Please welcome James Grippando, author of the long-running, successful legal thriller series featuring Jack Swyteck!
Interview with James Grippando (January 26, 2009):
Please welcome best selling author James Grippando who has just published the 8th in his legal thriller series featuring defense attorney Jack Swyteck, bringing his total number of fictional novels published to 15, most of which also focus on the exciting field of crime and law. And considering Grippando spent 12 years as a lawyer before he turned his gift for effectively practicing law into successfully writing about it, it should come as no surprise that this author has consistently and effectively proven the old adage - “Write what you know.”
NMR: Congratulations on your gripping new novel featuring Jack Swyteck! Fans of the series love the ongoing characters you’ve created, so tell us, is it as satisfying for you to keep their story going as it is for us to read it?
JG: I’m having a blast. The characters in the Swyteck series are like my second family (dysfunctional, I admit, but still family). I know Jack Swyteck—my serial protagonist—better than I know myself. Think of how attached readers get to serial characters just by reading one book a year over a few hours. The writer spends every day of his life with that character. People will often tell me how much they enjoyed this or that plot twist in Born to Run or another one of my novels, and many times I don’t even remember having written it. But the things that define a character—Jack’s relationship with his father, Jack’s trouble with women, the strange things that tequila does to Jack’s head when he drinks it “without training wheels” (salt and lemon)—are the things that stay with me.
NMR: Tell us a bit about Jack Swyteck, a man who in this latest outing is hitting the big 40 and who, while seeming to know so much about the law, seems to need a bit of work when it comes to affairs of the heart.
JG: A lot of people think that because five of my novels are about Jack Swyteck, Jack must be me. That’s not at all the case. Jack’s father is Florida’s governor, and my dad was an equally great man but a blue-collar worker on Chicago’s Clark Street. Jack’s love life could fill an entire chapter in Cupid’s Rules of Love and War (Idiot’s Edition), and I’m married almost 13 years to the love of my life. Jack’s best friend was once on death row, and my friends—well, maybe some of them do belong in jail. But cloning myself or my friends is not what makes a character work for me or my readers. It’s about complexity. My bad guys are never all bad, and my good guys are never all good. They have a past that makes you understand their contradictions, their flaws, and their motivations. They surprise you, too. And if they have dark secrets they’re trying to hide, even better. I keep all of those things in mind as Jack Swyteck grows with each novel—and, as you point out, now he’s growing into his forties!
NMR: Big time politics plays the central role in Born to Run. Did it take a bit of reconnoitering to approach your story from this direction?
JG: I was a political science major in college, and I’ve followed politics closely all my life. Plus, I was writing Born to Run while the 2008 presidential election was in full swing. There was never a shortage of material, and it seemed that at least one or two gems emerged on a daily basis—everything from Elliot Spitzer and his high-priced call girl to the governor of Illinois selling a Senate seat.
NMR: One of fans’ favorites in this ongoing series has got to be Theo Knight, a man Swyteck managed to get off death-row a while back. After last year’s Last Call, it’s good to see Theo back to his smart-ass self, so tell us a bit where this guy gets his great sense of humor from and how he managed to stay in the game after having fought against so many odds.
JG: No doubt, I have made things tough for Theo. He was born to a street-walking prostitute in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods. She was murdered when Theo was a boy. He has no idea who is father is. Theo was a teenager on death row when Jack was assigned to his case. DNA testing finally exonerated him. Yet it’s Theo who gets most of the laughs in the Swyteck series. I think Theo survives and laughs at adversity because the only alternative was to go through life bitter for having lost four years on death row. He chose to live life to the fullest to make up for lost time. How can you not have fun writer—and reading—about someone like that?
NMR: The friendship between Theo and Jack, on the surface, might seem an unlikely one, but it’s one of the few constants in Jack’s life. Explain the importance of this friendship to the series.
JG: Jack is not super-cool, super-rich, or super-successful. But he is the kind of guy we all want as a friend—someone we care about enough to celebrate his good days and suffer through his bad ones as if they were our own. Theo makes Jack especially fun to write and read about. Of all the death row inmates Jack represented, only Theo was truly innocent. Theo is Jack’s investigator, bartender, best friend, confidante. Jack is the kind of guy who tries to do the right thing, but often it is Theo’s crude but plainspoken manner that stirs him into action. Like Jack, we all could use a friend like Theo—someone to remind us that “There are two kinds of people in this world, risk takers and s--- takers. Someday, you gotta decide which you’re gonna be when you grow up.”
