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

Sycamore Row takes you back to the same world, Ford County, where black college football star turned sheriff Ozzie Walls keeps order, Judge Reuben Atlee suffers no fools and dispenses justice in chambers, Lucien Wilbanks drinks his way to wisdom, and Harry Rex Vonner belches out crass legal strategy with a mouthful of chips. And then there’s Jake Brigance, the hero, fighting for his African-American client with just the right amount of calculated ambition, inborn nobility, and country smarts.

The sequel, which is set three years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial, is so loyal to the original that you almost can’t detect the time gap. You may notice, as a Central Virginia reader, that there’s a nearby town called Palmyra or that the old segregated black secondary school is called Burley. But the social dynamics in town haven’t changed, and the race issue has more in common with the ’60s than with today. There is no black middle class, no Trayvon Martin, no gentrification. It’s small town, white, rural Mississippi.

The secret to A Time To Kill’s enduring qualities is its mix of archetypal themes (it always gets compared to To Kill A Mockingbird) and its familiarity. My grandmother and her nurse Alice, two Southern women from different walks of life, read it together and then would make pilgrimages to the library whenever a new Grisham legal thriller hit the shelves.

“The actual story, the characters, just came natural, because I was living the life that Jake lived,” Grisham said.  “I didn’t have an office as nice as his. I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have what was leftover from an old firm. I had a small storefront office and I could barely pay the rent for that. So Jake had a much nicer office, but the cases were pretty much the same. Small town stuff, a court appointed criminal. The characters were the same.”

Grisham doesn’t enjoy the repetition of name checks he gets in the national media: Harper Lee and even, from ignorant Yankees, Faulkner. Just because he made up a county in Mississippi?

Grisham’s writing heroes are people who write stories like his: John le Carré, Scott Turow, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly. We were tiptoeing around the issue I knew every writer wanted to get at. What about the great ones? Did he read them? Did he measure himself against them?

“Last year I probably read more Mark Twain than anything else. I’ll go on a kick… three or four years ago I got all of the books of John Steinbeck. I was gonna wipe out all of Steinbeck in a year. I got about five books in and got bored,” he said.

I’d never thought of “wiping out Steinbeck.” I’ve been wiped out by Steinbeck on a few occasions (The Grapes of Wrath in college and East of Eden in my late 20s). And I’ve also shelved some Steinbeck (Travels with Charley). For me, Steinbeck’s stories are best when he’s wrestling with ghosts and demons. Sure he can tell a story, but what makes him special is that he tells legends, casts spells with the spirits of the land and the family, full of darkness and wonder. Faulkner did the same thing, but he did it with much more risk of losing his readers, and perhaps, with much more liquor on his tongue.

Grisham has read plenty of Faulkner. Indeed, he was forced to read it in school. He grew up in Faulknerland and sets his stories there. He tried to go back recently.

“This year, January 1, I was going to read every Faulkner book, not skip a day, read everything in chronological order from beginning to end. I made it until June 4 and I was reading A Light In August, so I’d read the first six and truthfully I wasn’t having any fun,” he said.  “And there was a sub-plot in A Light in August where you’re not sure what happens, which is normally the case with Faulkner, you’re not really sure what’s going on. As a writer who tries to write as clearly as possibly I was frustrated for like five months.”

Most people talk about William Faulkner as an abstract. He’s the greatest Southern author. Oh, what did you like best? As I Lay Dying. Why, ’cause it’s short or ’cause that’s the only one they made you read? Did you like Go Down Moses, or The Reivers, or The Wild Palms?

Grisham has read a lot of Faulkner. He knows the world Faulkner described intimately and he likes the man. But he doesn’t love Faulkner’s writing or feel the need to say so. He talks about Faulkner like a guy who lived across town. He says the fact that the two Mississippians ended up in Charlottesville is just a plain coincidence.

“He loved it here. In Oxford he was the town weirdo. He was a heavy drinker in a dry county, a Baptist county. And he wrote stuff that nobody read down there. He never fit in down there. The town wasn’t proud of him. That was never our experience,” he said.

Grisham talks about his writing like it’s one of many skills, something he’s tried to get very good at in a very specific way. He always uses the term “legal thriller” to describe his books. The tension comes from the unfolding relationship between the evolving court record and the sequence of events that make up the plot.

“There has never been a deliberate effort to change the style of writing. It is very simple. I start with A and go to B and C, and when I get to Z, I better be at the end or I’m in trouble,” he said. “That’s one reason they have had a lot of appeal to Hollywood, you know, it’s one scene after another, it’s cinematic. I’m not trying to do great literary things. I’m not trying to showcase my literary skills and tricks. There aren’t a lot of flashbacks. I can keep a few balls in the air at one time but you can’t overdo it.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get his back up when people write him off. He still has the trial lawyer in him, and maybe some high school baseball player. You get the feeling he would slide hard if he had to and that his celebrity forces him into a politeness that can be constraining. He doesn’t need to be mentioned in the same breath as literary greats, but he wants the respect he’s due as a storyteller.

