these years.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.
As it turned out, what Aunt Bess had left me was a shoebox full of memorabilia from her life—old photos, her birth certificate, recipes, a child lock of hair, and programs from the funerals of her cooks who had worked for her for over forty years. At the time, I was struck that a small box of papers was all that was left of a life that had been so full and had meant so much to so many people. I thanked the lady and left, but I was still baffled why Aunt Bess wanted me to have these things. She had so many other nieces and nephews that she was much closer to. Why had she left those things to me? I can’t say for sure, but from that shoebox came the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Cut to 1999. I was living in California, and one day quite out of the blue, I called Mrs. McMichael in Alabama, the new owner of the cafe, to ask her a question. By then, because of the success of the movie, the cafe had become somewhat of a tourist attraction. When we were talking, Mrs. McMichael said, “Oh, by the way, we have quite an interesting group coming in for lunch today. They are the last living members of the WASPs, who are in town for a reunion.”
Intrigued, I asked, “Who are the WASPs?”
It’s a bunch of gals that used to fly military planes during the Second World War.”
I had never heard of the WASPs before, but being a white-knuckle flyer, I was very impressed and decided to buy the gals lunch. They earned it!
I had completely forgotten all about it until a year later when I was sent a book about the WASPs written by Nancy Batson Crews. Nancy had been at the reunion lunch at the cafe that previous year. At this time, I was in the middle of writing a book and didn’t have time to sit down and read it, but I did look at the photographs and was fascinated about the idea of maybe writing about the WASPs one day.
Almost twelve years later, I had finished I Still Dream About You and, as usual, I was wandering around the house, trying to come up with an idea for a new book. I suddenly found myself staring at my bookcase, and I spotted the book about the women service pilots. I opened it and saw a handwritten message to me that was written by Nancy Batson Crews’s co-writer.
Nancy Batson Crews’s final instructions to me when I left her for the last time were to put an autographed copy of The Originals in your hands. She so appreciated the reunion luncheon at the cafe! I will sign both our names on the title page, as she would have done had she lived long enough.
Thank you from the surviving WASPs.
Sarah Byrn Rickman and Nancy Batson Crews
Needless to say, when I read that note, my hair stood up. Why had I not seen this before? Was it a coincidence that I happened to call the cafe on that particular day in 1999? Was it a coincidence that years later, I happened to pick up that particular book? And if Aunt Bess had not left me that shoebox, would the WASPs have been at that cafe for lunch? Would I ever have known about these brave women if they hadn’t been there the day I called? What is fate and what is simply luck?
Of course, I can’t know anything for sure, but sometimes I wonder if some stories just want to be written and they go out looking for someone to write them. I believe this one did, and I hope you think so too.
Send Fannie a note on her Facebook page!