In his new novel Sooley, John Grisham exits the courtroom to write about college basketball
In an interview, Grisham, who played baseball and basketball at Southaven High School in Mississippi, said the idea for the story began three years ago when he read an article about the South Sudanese national team competing in Hawaii at the World Youth Basketball Tournament.
By Sopan Deb
There is a basketball term to describe author John Grisham: volume shooter.
Since releasing his first hit novel, The Firm, in 1991, Grisham has not gone a year without publishing a book. This includes the dozens of easy-to-digest legal thrillers that have brought Grisham, a former lawyer, hundreds of millions of dollars in book sales, as well as film and television deals. There are seven children’s books, a Christmas novel (Skipping Christmas, which was turned into the 2004 film Christmas With the Kranks) and three sports novels.
For his 46th book, Sooley, Grisham is bringing volume shooting to print, with his first basketball novel.
It tracks a 17-year-old named Samuel Sooleymon, who leaves Sudan for the first time to play college basketball in the United States. While he is stateside, a civil war in Sudan rages on, leaving members of his family stranded in a refugee camp. He vows to rescue his family, especially as hopes grow that he will be drafted by an NBA team.
In an interview, Grisham, who played baseball and basketball at Southaven High School in Mississippi, said the idea for the story began three years ago when he read an article about the South Sudanese national team competing in Hawaii at the World Youth Basketball Tournament. He combined their story with that of Mamadi Diakite, who is from Guinea and played four seasons at the University of Virginia. Diakite signed a two-way contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in November. (There is a familiar third source of inspiration, which would require a major spoiler.)
“I’ve been wanting to write a book about college basketball for a long time,” said Grisham, 66. “I love sports. I love sports stories. I especially love college sports, and I especially love sad sports stories.”
Grisham, who was a Democratic state legislator in Mississippi from 1983 to 1990, has begun branching out in recent years from his signature Southern legal thrillers.
In a phone call, he discussed his research process, why the civil war in Sudan was a central story line and hating Duke University. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Did you start writing this in 2020?
A: I was sitting in a bar with a friend having a drink and they flashed on television, “March Madness is canceled!” And I thought that was the end of the world. I never thought they could cancel March Madness. And so I took it pretty hard. I thought, “You know, we’re all depressed about it.” And I said: “I’m going to think real hard. I’ve got some ideas about a novel for college basketball. So I’m going to start and then get it done this year.”
Q: What is it about the Sudanese civil war that interested you enough to include it as a major story line in this book?
A: Just the sheer tragedy of that poor country. That they were fighting the civil war back in the early 1960s, when the south of Sudan hated the north. Religious differences. Ethnic differences. Language differences. And they just always were fighting each other. And the south was always the short end of the stick. And then in 2011, a deal brokered by the United States, primarily Susan Rice, did a great job. We intervened. Europe intervened.
We all sided with the rebels, and then in 2011, there was a sort of peace deal, and they were given the right to vote in the South, and 99 percent of the South Sudanese voted for independence. I remember it vividly. It was a great day. It was the newest nation on earth, and it was going to be democratic, and it was going to be all these wonderful things, and people are going to get along and prosper and blah, blah, blah. And it lasted barely two years and a horrible civil war broke out again. Anyway, it’s just the tragedy of what those people have gone through and are still enduring.
Q: You very vividly describe some of the horrors that the refugees endure. Did you talk to refugees? How were you able to describe that?
A: Well, first of all, I was able to pull together probably a dozen books. There’s some great books written by people who know the country, refugees, people who escaped, people who are still there, children. There’s just some phenomenal memoirs written by the South Sudanese. There’s tons of stuff online. I mean, you can watch YouTube videos all night long of the refugee camps, and it doesn’t take much to get the flavor of what’s going on there. It’s so awful and tragic, and the people are so resilient. But it’s also heartbreaking to see how they live and how dire their circumstances still are. So, no, I didn’t leave the computer. You know, honestly, the internet and Google have made book research so much easier because everything is there.
I’m a huge reader. I love to read about places like that, as sad as they were. So I didn’t have to go chasing around to talk to refugees or refugee groups. I did chase down some basketball guys I know. I played the sport as a white kid in Mississippi in the late 1960s; that was one brand of basketball. It’s nothing like today. I don’t know the game inside now, like players and coaches do today.
Tony Bennett (coach of the Virginia men’s team) is one of my heroes in life, and he knows so much about basketball. I love watching the games. I have no idea what’s really happening. He does. Coaches do. So I talked to coaches. I talked to a couple of former players, just about the ins and outs of college basketball.
Q: I couldn’t help but notice in the story that Sooley’s team at one point upsets Duke. You come from a University of North Carolina family. Was that a purposeful decision?
A: Very purposeful.
Q: I thought as much.
A: We’re Tar Heels, OK? (Grisham’s wife, daughter and son-in-law are UNC alumni) It’s an intense rivalry. You know, each team has a lot of respect for the other, great coaches and all that, but you know, we’re Tar Heel fans, and hey, they had to beat somebody, OK? It was so much fun.
Q: Most of your books take place in environments you grew up in. What was your level of comfort in centering a story on a trauma that, as a wealthy white person, is not something you ever saw firsthand?
A: Well, I think I approach it differently. I hope to bring awareness to their problem, to their plight. I hope that people will, who maybe had not thought about it before, will show some interest in that, and then understand what these people are going through and maybe help in some way, maybe send a check.
I’ve had several of my books, most of them dealing with wrongful convictions, where at the end in my author’s note, I would say: “These organizations are doing God’s work. If you’ve got a spare buck, send them a check.” And the money pours in. So, I mean, I do have that level of influence with some people. So I’m always aware of trying to help people along the way. Yeah, I mean, I’m a wealthy white person, so I’m not going to apologize for that. I’ve got to write something, OK? (Laughter.)
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Halfway through the next legal thriller. I’ll finish it in July, wrote a thousand words this morning. That’s my routine.
Q: Is there another sport you’d like to write about?
A: I have a golf book. I started playing golf at the age of 55, which was 11 years ago, which is insanity. It’s just very difficult to learn the game, as hard as it is, when you take it up at the age of 55, and it’s been a real struggle. It’s also been quite humorous.
Q: Are you an NBA fan?
A: Not at all. I have not followed the NBA in 50 years.
Sopan Deb c.2021 The New York Times Company
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