As Maslin noted, authors normally contrive to write sequels to their early hits later in their careers because they don’t think anything else will sell. Grisham’s decision was different and has something to do with his process. He begins his books on January 1 of each year and has them finished by July. In the fall, he writes one of the book’s in his young adult series. After he’s finished one book, he begins thinking about the next one, musing and waiting for a story to knock him over. He had always thought about a sequel for A Time to Kill but never had a story. You might even say he was itching to go back to it to prove a point.

“Over the years I’ve heard so much crap, there are times you want to scream,” Grisham told me. “I remember one time I was at a fundraiser and this big mouth guy says something about, ‘Aww man, you’ve just written one book. The rest of them are all screenplays.’ And I mean I really had to swallow hard to keep from just going after him. I wanted to offer the crudest thing I could possibly say. The person with me got me away from the guy, but it stuck with me, you know? Is that the way people think? Just because I’ve had some movies made, now I’m making screenplays?”

When the idea of a racially charged probate struggle over the will of a secret millionaire hit him, Grisham had to convince himself (and his wife Renée) that he could write his way back into being a guy who drives a jalopy Saab around rural Mississippi and salivates at the prospect of steady work. He had to believe that a slower-paced book about a nostalgic version of the South would live up to the brand he’s meticulously built up in the years since he wrote A Time to Kill.

I admit, I’ve been guilty of thinking of him as a brand before, assuming there was a team of ghostwriters hammering away from templates produced on fancy storyboards. You get that much success and everyone feels like they can talk about you. Oh, Grisham. Yeah, he’s not really a writer. Well then. What is he?

“The books kept coming and the movies kept coming and 20 years later, it’s very much a profession. It’s what I do. And I’m very professional about it,” he said. “From delivering on time to the contracts I sign to the foreign publishers I engage. I don’t write here at this office but I’m here everyday for at least two hours and it’s all business.”

North and South

During my interview with Grisham, I could see his mind clicking away impatiently as I searched my way into questions. It’s not an unfriendly kind of clicking. He’s warm and, in general, familiar, but his energy is restless and you can tell he doesn’t love interviews. His manner of speaking is appropriate for small talk on the courthouse steps, never straying too close to profanity or impolite directness, but there’s something practiced about what he’s telling you, like a head ball coach in a press conference. And you always feel a kind of impatience. I’ve answered that one before. Next.

I asked him why he wanted to become a writer in the first place, where the initial spark came that got him out of bed in the morning to work on A Time to Kill. He told me he has “a very active imagination” and that stories sometimes take hold of him. And then he told me this:

“In 1984 Tom Clancy came out with The Hunt for Red October. He was a small town insurance agent in Maryland not making any money but he had this gift for writing about military equipment and technique and strategy and all that. And that was a great book and his story at the time was very inspirational. In ’87, as I was finishing A Time to Kill, Scott Turow published Presumed Innocent and that book just really electrified the genre of the legal thriller, the courtroom thriller, and it became an instant classic. And somewhere in there I got fired up about trying to get it published.”

Grisham came out of obscurity at the tail end of a series of thrilling popular fiction authors who revolutionized genre bestsellers at the height of the pre-digital publishing industry. His books, perhaps more than any of the others, were tailor-made for film, so in a period of a few years he went from being a struggling lawyer to a very wealthy author. And while there was a certain amount of chance in that ride, there was also a certain amount of a guy who understood how to take advantage of an opportunity.

“When the first wave hit in ’91, ’92, ’93, and ’94 the first three movies came out and it was just this rush,” he said.  “At the time it was almost overwhelming, but Renée and I said, ‘Everything’s temporary. In popular culture everything comes and goes. Nobody stays on top forever. This could well be you know a temporary rush we’re getting here. Let’s be smart. Let’s get the right investment people and the right attorneys. Let’s get our team in place.’ And we did.”

Many of his answers come back to his wife and his family. When success freed them up from the legal profession, the Grishams moved to Oxford, where they’d gone to school, and where they thought they’d stay forever, but fame changed it. They needed to escape to somewhere they weren’t recognizable and that search brought them to a house south of Charlottesville in 1994.

“We didn’t know anyone here. That was part of the appeal. We just wanted a place to hide. The first year was very successful and by then we’d fallen in love with the area, so it became two and then three and then it was 10 and now it’s 19. It quickly became home for a lot of really good reasons,” he said.

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