John Grisham Returns to the Scene of the Crime

From a Wall Street Journal story by Zachary Fine headlined “John Grisham Returns to the Scene of the Crime”:

On a humid morning in mid-July, John Grisham was lounging under a candy-striped awning at Cove Creek Park, a multimillion-dollar youth baseball complex outside Charlottesville, Virginia. He looked comfortable and sweatless in the heat, wearing a crisp white button-down with the sleeves rolled up, slate-colored chinos, understated sneakers and a wristwatch with a slice of an MLB baseball mounted onto its dial. He was surrounded by 40 or so acres of cow pasture that, in the 1990s, he’d transformed into a ballpark with money earned from his greatest talent: imagining stories and selling them.

Every year, like clockwork, Grisham delivers a novel of suspense that ranges over the great drama of the law in America: striving lawyers in packed courtrooms, fickle juries and judges, the pulling of hidden strings in Washington, the wrongfully convicted sitting on death row. At 68 years old, he’s written 48 books and sold over 400 million copies, according to his agent, making him one of the most widely read authors alive today.

In October, Grisham will publish The Exchange, his sequel to the book that rushed him into fame over 30 years ago. In 1990, The Firm landed a now-famous deal that resulted in a $600,000 Paramount film contract before the book even found a publisher. In less than five years, the Mississippi lawyer’s name was attached to movies featuring Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and the words “John Grisham” became almost as emblematic of the 1990s as President Bill Clinton (who is reportedly Grisham’s distant cousin).

What makes Grisham’s plots so distinctive in the pantheon of bestsellers, according to his editor and agent, David Gernert, is that his protagonists are laypeople. “They’re not, generally speaking, cops or detectives or FBI agents,” Gernert says. “They’re the guy next door who, eventually, for one reason or another, finds himself in an extraordinarily difficult situation…and has to navigate his way out of it.”

As we were leaving Cove Creek Park, I asked Grisham if he could conceive of a fictional plot loosely based on our encounter: the critic who drives down from New York City to Charlottesville to interview the famous bestselling writer. What, in his imagination, would happen next?

He paused for a moment and then shot me a sly look: “Give me 24 hours.”

The decision to finally write a sequel to The Firm, like almost every move Grisham makes as a writer, mixes a business choice with a creative one. He was inspired by the success of Sycamore Row and A Time for Mercy, two novels that revived his first protagonist, Jake Brigance. “I’ve wondered, what can you do with Mitch? He’s still alive. He and Abby are still together. How would you bring Mitch back?” Grisham says. “It just took a while to figure out a good story.”

The Firm was a novel about an upwardly mobile attorney (written by an upwardly mobile writer) who wanted to be powerful and wealthy and was almost felled by his greed. The Exchange features the same lawyer, Mitch McDeere, who is now wealthy, secure and at his professional apex. He’s a jet-setting international lawyer who lives in New York City. Fried okra and takeout chow mein are traded in for truffle pizza and saffron risotto, and mysterious murders in Southern towns are replaced with gruesome terrorist executions in Libya.

Although the Grisham moment in Hollywood started to wane in the 2000s—as studios moved toward exorbitant blockbuster fantasy and action films—there are signs of a renaissance. Grisham’s baseball novel Calico Joe is being adapted for a film by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and co-produced by Bob Dylan’s Grey Water Park Productions. (According to Gernert, Dylan read the novel when it first came out and loved it.) A few of Grisham’s older books—The Partner, The Racketeer and The Confession—are also being adapted for the screen, Gernert says.

Grisham’s core team is composed of only three people: his wife, Renée, who reads every book he writes and works out ideas with him on the fly (the story for his novel Camino Island, for instance, was sketched out in the car during a road trip); Suzanne Herz, Grisham’s publisher and an executive vice president at Doubleday, which has published his books for the past 32 years; and Gernert, who left a job as editor in chief of Doubleday in the mid-1990s to become Grisham’s editor and agent.

The more famous he’s become, the smaller his inner circle and the greater his privacy. “I enjoy people sort of on my own terms, you know, people I trust,” he says. Unlike many of his peers on the bestseller list, he does not have a platoon of co-authors or collaborators. He doesn’t even have a personal assistant or a secretary.

But Grisham consults with Herz, Gernert and Renée routinely while he’s sifting through ideas and writing. “At any stage of the process over a six or seven month period,” he says, “anybody can say anything. We talk about it, we hash it out. Sometimes we vote.”

The year that everything changed for Grisham was 1984. He had recently been elected to a House seat in the Mississippi Legislature at the age of 28, and he was still working as a lawyer, commuting between his law practice and the State Capitol in Jackson. One day, while hanging around the DeSoto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi, he happened to witness the testimony of a girl about the brutal rape and beating she and her sister had endured. Grisham started wondering what would happen if the girls’ father were to murder his daughters’ assailant. How would the public respond to a crime of moral passion? He realized it was the seed of a possible story.

