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

Turns out the success wasn’t that temporary. Grisham is popular in Charlottesville, not the least because he’s accessible and he remains himself, like when he got into a tete-a-tete over a parking lot with developer and fellow lawyer Allan Cadgene in 2006. He counts Howie Long as a friend and while he operates in the rarified circles of the town’s social set, he’s also been a strong backer of the Little League systems and an involved school parent. Just like Jake Brigance or Atticus Finch, he’s a man on the town, a citizen, which is another reason he settled down in a place like this.

“It’s the South. I probably couldn’t live farther north than here. I’m gonna live in the South for a lot of reasons,” he said. “I love the area. Love the climate. Love university towns. Great school systems public and private. Really nice people, most of whom are from here or close by. At the same time, the people here know that we came here for privacy and they let us have it.”

Will he ever set a book here?

“I’ve used it a little bit. I don’t know if I’d ever set a story here. But a story can pop out of nowhere and become all consuming for a writer. It may happen here. It may happen in Danville or the mountains. I don’t know,” he said.

I’m a small town newspaper editor, and many is the day I’ve dreamt of leaving it all behind with a series of reporter mysteries. I even started one once, but it’s hard to believe in a project like that. The odds are so long. So I had to ask him what would have happened had he not made it as a writer.

“I tell you what I think would have happened. I think I would have become a judge fairly young,” he said. “I had already won two elections. My father was a county supervisor. So I had a pretty good base. I probably would have become a circuit court judge, and now at the age of 58, probably with Obama going in I would have jockeyed for a federal judgeship. It was a desire to get out of a job that I thought was going nowhere.”

It wasn’t the pat answer I expected. It was a clear-eyed answer that he took seriously, as if all this time he’s plotted a parallel course through regular life, in addition to living with fame and fortune. He’s proud of the fact that he can’t remember the last time he worked a 40-hour week. But he’s never relaxed because of the money.

We were on a roll, so I asked Grisham what he’d learned about story-telling over the years. A guy who’s so regimented and who reads the competition voraciously.

“Oh boy, I don’t know what I’ve learned. [sigh] I’ve learned over the years that I don’t like to read thick books so I don’t like to write them,” he said. “Stephen King gives me a hard time because I’ve never written a 1,000-page book. I said, ‘Well, you’ve written them and I don’t want to read them.’ We joke back and forth a lot. I think as I get older I get lazier. I’ve gradually come to believe that fewer words are better.”

And that led to another question: Is Grisham a Southern author? Because A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row are Southern books, but he’s only set a handful of books in the South. He told me he set The Firm in Memphis because he’d never spent time in any other big city when the book was written, but it could have been set anywhere. The Summons moves between UVA and Mississippi. A Painted House is a fictionalized memoir of his childhood in Arkansas. He doesn’t believe that his books would have as broad an appeal if they were all set in the South, and he also likes researching and learning about new places. D.C. is a favorite. Still, he said, when he writes about the South, “it’s effortless, it’s natural.”

I asked him what he thought had changed in the South since A Time to Kill came out. I was half-expecting a political treatise on the rise of the Southern city. Atlanta, Nashville, Asheville, heck even Greenville and Chattanooga have grown tremendously in the past two decades. Or a reflection on his life in politics, from country hand-to-hand combat to the global strategy of national races. But that’s not where he went.

“One reason there are so many writers who come from the South is because there’s been so much misery, so much conflict, so much injustice. Any time you have such a tortured setting, it produces great stories,” he said. “How has the South changed in 25 years?… [he sighs and leans back in his chair] Let’s start with the issue of race. Obviously a lot of things have changed for the better. There’s far more tolerance now, far more acceptance of each other between the two races, but still so much of it is segregated and probably always will be.”

And as he talks, I can hear Jake Brigance talking. A small town lawyer from the Deep South wrestling with the legacy of patriarchy and slavery but unwilling to throw away the good with the bad, hanging on to the sense of righteousness and toughness that made his people strong.

I can also hear John Grisham, the political donor and the philanthropist. Schools really get him going. He talks about Tupelo preserving the only well-integrated public school system in his home state and bemoans the re-segregation of the region.

“In many many areas of the Deep South you have two school systems. You have the white academy where all the white kids go and you have the public school which is 90 percent black and the white kids who can’t afford to go to the academy,” he said. “You’ve got kids who grow up in white schools and live in white neighborhoods go off to predominantly white universities, join all white fraternities and sororities, and grow up with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and grow up hard core to the right and they’re pretty intolerant. That’s not unusual.”

We were beginning to run out of time, so I asked him if he’d enjoyed all the attention the coincidence of the play and the sequel had brought him over the past month or so.

“In writing Sycamore Row at times I felt like I was sitting down with old friends for dinner. Having a drink with Jake and Harry Rex again after a long hiatus. Truthfully, that’s already past. I’m thinking about the next book,” he said. “I guess I don’t reflect that much. In truth, I have a hyperactive imagination and I’m always thinking about the next story. I’m not panicking yet, but January 1 will be here before you know it and I want to have a really good story.”

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