John Grisham looks back on his 20-year journey from small town lawyer to literary titan

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Sebastian Arcelus, who played Jake Brigance in Rupert Holmes’ 2013 adaptation of A Time to Kill on Broadway, greets John Grisham during the play’s opening night curtain call. The production closed November 17, just four weeks after it opened, and met with mixed reviews. Photo: Patrick McMullan. Sebastian Arcelus, who played Jake Brigance in Rupert Holmes’ 2013 adaptation of A Time to Kill on Broadway, greets John Grisham during the play’s opening night curtain call. The production closed November 17, just four weeks after it opened, and met with mixed reviews. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

John Grisham is serious about time. He doesn’t like long books, or long interviews, or long meetings. His life is tightly scheduled. He still wakes up early in the morning to write for three or four hours, the maximum he says he can perform the task efficiently. Then, normally, he heads to his office off the Downtown Mall, where he spends a couple of hours working on the business side of his business. I recently got an hour with him there.

The office feels like something out of The Devil’s Advocate, a perfectly decorated empty boardroom with a giant conference table. It’s a monument to success or it’s the law office he would have run had things gone that way. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. On his daily docket, our appointment would be followed by a conference call and then a fundraiser lunch for Terry McAuliffe. Bill Clinton would be there. Grisham is a major Democratic donor.

“You get tired of all the phone calls. Everybody asking for money,” he said. “There are no limits in Virginia so they ask for big checks. There should be limits.”

After McAuliffe was elected governor, Grisham was named to his inauguration committee. Such is his influence. Like a lot of people in the past month, I wanted to talk to the South’s bestselling author about how far he had come in the 20 years since he went from being a struggling courthouse lawyer in a small Mississippi town to one of the greatest literary businessmen in history.

“You’re one of the top sellers of all time aren’t you,” I asked, right at the beginning of our conversation. In part, I was ignorant of the answer and in part I was confused by how the industry measures that kind of thing.

“Behind who? Agatha Christie and who?” Grisham said, bemused.

“I don’t know. J.K. Rowling?” I said. “I don’t know what the stats are.”

Grisham speaks with a folksy Mississippi accent that makes him sound less intense than he is. His eyes are cool, and wander, then drill into you. I’ve had the same feeling sitting across from self-made millionaires before, but never with an author.

“The stats will drive you crazy,” he said. “Because I’ve been asked several times if I’m in the top five best selling authors in the world, and I always say, ‘I have no idea.’ You can look at the numbers any way you want to look at them. I think Agatha Christie is over 2 billion books and that’s one way of looking at it and she’s probably tops. If you look at when they publish a book who actually sells the most of each book it’s gotta be Harry Potter… or Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code sold 12 million hardback copies. Anyway, that wasn’t your question…”

If a writer who has sold over 300 million books can have a bugaboo, Grisham’s may have been resurrected by his recent literary return to Clanton, Mississippi, the site of his first book, A Time to Kill, which tells the story of Carl Lee Hailey, a black father who kills two white men for brutally raping his 10-year-old daughter.

“I’ve had people…well-meaning people… say why don’t you go back and write like you did with A Time to Kill. And I always say to myself—I don’t engage people like that or argue with them—I didn’t change anything. The Firm was a deliberate effort to be more commercial and more popular because A Time to Kill did not sell,” he told me.

Grisham’s latest book, Sycamore Row, hit stores in late October, climbing very quickly to the top of the bestseller list and garnering almost universally positive reviews. A bit of a media frenzy followed the release, in part because the book is the sequel to A Time to Kill, which recently enjoyed a very short run on Broadway as a play before closing November 17. Taken together, the new book and the play offered the chance for people to look at how far John Grisham has come.

The New York Times’ Charlie Rubin called Sycamore Row one of Grisham’s finest, “a grand, refreshing book,” and their book reviewer, Janet Maslin, also sounded her indirect approval: “Mr. Grisham does not seem to have revisited his most popular character for the usual writerly reason: desperation.” Nearly every reviewer has rated the book a worthy sequel to A Time to Kill and some have gone as far as to say it’s his best book.

There’s a certain amount of personal history, now industry lore, in what Grisham says. He finished A Time to Kill in 1987, got a $15,000 advance, and it was published by a small press in 1988 with a 5,000-book run. It was not until The Firm was picked up by Doubleday and Paramount Pictures in 1991 that his meteoric rise began. A Time to Kill was re-published after The Firm and The Pelican Brief had become blockbusters.

Grisham has a lot of fans, and a certain section of them remains devoted to A Time to Kill. I asked him why.

 The writing business

“It’s more detailed, it’s richer, it has more layers to it,” Grisham said.

A Time to Kill took him three years to write. Three years of waking up at 5am and having the first word on the page by 5:30am, writing for three hours until the work day started and then enduring court, nearly asleep on his feet. His first draft was 900 pages, a third of which was eventually cut. There were many times when he wanted to give up and he’s never forgotten losing all that work.

“Well a third of it is a year. And I said, ‘I’m never doing that again. I’m not gonna write stuff that gets cut out,’” he said.

But there’s a certain amount of exasperation in his voice when he’s asked to measure the importance of A Time to Kill against his other works.

“I think people also tend to like your early stuff,” he said. “In popular culture if you’re an actor, or if you’re a musician, or a writer or whatever, we tend to like the early stuff. We tend to like the stuff we cut our teeth on.”

Does part of him miss the old life? Is that what Sycamore Row was about?

“Once I started, it brought back so many memories of that life. That life wasn’t bad. We were happy. We were real happy. It’s still pretty vivid, the 10 years I spent practicing law in that small town. And I think over the years it’s been reinforced. It wasn’t hard getting back into Jake. I’ll do it again,” he said.

Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey played Carl Lee Hailey and Jake Brigance in the 1996 film version of A Time to Kill directed by Joel Schumacher. The movie, a huge box office success, boasted a star-studded cast that included Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, and Charles S. Dutton. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey played Carl Lee Hailey and Jake Brigance in the 1996 film version of A Time to Kill directed by Joel Schumacher. The movie, a huge box office success, boasted a star-studded cast that included Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, and Charles S. Dutton. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Before Sycamore Row, A Time to Kill was the only Grisham book I’d ever read. I liked it very much. It felt like a cross between an ’80s movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the town in north Alabama where my father grew up. It also crackles with the meta-fiction of Grisham himself, an ambitious country lawyer trying to pull his young family out of financial struggle while taking on the legacy of racism in the South.

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