1993’s “The Pelican Brief” with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington was a hit film based on just one of the highly successful novels by John Grisham. He’s written enough fine print to fill a large bookcase ... not to mention furnish a whole office, as Anthony Mason discovered:
John Grisham’s office looks a bit like a movie set, decorated with props from the films made from his legal thrillers, including two desks used in “The Firm” … and the door from Susan Sarandon’s law office in “The Client.”
“The Client” is the story of lawyer Reggie Love. Played by Sarandon in the 1994 film, she represents a boy who may know where the body of a murdered U.S. senator is buried.
Suspense like this has helped Grisham sell nearly 300 million books.
Mason asked, “Do you still get excited to see the hardcover arrive?”
“Sure. Every time,” Grisham replied. “These came in two days ago!”
“The Whistler,” the tale of a corrupt judge and an Indian casino, is the latest thriller for the author who’s had 28 consecutive #1 New York Times fiction bestsellers since “The Pelican Brief” in 1992.
His work has been translated into nearly 50 languages.
It’s been quite a journey for Johnnie Grisham Jr., as he was called at South Haven High in Mississippi. The son of a cotton farmer, Grisham would earn his law degree from Ole Miss:
Back when he was a hungry lawyer, with an office on State Line Road in South Haven, Miss., his clients, Grisham laughed, were “Anybody that could pay a fee. And I had a hard time saying no to people in trouble. I really had a hard time doing that. So I took a lot of cases I shouldn’t’ve taken just because folks needed help.
“And when you do that as a young lawyer, it’s hard to make a buck.”
To make an extra buck, Grisham started writing.
“Why did you think you could do it?” Mason asked.
“I didn’t know if I could do it. I mean I knew I was gonna try. I used to walk in a bookstore, and see all these books on the walls. And I would say, ‘Who wants to hear from me? What do I have to add to all of this?’”
“Where did that bug come from? ‘Cause you hadn’t really been writing before?”
“I had never written anything. And I had never studied writing. So my motives were pure: I had a great story ... a courtroom drama that I sort of fictionalized, and that became ‘A Time to Kill.’”
It would take him three years, during which time he was also serving in the Mississippi State Legislature.
Was he a good legislator? “No, I was terrible,” he said. “I had the highest absentee rate of any freshman legislator. I got sick of the job. I wrote a lot of ‘A Time to Kill’ at the State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., hiding in little committee rooms, killing time waiting for legislation to come to the floor.”
His first book was not a blockbuster when it was originally published. “Oh, it was a total flop,” Grisham said. “They printed 5,000 hardback copies. I bought 1,000! I mean, we couldn’t give em away. I sold em out of the trunk of my car for several months at libraries, just trying to unload books so I could pay the invoice.”
“What made you go back and write another one?”
“Well, I had a great idea, or an idea that I liked a lot.”
“The Firm,” the story of a young lawyer who uncovers the dark side of his firm when two associates are murdered, went on to sell seven million copies.
Even before the Tom Cruise film was released in 1993, Grisham quit politics and the law to write full-time. “It changed my life,” he said. “Everything was different after that.”
“I don’t get the sense you’ve ever missed practicing law,” Mason said.
“No, I never have. I’ve been out of it now for 25 years.”
“But you go back to it in your books all the time.”
“That’s the best way to practice law, is writing about it and not having to be in the courtroom!” he laughed.
Nine of Grisham’s novels have been made into movies, most of them very successful. “Stephen King told me 20 years ago, he said, ‘Get all your money up front. Kiss it goodbye. And expect it to be something different. If you don’t like that, don’t sell it.’”
“You financed one of your films.”
“Let’s don’t talk about that one! It almost bankrupted me, cost me a lot of money,” Grisham said. “It was this brilliant idea I had for a little league baseball movie. And it was a total flop.”
His baseball movie, “Mickey,” may have struck out, but Grisham built a real-life field of dreams. After moving his family to Virginia from Mississippi, he couldn’t find a place for his son and daughter to play ball.
“And so I got mad -- and here we are.”
In a cow pasture 20 miles from Charlottesville, he built six ball fields, started an independent league with 20 teams, paid the umpires, and even painted the lines at times.
He’s still the league commissioner. “I am commissioner. Owner. I’d love to give it to somebody. Still write checks to support it. It does not cover the red ink. But I didn’t build it to make a profit, I promise you that.”
For 20 years now, hundreds of Little Leaguers have taken the field every spring.
“Must have been pretty proud of that,” Mason said.
“Still proud of it. Still proud of it.”
You will find his son’s name on a plaque at Cove Creek Park. But not the author’s. Grisham keeps a low profile in his adopted state. The attraction, he says, was that “we didn’t really know anybody. We were looking for a place to hide.”
The 61-year-old writer isn’t kidding about hiding. The interview stopped suddenly when a phone rang in the back room.
“The secretary used to answer it,” Grisham said. “She’s gone. And she’s not being replaced.”
John Grisham still likes to see his name on a dust jacket … but nowhere else: “The voicemail was full the first month after she left, and I have not answered the phone 30, 32 months ago,” he laughed. “I’m at a point in life where the people who matter can find me. And nobody else can. My friends, family, the ones who need me, they can email me, all that kinds of stuff, cell phones. And nobody else can find me. So that’s kind of nice.”
“And you like that?”
“Oh, I love it! Yes! I’m not gonna live any other way.”
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