John Grisham spoke unequivocally about criminal justice and America’s racial divide during the first full day of the Santa Fe Literary Festival, saying that “white people love the death penalty.”
“There are tens of thousands of innocent people in prison and you don’t believe it because you’re white,” the prolific author and lawyer said to the audience while in conversation with friend and bestselling writer Hampton Sides.
“Black people know the truth,” he added, to applause. “It’s pretty easy to send an innocent person to prison. It’s almost impossible to get them out.”
Grisham described visiting death row for book research, where he found there was a room set aside for condemned inmates to sit with a chaplain during the hour before their execution.
“I’m sitting with this chaplain, it’s quiet, spooky, there’s no execution looming,” Grisham said, “…and he said, ‘Can I ask you a question? Are you a Christian?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Do you think Jesus would approve of what we do here?’ And I couldn’t say yes.”
Grisham added that he hadn’t been vehemently against the death penalty before that moment. The chaplain “said, ‘We all agree that killing’s wrong, so why should the state be able to kill?’ That moment I switched [my opinion] and never looked back.”
The author met families of victims who had been killed by inmates on death row. “I don’t know how they do it, but they find a way to forgive,” he said. “And when they do that, they can start to put it behind them. And the ones who are bitter or vengeful or want blood, they never do.”
Grisham also spoke about his involvement with the criminal justice nonprofit for the wrongfully accused, The Innocence Project, adding that 275 people had been exonerated because of the charity’s work.
Asked whether he had begun writing his next book, Grisham described growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War and said that “there’s one book I want to write about Vietnam”. During his childhood, he had “conflicts with [his] father” about the war, and “as I grew older, I met people who went, and met families whose sons didn’t come home, and I just wonder: How could this happen to this country?”
The multi-genre writer said that although he isn’t yet working on a Vietnam-oriented manuscript, he is “thinking about that”.
On the first full day of the festival, Grisham joined speakers including Margaret Atwood, Don Winslow, Phil Klay, Emily St. John Mandel, and Bryant Terry. Grisham’s latest novel, Sparring Partners, is published in June 2022.
The inaugural festival opened on Friday night with a sold-out speech by two-time Pultizer Prize winner Colson Whitehead.
Speakers on Sunday include George RR Martin, fantasy novelist, screenwriter and author of The Song of Ice and Fire, which was adapted into the HBO series Game of Thrones; Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright; author and criminal justice activist Valeria Luiselli; chef, cookbook author and owner of London’s Darjeeling Express restaurant, Asma Khan; and investigative journalist and author of Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer.
The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, is providing coverage across each day of the festival with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.