How did you become a writer?
Becoming a writer was never a goal for me -- it was a lifelong dream. In 1988, I was five years into the practice of law and tired of the fact that no one -- including judges -- seemed to be interested in any of the legal stuff I was writing. I also noted that the hottest show on television was L.A. Law, and the hottest book in the country was Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent. There seemed to be this insatiable public appetite for stories about lawyers written by lawyers. So I started writing, nights and weekends, still practicing law full time. Finally, after four years, I had a 250,000-word monster in the box that no publisher wanted. But my agent assured me that I had received -- get this -- the most encouraging rejection letters he had ever seen. Over the next seven months, I wrote the first Jack Swyteck Novel, The Pardon, and it sold to HarperCollins in a weekend. Black Horizon is now eleventh in the Jack Swyteck series and my 21st novel over all. Don't you love happy endings?
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I had a great high school English teacher, James Corrigain. With his gray hair and thick salt-and-pepper beard, he reminded me of Ernest Hemingway. Probably the most important thing he taught me was that, to be a good writer, you have to be a voracious reader. It was Mr. Corrigan who gave me one of the most unforgettable books I've ever read, the Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Man for All Seasons. 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. I still have that book. It became especially meaningful to me in the early years of my legal career, when I was young and naïve 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. It's just one of the many ways I'm so often reminded of my high school English teacher. Here are some other books that have influenced and impressed me as a writer:
To Kill A Mockingbird by 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?
The Plague by 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.
Mutiny on the Bounty -- I think of this book as the original legal thriller. Re-read it. You'll see what I mean.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- One of my favorite professors, who happened to be black, recommended this book to me when I was a student in his class at the University of Florida. The book and our talks about it are equally memorable.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles -- I first read it in high school, and it's a book I still give as a gift to young readers.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck -- How could any list not include Steinbeck?
The Sun also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- I re-read just about everything Hemingway wrote while coping with back pain in my late twenties, and Brett Ashley was one of those characters who could really take my mind off my misery.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane -- As I read it, I couldn't stop thinking "I wish I'd written this," and when it ended, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters.
The Pigman by Paul Zindel -- When I first read this young adult novel, it felt so real to me that I can remember insisting to my friends at school that it was a true story masquerading as fiction.
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe -- At the time I read it, I was a young lawyer with "Masters of the Universe" as clients. Wolfe so nailed the spirit of the eighties.
When and where do you write?
I live in south Florida, so I write in my backyard. My outdoor office has these essentials: a patio table and chair, a big shade umbrella, a laptop computer, a hammock, a hot tub, and a swimming pool. The cell phone is optional. For me a "normal" workday means putting on my oldest pair of shorts and favorite T-shirt, visiting the refrigerator every half hour, and trying to make my golden retriever Max that I can’t play fetch with the tennis ball while I’m trying to write a book. Early in my career, I often woke in the middle of the night to write. I try not to do that so much anymore, but you never know when inspiration is going to strike. For the most part, morning is my most productive writing time, and I try to finish every afternoon in time to do anything that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a computer screen.
What are you working on now?
This is a very busy time for me. Black Horizon was just released in March, and my twenty-second novel, Cane & Abe, will be published by HarperCollins in January 2015. I’ve already written the next one, which is tentatively slated for summer 2015. Both of those novels are outside the Swyteck series. So I’m looking way the road right now, brainstorming about the 2016 release. I’m thinking I might go back to Jack.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, after the failure of my first manuscript that Artie couldn’t sell. I was staring at a blank computer screen for weeks, afraid to start down another four-year road to nowhere. Then one night in October 1992, tired of staring at a blank computer screen, I went for a walk before going to bed. I got about three blocks from my house when, seemingly out of nowhere, a police car pulled up onto the grassy part of the curb in front of me. A cop jumped out and demanded to know where I was going. I told him that I was just out for a walk, that I lived in the neighborhood. He didn't seem to believe me. "There's been a report of a peeping Tom," he said. "I need to check this out." I stood helplessly beside the squad car and listened as the officer called in on his radio for a description of the prowler. "Under six feet tall," I heard the dispatcher say, "early to mid-thirties, brown hair, brown eyes, wearing blue shorts and a white t shirt." I panicked inside. I was completely innocent, but it was exactly me! "And a mustache," the dispatcher finally added. I sighed with relief. I had no mustache. The cop let me go.
But as I walked home, I could only think of how close I'd come to disaster. Even though I was innocent, my arrest would have been a media event, and forever I would have been labeled as "the peeping Tom lawyer." It was almost 2 a.m. by the time I returned home, but I decided that I needed to write about this. I took the feeling of being wrongly accused to the most dramatic extreme I could think of. I wrote about a man hours away from execution for a crime he may not have committed. What I wrote that night became the opening scene of The Pardon.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I would encourage anyone who loves to write to give it a try. But you have to go in with your eyes open and realize that to make a career out of writing it does take some luck. People tell me that I have talent, and I know I work hard. But so do a lot of aspiring writers. The difference between them and me is that I found my first break. My advice to them is to keep looking. So maybe it's luck and perseverance.
The first question you should ask yourself is "why do I write?" For some people the answer is "because I have to." That's fine. For me, the answer is "I love it." At age eleven I wrote a comedy western and put my friends in it so they would sit and listen to me read it to them. In high school and college I was the guy who actually looked for courses that required you to write a paper. As a lawyer I published in more academic journals than most tenured law professors. I keep an "idea file" in my closet, and I'll never live long enough to write all the stories I want to write. It blows my mind that I actually get paid to do this. Truly. But my point is this: until you understand why you write, you'll have a hard time figuring out who you are as a writer.
James Grippando is a New York Times bestselling author. Black Horizon is his twenty-first novel and the eleventh in his acclaimed series featuring Miami attorney Jack Swyteck. Visit his website at www.jamesgrippando.com.