In a phone interview, Grisham, a season ticket-holder for the Virginia men’s and North Carolina women’s basketball teams, was happy to gush about the Cavaliers’ 2019 national championship but reluctant to talk about the previous year, when the team became the first — and only — No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. He was, however, happy to discuss other matters: “Sooley,” why he loves basketball but not my alma mater’s team — and more.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Where did the idea for "Sooley" come from?
A: Last March, when there was no NCAA tournament because of the pandemic, it was like a kick in the gut. I knew I wanted to write a basketball book. I needed to write one to make up for missing the tournament. I wanted to have it out for March Madness this year but it took me longer than I expected. My other sports books have been about 50,000 words. It took me closer to 100,000 to tell this story.
Q: How did you come up with the plot?
A: There were three things involved. I read a magazine story about a team that came over here from South Sudan to play in a summer showcase tournament a few years back. They were from a war-torn country with horrors happening every day, but they became the darlings of the tournament with their skill and charisma. They played with so much joy in spite of where they’d come from.
Second was Mamadi Diakite, a kid from Africa who became a very good player at Virginia after not playing much at all when he first got there. And third was Len Bias. He could have been another Michael Jordan but died so tragically in 1986.
Q: When you write legal thrillers, you have expertise on the subject because you were a trial lawyer. Did you feel you had that sort of expertise on basketball?
A: No. I’m a fan and I see a lot of games, but I’m not an expert. So, I leaned on people like [Virginia coach] Tony Bennett, [former Virginia star] Barry Parkhill and some of the guys who played recently at Virginia. I called people I knew who know basketball.
Q: What was your thinking using North Carolina Central as a key part of the story?
A: Well, it had to be a small school, given that Sooley wasn’t considered much of a prospect at first. But I also liked the idea that Central is the “other” school in Durham. . . . In my family, we don’t like Duke at all.
Q: When you're creating a plot, do you start writing and figure out where you're going as you get deeper into the book? Or do you know your ending right from the start?
A: I never write the first sentence of a book until I know the last sentence. I made the mistake of not doing that with “A Time to Kill,” and I got halfway through and was completely lost. I learned that lesson the hard way. Now, I finish an outline before I start writing, Sometimes, I get halfway through the outline and realize I’m lost and start over. But at least I haven’t written half a book already.
Q: You have been remarkably prolific since "A Time to Kill." How do you turn out books so quickly?
A: I think I’m very disciplined. I’m up and writing by 7 a.m. five mornings a week. I work four or five hours and write at least 1,000 words most days. I have a process. I start a new legal thriller every year on Jan. 1 with the goal of writing about 100,000 words to produce a first draft by July 1. Sometimes, like with “Sooley,” I work on a different schedule but I’m still writing every morning. Then, in the afternoons, I’m free to relax, maybe play golf.
Q: How's your golf?
A: (Laughing) I never played until I was 55, so it’s about what you’d think. I play with guys who are about as bad as I am. We don’t even keep score. But I enjoy it.
Q: Do you ever sit back and wonder at your success?
A: All the time. I started writing because I was looking for a way to make some extra money. I was a small-town lawyer in Mississippi not making a lot of money. But I never thought for a second that “The Firm” would have the success it had or become the huge moneymaking movie that it became. I’ve often said I haven’t worked a real 40-hour workweek in more than 30 years. I love working on the books I write. It’s never felt like a job.
John Feinstein is a Post contributor who also writes for Golf Digest, Golf World and does TV color on college basketball games. His 44th book, “Mixed Doubles,” a kids mystery, is due out this summer.
Q&A with John Grisham about “Sooley”
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