After three years, he finished a draft of his first novel, A Time to Kill. In 1989 a small, now-defunct imprint of an independent Christian publishing company, called Wynwood Press, paid Grisham a $15,000 advance for a run of 5,000 copies. Wynwood had no money for publicity, Grisham says, so he bought 1,000 copies of his own book and commenced a self-funded book tour through the South in a blue Volvo purchased with the proceeds from the biggest check of his career: a personal-injury lawsuit involving a water heater that exploded, severely burning a child.

Richard Howorth, the co-owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi—and also a two-term mayor of the town—remembers it well. Grisham visited the bookstore and told Howorth, before he’d even seen a draft: “I need you to sell 500 copies.”

Howorth chuckles to himself recalling this. “I do remember thinking, Well, now, this man is quite sure of himself,” he says. “On the other hand, I saw a kind of determination that I respected and, you know, put me on my toes.”

Years later, when Grisham returned to the same bookstores that first stocked A Time to Kill from the trunk of his car, people were now waiting in the thousands for his signature, even sleeping outside the night before.

Corey Mesler, the co-owner of Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, recalls one year when a signing ran from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Grisham had to periodically soak his hand and forearm in a bucket of ice to reduce the swelling. At one point, a chiropractor went to work on Grisham’s back in the stockroom. (The chiropractor was there to get a book signed.) “Honestly, in many ways, he saved us,” Mesler says. “[When] the big-box bookstores were flourishing and independents were dropping dead everywhere—we had John.”

Growing up on a farm outside Black Oak, Arkansas, Grisham never wanted to be a writer. Instead, he dreamed of playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. He remembers long days working in the cotton fields, his fingers stippled with blood, his neck burned and sore, and recalls when his family fled in the middle of the night after the business soured and debts piled up.

There’s a memorable scene in Grisham’s most autobiographical novel, A Painted House—which tracks closely with his own upbringing in a conservative Southern Baptist family near Black Oak—when the young protagonist, Luke Chandler, takes a moment of rest in the fields: “Lying on my back, I watched through the stalks the perfectly clear sky, hoped for clouds, and dreamed of money.”

These days, Grisham flies via private jet, collects rare books and has an ample real-estate portfolio. You wouldn’t be able to tell just from seeing him though. (It was only later I realized that the sneakers he was wearing at Cove Creek Park were, in fact, shoes from Brunello Cucinelli that retail for $995.)

Grisham often muses about how easy his life is as a writer. “It’s a great dream just to be able to kick back and do nothing but write novels and get paid,” he says. In practice, he’s highly disciplined. Grisham arrives at his desk by 7 a.m. five days a week and produces 1,000 to 2,000 words before noon. On January 1 of every calendar year, he starts a new legal thriller, which he finishes by July. Sometimes he writes a second book in the fall, a non–legal thriller—a beach caper or children’s book or sports story. His research involves extensive reading and googling; his process requires lengthy outlining (sometimes up to 40 or 50 pages); and his foremost rule is “Don’t write the first scene until you know the last.”

Since the very beginning, Grisham has insisted that he is more entrepreneur than artist. “I don’t pretend it’s literature,” he’s said. “It’s high-quality, professional entertainment.”

Most afternoons, Grisham goes to his office in downtown Charlottesville, where he handles his extracurricular affairs. He sits behind a huge desk—a desk used as a prop in the film adaptation of The Firm—and makes phone calls, responds to emails and manages his donations to political campaigns, writer residencies, legal-defense funds, baseball teams and charities. This is Grisham the benefactor and politician. He is deeply tied to his Southern Baptist roots and has a serious bone to pick about wrongful convictions, the death penalty and mass incarceration. He’s currently finishing his second book of nonfiction, Framed, which will gather the stories of 10
exonerated defendants.

About eight hours after I had asked Grisham if he could construct a plot loosely based on our encounter, an email appeared in my inbox.

It was a story about “Elmore,” a famous mystery writer. Elmore has accumulated a lifetime of grudges, is in poor health and wants to settle all of his accounts, especially with his greatest adversary: “Sam Bacon, a legendary critic.” Bacon drives down from New York to Elmore’s mountain lodge. “Wine flows,” a lavish meal is served, there’s laughter and crying and more laughter, until—and I won’t say how—Bacon gets murdered.

You can see Grisham playing a little game of four-dimensional chess here. “Bacon has always savaged Elmore’s books,” he writes, “and this only fueled sales.” According to the story, the critic will try and try to shape the perception of the famous writer in the court of public opinion but will only make the famous writer more famous. “The good thing about writing fiction,” Grisham told The Wall Street Journal in 1992, “is that you can get back at people.”

He has intuitively been turning reality into fiction for as long as anyone can seem to remember, before he even had the vaguest notion that he would become a novelist. Robert Khayat, a former chancellor of Ole Miss and Grisham’s professor in a first-year torts class at law school in the late 1970s, tells a story about how Grisham, for one of his written assignments, after hitting a wall with a question, proceeded to make up an entire answer out of a few barebone details.

“It was total fiction,” Khayat told me. “There was some suspense in it. There was some sadness in it…. It was beautifully done.”

After grading the paper, Khayat wrote:“You miss all of the legal issues, but you write great fiction.”

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