Whether standing before the bench in a courtroom or penning one of his bestselling thrillers featuring defense attorney Jack Swyteck, James Grippando has a deep fascination with the law. He practiced as a trial lawyer for twelve years before shifting his career in a more literary direction. However, the decision was no bitter split from his former profession. "I actually liked practicing law," he explains on his web site. "I just wished I could do less of it. That may sound like a contradiction, but the problem with being a lawyer is that, if you get caught up in it, eventually you won't know anything about anything except what you happen to be working on at the moment."
At a seeming end to his tenure as a lawyer, Grippando set his sights on becoming a writer, a career shift not as drastic as one might initially think. "A trial lawyer is in many ways a story teller," he said in an essay in Mystery Scene magazine. "Still, I had no idea how to become a novelist... So, I set a couple of ground rules. First, I would do my writing on the sly, nights and weekends, while continuing to bill my obligatory two thousand hours a year. Second -- and this was by far the most important rule -- I was determined to keep it fun."
Both Grippando's expertise in the law and his determination to "keep it fun" were readily apparent in his debut novel, a taut, tough thriller as legally accurate as it was compulsively readable. The Pardon introduced the man that would become Grippando's key character -- Jack Swyteck. In his first outing, the cagey young attorney is framed for murder after defending an admitted killer. This striking debut announced Grippando as a writer to watch and won the praise of People magazine, who called it "A bona fide blockbuster," The Boston Herald, and countless others.
As much as a smash as The Pardon was, several years would pass before James Grippando would revisit Jack Swyteck. During that time he would write stand alone novels, such as The Informant, in which a reporter faces off against a serial killer, the gripping political thriller The Abduction, and the court-based mysteries Under Cover of Darkness and A King's Ransom. While Grippando's novels continued to be hits with both critics and readers, his fans were pleased to see the return of Jack Swyteck eight years after his debut in Beyond Suspicion. This time out, Swyteck must defend his ex-girlfriend as she is being sued by an insurance agency after a fatal medical diagnosis turns out to be wrong. Clearly stirred by his fans' reaction to Swyteck's comeback, Grippando spent the next few years focusing on his biggest star. Last to Die finds the attorney defending a contract killer. In Hear No Evil, Swyteck must defend a woman accused of murdering her husband, an officer in the U.S. Navy. Swyteck finds himself in one of his most complex and difficult situations when his new girlfriend is kidnapped -- and he discovers that she is already married -- in Got the Look.
On the heels of Grippando's neat young adult novel about a middle school kid and an enchanted legal library titled Leapholes, Jack Swyteck is back in When Darkness Falls. After Swyteck successfully defends a homeless man who calls himself Falcon, he finds himself on Falcon's trail after he kidnaps Swyteck's best friend Theo. Publisher's Weekly celebrated the novel's "engaging characters" and Kirkus Reviews suggests its "Funky-chic South Florida mise-en-scene and macho-jokey dialogue" make it a prime candidate for the big screen. Whether or not movies are in Grippando's future, he certainly has plenty in store for fans over the coming year. With Lying With Strangers, his first non-series novel for adults in six years scheduled for publication in spring 2007, James Grippando is still keeping it fun.
Good to Know
Back to Top
When he was a lawyer, one of Grippando's most prominent cases found him defending a group of chicken farmers against, according to his essay in Mystery Scene magazine, "the largest privately-held corporation in the world." The Wall Street Journal deemed the case "the catalyst for change in the $15 billion a year poultry industry."
Before becoming a writer, Grippando was on the fast track to becoming a partner at Steel Hector & Davis, the Miami law firm at which former Attorney General Janet Reno began her career.
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Grippando:
"In this world of revolving doors, I'm what you might call a professional anomaly. I've had the same publisher (HarperCollins) and agent (Richard Pine, along with his father Artie until his death) since the start of my career. I've also had the same editor (Carolyn Marino) since my second novel. I treasure these relationships. It is because of them that I am able to do what I love for a living."
"My first published novel was actually inspired by a near arrest in a case of total mistaken identity. 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."
"My first editor on everything I write is my wife, Tiffany, who was an English Lit major."
"I can't underestimate the impact Miami -- the city in which I live -- has had on my writing. Miami evokes all the right buzz words -- smart and sexy, young and beautiful -- but it also has a self-destructive quality that triggers the kind of fascination we have with a reckless youth. It is blessed with natural beauty, but it's threatened by developers. It has the gift of cultural diversity, but is plagued by ethnic tension. Its nightlife is unrivaled, but the threat of violence is never far enough away. There's glitz, there's money, there's the see-and-be-seen -- and then there are neighborhoods that seem straight out of the third world. You often hear it said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in south Florida. Where else could the United States Attorney lose his job after losing a big case, getting drunk, and biting a stripper? But it's where I live, it's where I practiced law, and it will always be an inspiration to my writing.
Back to Top
In the winter of 2007, James Grippando took some time to tell us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I read the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Man for All Seasons in high school, and it's unforgettable. It's the story of Sir Thomas More, 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. It stuck with me throughout my career as a lawyer, especially early-on, 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. And now, as a writer, I never forget how important it is to be honest with my readers.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?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.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Dr. Zhivago -- As an adolescent, I was in love with Julie Christie.
Summer of '42 -- As a teenager, I could possibly have dumped Julie Christie for Jennifer O'Neill.
Splendor in the Grass -- There has never been more palpable sexual tension on the screen than that between Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Paul Newman got one of the greatest lines ever written: "Swim? The fall will probably kill ya!"
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest -- Nicholson was of course great, but Louise Fletcher was unforgettable as the unforgivable Nurse Ratched.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never work to complete silence, at least not by choice. My tastes are very diverse, and my selection for any particular moment depends both on my mood and the mood I'm trying to create in my writing. I've even come around on some forms of rap -- some forms. About the only thing I cannot listen to when I work are the aggravating "catchy" tunes that force me to get up and change the station.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I don't believe in "majority rule" in reading groups. I think each person should be king or queen at some point and decide what everyone will read. When an individual has to take ownership of the group's selection, much more thought goes into it. So my group would read whatever the benign dictator of the week or month selected. That said, I wouldn't last long in the group if the selections didn't include suspense. Many reading groups shy away from suspense novels because they are perceived as too commercial or not of sufficient literary quality. Many of today's best writers are writing suspense.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
The key to giving a book as a gift is to read it yourself before you give it. I've received many gifts from people with the best of intentions. They always say "I thought you would like this," but they haven't read it. When I finish a book, I usually go through my list of friends in my head and find someone else who would really enjoy it. I've rarely missed the mark, and friends who have done the same for me have turned me on to some really great books.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
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 explaining to my two-year-old daughter that she can't bang on the keyboard while daddy is 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 coach my son's soccer team.
What are you working on now?
I have a huge year ahead of me. I will be doing a publicity tour in January 2007 for the next Swyteck novel, When Darkness Falls, and I will be on the road again in June for a stand-alone thriller, Lying with Strangers. I will also be busy putting the finishing touches on the January 2008 Swyteck novel, and working hard on the 2009 release. As time permits, I will be visiting schools and libraries across the country to promote my first young adult novel, Leapholes.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
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. 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 20 languages. Don't you love happy endings?
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Frank Turner Hollon. He is a lawyer from Alabama who simply writes beautiful fiction. His second novel, The God File, is a terrific read that I would recommend to anyone who has ever pondered the things in life that seem inexplicable. I've appeared at literary events twice with him, and he's a heck of a nice guy to boot.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
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.
Back to Top