Case connection: Is Grisham's latest based on local case?
Is it or isn't it? News recently broke that John Grisham's latest book, The Associate, was inspired by the recent Charlottesville 12-step rape case in which a former UVA student apologized to the woman he had sexually assaulted in a UVA fraternity house in 1984.
But now, it seems, the answer may depend on who's asking Grisham.
After the Washington Post published a review on January 26 linking that case to Grisham's latest work, which hit shelves on January 29, the author released a statement to local media denying any connection.
"I did not fictionalize the UVA case nor base any part of my novel on it," he said. On January 27, Grisham appeared on the Today Show, where co-host Matt Lauer asked the Œber-author about real-life rape cases, including the Duke case, but didn't mention the UVA case.
But in an interview that aired on January 28, one day after his Today Show appearance–- and one day before his denial–- Grisham told PBS talk show host Charlie Rose a different story.
When Rose mentioned a few details of the Charlottesville case, and asked if the author was familiar with it, Grisham responded immediately.
"True story," he said, "it played out in newspapers there about two years ago."
After relating the details of the case to Rose, Grisham, who later said he'd kept news clippings about the case in a file, added controversy along with a smile: "I"m not making this up," he said. "I'm stealing it, but I'm not making it up."
There's no doubt Grisham's latest plot differs in most ways from the Charlottesville case. Grisham’s protagonist, a third-year Yale Law School student named Kyle, is blackmailed with a cell phone video that shows him in a room just three years earlier while some of his college friends have sex with a college freshman who may or may not be conscious.
Grisham tells Rose and Lauer that the main inspiration was the "proliferation" of cell phone cameras and videos that have caused legal problems after pictures or video clips of criminal behavior have been posted on the internet. Grisham also tells both interviewers he had long wanted to explore life inside a "megafirm" like the one at which Kyle works on Wall Street.
The striking similarity to the Charlottesville case: one of the book's characters apologizes to the victim as part of a 12-step program.
So why Grisham's about-face on his inspiration? The Washington Post reviewer suggests one possible answer.
"I assume Grisham is denying the obvious at the request of his or his publisher's lawyers," writes Patrick Anderson, who notes that "fiction is often based on fact–- fact that is, of course, changed in various ways to suit the writer's needs."
At presstime, Grisham– who is judging the Hook's fiction contest for the third year– had not responded to the Hook's requests for additional comment on the Charlie Rose interview.
UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says she has not yet read The Associate, but adds that she's more concerned for the real life victim of the 12-step case, 1988 UVA grad Liz Seccuro, than for any potential damage to UVA.
"Institutions survive a lot of things," says Wood. "Does this individual want to see this incident played out in a novel?"
Seccuro–- who has already seen the case dramatized on at least one primetime crime show–- initially responded with enthusiasm to the reported link between Grisham's book and her story.
“I am so flattered that such a beloved and prolific writer as Mr. Grisham would choose my story to fictionalize,” she said. “It brings the issue of campus rape to millions. I am thrilled and humbled.”
Following Grisham's denial, Seccuro declined to comment further.
Seccuro’s own book, a memoir detailing her experience as a sexual assault survivor and the case that catapulted her into the international spotlight, is due out from Bloomsbury in September and is available for pre-sale on Amazon under the title Crash Into Me: A Memoir.
At presstime, William Beebe, the real-life 12-Step apologizer, had not responded to the Hook’s request for comment.
Incidentally, the seeming connection of the Charlottesville case to The Associate–- Grisham's 21st novel–- is not the only controversy the new book has stirred. Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, is not pleased that Grisham chose to set the story there, and claims neither Grisham nor his publisher approached the school prior to the book's publication.
"We think it's unfortunate that he chose to use our name and associate it with a fictional incident of this nature," writes Duquesne spokesperson Rose Rovasio, "especially when Duquesne students are generally known for their leadership and integrity."
Grisham told Charlie Rose he chose Duquesne because he has no connections to the school.
"I've never been there and don't know anybody there," Grisham said, "so I can never be accused about writing about anybody or anything that I knew about."
While other authors often create fictional locations for their novels–- Tom Wolfe, for instance, set his own recent college novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, at what many believe was a thinly veiled Duke University he called Dupont–- Grisham is not the only prominent writer to set a controversial story in a real place.
In fact, back in 2003–- less than two years after 9/11–- best-selling author Tom Clancy imagined a horrific terrorist attack happening in Charlottesville's own Fashion Square Mall in his book The Teeth of the Tiger. That decision brought criticism from some, including from the Mall itself.
"I wish I could say I was flattered, but we're not pleased," said Misty Parsons, Fashion Square's director of marketing at the time. "It's such a crazy plot."
Grisham himself has addressed the matter of fiction crossing over into real life. In 1996, he supported a lawsuit against filmmaker Oliver Stone filed by a cashier paralyzed after an attack by two teenagers who had watched the director's 1994 film Natural Born Killers.
"The last hope of imposing some sense of responsibility on Hollywood will come through another great American tradition, the lawsuit," wrote Grisham in a now defunct glossy mag, the Oxford American.
Will Grisham be facing down his own lawsuit over The Associate?
An article about the Grisham controversy on InsideHigherEd.com suggests it's possible, but as the Pittsburgh Post Gazette points out in its own article about Duquesne's displeasure, novelists are at least partially protected by a disclaimer printed inside every book announcing that the people, places, and things inside are "either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously."
First Amendment expert and Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead says Grisham likely has nothing to fear from potential lawsuits.
"There's no malice here for a defamation suit," says Whitehead, who says he's seen an increase in "political correctness" in recent years that has put pressure on fiction writers to use fictional locations even when use of a real location offers greater authenticity. Whitehead suggests Duquesne should take a lesson from Georgetown, another Catholic university, which allowed filming of the 1973 film The Exorcist to take place on campus despite its controversial subject matter.
"They embraced it," Whitehead says. "It put them on the map."
Duquesne's displeasure with Grisham amounts to "a bizarre overreaction," says Whitehead. "They should be proud he knows they exist."