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"Let no freedom be allowed to novelty, because it is not fitting that any addition should be made to antiquity. Let not the clear faith and belief of our forefathers be fouled by any muddy admixture." -- Pope Sixtus III

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Michael and Cathryn Borden Memorial Book of the Day.*

Playing For Pizza
by John Grisham

The Pantagraph: Grisham puts legal thrillers aside in latest book

It’s hard to shock John Grisham, the master of the legal thriller. But even he was blindsided by something he came across on a recent trip to Italy.

It wasn’t a crooked lawyer or an on-the-take judge. It wasn’t even a greedy corporation. What he found was far more shocking: American football in a country crazy for soccer.

Grisham was in the northern Italian city of Bologna, researching his novel, “The Broker,” when he met an American expatriate who played for the Bologna Warriors.

“He starts talking about football. I thought it was soccer. He said, ‘No — pads and helmets.’ And he showed me their field,” Grisham recalls. “I thought, ‘This is too good.’

“How do you end up in Italy playing for a couple thousand bucks a month?” Grisham wondered. “I said, 'There’s a story here.'

”The result is his 20th book, the slim and light “Playing for Pizza,” which focuses on a washed-up NFL quarterback who reinvents himself in Parma, Italy.

Equal part guide book, sports drama and fish-out-of-water tale, the novel is what he calls “a big, wet, sloppy kiss” to a city famous for its ham and opera.

It’s a vacation of sorts for the 52-year-old author known more for his page-turning thrillers such as “A Time to Kill,” “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief,” “The Client,” “The Chamber” and “The Rainmaker.”

“There are times when I deliberately set out to make a statement or tell a truth or fight an injustice,” he says during an interview in his publisher’s office. “And there are times when I just want to write the kind of book that I’d love to read by the pool or in the hammock on a Sunday afternoon — just a fun read that doesn’t tax my brain very much.”

The novel’s hero is Rick Dockery, a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns who botches an AFC Championship game so badly that he must flee the city for his life. Faced with few job prospects, he makes his way to Parma. Grisham’s characters are all fictional, but he based the book on the very real NFL Italy, where a few Americans get small salaries while the part-time Italian players play for free pizza and pride.

The book comes wedged between Grisham’s first stab at nonfiction — an investigation of a prisoner freed from death row in “The Innocent Man” — and his next novel, a return to legal suspense that is due in January. (Last week, an Oklahoma district attorney and a former agent for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation filed a libel suit against Grisham claiming “The Innocent Man” placed them in a false light.)

“It’s a light story that I had a lot of fun writing because after ‘The Innocent Man,’ which was a very heavy, dark thing that I struggled with for a long time, I wanted to write something that was very, very different from that,” Grisham said about his new book.

Grisham isn’t sure who will pick up his latest offering. He has veered off the thriller track before, with his fictionalized childhood memoir “A Painted House” in 2001, “Bleachers” about small town high school football in 2003, and the comedy “Skipping Christmas” in 2001. While all were best sellers, they weren’t as popular as the others.

“There’s a core out there who really want the legal thrillers. And there’s a core out there that will probably, at this point, buy pretty much whatever I write,” he says. “I don’t know where those numbers come down. We’ll know a year from now.”

Stephen Rubin, Grisham’s longtime publisher and the man to whom the latest book is dedicated, says he continues to be impressed by the author’s reluctance to take the easy road and repeat himself.

“We believe his core audience will come to this, but we are also making a strong effort to reach sports fans, who I think would love this novel, as well as the armchair travel audience, who I think would enjoy John’s affectionate writing about Italy,” says Rubin, president and publisher of Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group.

Even though “Playing for Pizza” is a departure, Grisham followed a tried-and-true research style: He jotted down a draft with huge holes in it even before going to Parma.

“I’ll be writing a book about a case or a lawsuit, and I don’t know what the law is. So I fake it,” he says. “Meantime, I’ll have a research assistant go tell me — I’m too lazy to do the research.”

Before settling on Parma as the setting, he interviewed former players, investigated the league, and absorbed guide and food books on Italy. He settled on two potential cities he’d never visited — Parma and Bergamo. “Every town claims to have the greatest food in all of Italy,” he says with a smile. “It’s fun trying to find out the truth.”

Much of the book was done by the time Grisham arrived in Parma on April 1, persuaded to go there by a former Sacred Heart University player who had played for the Parma Panthers. It was a decision Grisham never regretted: “The food, the prosciutto, the Parmesan — all the good stuff. It was easy,” he says.

He watched a Parma game, ate pizza and drank beer with the players, and took in an opera at the Teatro Regio — just as his hero does. Grisham says he never made the conscious decision that the new book had to sound different.

“There was nothing I changed. It’s the same narrative flow,” he says. “I don’t care what I’m writing. ... The pages have got to turn.”

They apparently also turned for him. Grisham was finished by July 1 and what was intended to be a short, quick book had mushroomed into a 300-page manuscript.

“I really worried about having too much football, which my wife said, and too much food and wine, which Steve Rubin said. I’m always going back and cutting stuff out.”

There’s already been interest from Hollywood to turn “Playing for Pizza” into a movie, something that has happened to other Grisham books, attracting such stars as Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise.

Grisham, a former lawyer and Democratic Mississippi legislator who made millions with his pen, says he has no regrets about leaving his old jobs and says he’ll continue writing as long as the work interests him.

“I can’t say I’ve ever been bored, but you start asking yourself, 'Can I write something else? What’s my range? What can I do here?'” he asks. “There are a lot of stories I want to write. There are a lot of things I want to explore still.”

*Huh?

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