NMR: Now and again you take some time off from the series and write a stand-alone novel; how different is this for you, not only in your mind-set but in your enjoyment of the actual writing process, to create a novel with new characters?
JG: It’s fun to challenge yourself as a writer. Within the series, I push myself by taking Jack to places that are out of his comfort zone—whether that be Guantanamo Cuba in “Hear No Evil” (2004)l or Washington D.C. in Born to Run. Other times I stretch myself by writing a stand alone novel. I have to say the stand alones are a bigger challenge. I started writing my most recent stand alone, “Lying with Strangers” in 1999, but I wasn’t ready to let go of it until 2006. Part of that had to do with the fact that the lead character was a woman, and I wanted to make sure I had her exactly right. Fortunately, my characters have a way of letting you know when it’s time to go.
NMR: You were a lawyer for several years before becoming an author; do you ever miss being in the courtroom?
JG: I do miss it, but honestly I never feel that far away from it. My courtroom experiences continue to shape my writing. As a trial lawyer, you see the best and worst of people. You see victims of crimes who have the courage to come into a public courtroom, look their attacker in the eye, and work through the emotional pain of telling a jury exactly what happened. Just as courageous, you see third parties with no personal stake in the case come forward—sometimes at the risk of their employment or personal safety—simply to make sure that justice is done. So, in some sense I see the world as filled with unlikely heroes. On the other hand, you deal with the snakes who can’t give an honest answer to a simple question. You deal with some lawyers who think litigation is just a game and that the rules are for losers. That overall perspective that I’ve gained through personal experience is written into every chapter of the Jack Swyteck novels.
NMR: On your website you admit to actually having a low degree of cynicism for the justice system, but I have to ask, in light of recent events regarding the increasingly steady stream of wealthy white-collar criminals being exposed, do you think there might be a difference in the way the law is applied to those who have money and those who don’t?
JG: To me, cynicism is a waste of energy, and people forget that they don’t have to be cynical in order to be a realist. From my own experience, juries really do have a way of cutting through the smoke and getting to the right decision—most of the time. But I also recognize that our system is not perfect and can always be made better. You’ve hit on one of the key problems: Money does make a difference. The battle to level that playing field has a long way to go, and that’s one reason the Jack Swyteck series starts in The Pardon (1994) with a young Jack Swyteck trying to make a difference defending death row inmates.
NMR: Back to the writing itself; so how/when did you know that your life was meant to be spent writing about the law, not practicing it? And was this a difficult decision to implement – did you jump right in, or did you do it slowly?
JG: Becoming a writer was never a goal for me—it was a life-long 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. With his encouragement, I wrote The Pardon over the next seven months, and it sold to HarperCollins in a weekend. It’s now all over the world in over 25 languages. Don’t you love happy endings?
NMR: In the “Acknowledgements” section at the end of Born to Run, you give a great amount of credit to Editor Carolyn Marino, and I especially liked your thoughts on how important it was to trust her opinions and how difficult that initially was; explain to any future authors out there where your high regard comes from and why.
JG: The tribute really says it all, but in a nutshell, there have been plenty of “one-hit wonders” in the publishing business. I could have been one of them when my first editor left HarperCollins after the publication of The Pardon. Instead, a new editor took me under her wing and pushed me to make every book better than the last. We did it fourteen times in as many years.
NMR: And finally, what are you working on now?
JG: “Intent to Kill,” a stand-alone thriller, will be released in April 2009. It’s the story of a rising baseball star who is married to the perfect woman—until a car accident changes everything. The research was really easy for this one. I love baseball and, of course, I’m married to the perfect woman.
NMR: Thanks James, It's been a pleasure talking with you!
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James Grippando is the bestselling author of fifteen novels of suspense from HarperCollins including Born to Run, Last Call, Lying with Strangers, Got the Look, Hear No Evil, and The Pardon. He is also the author of a thriller for younger readers, Leapholes (ABA), and in 2006 contributed a short story to the acclaimed Thriller collection. James is now Counsel to Boies, Schiller & Flexner, LLP, one of the nation’s leading litigation law firms, headed by David Boies. Born and raised outside of Chicago, Grippando lives in Miami with his family where he was a trial lawyer for twelve years.