This article originally appeared on The Guardian website.
A life in writing: John Grisham
by Nicholas Wroe
“My name became a brand, and I’d love to say that was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books”
In the mid 1980s John Grisham, then a small-town lawyer and disillusioned member of the Mississippi state legislature, would fill the time between meetings and court hearings writing a novel about an ambitious young lawyer embroiled in a life-or-death fight for truth and justice. “It took me three years, and most of the time I thought I would never finish it. Eventually 5,000 hardback copies were printed and I was thrilled. But they did not sell out, it did not get a second edition, it was not published in paperback or picked up for foreign rights. Then I wrote The Firm …”
The Firm, Grisham’s 1991 story of another young lawyer in a jam, was on the New York Times bestseller lists for 44 weeks, sold more than 7m copies and was made into a feature film starring Tom Cruise. “My first publishing experience was entirely normal and my second entirely abnormal,” he says. “I responded much better to the second experience than I did to the first.”
And, for Grisham at least, the “abnormality” of The Firm‘s commercial success soon became the norm. His subsequent series of legal thrillers has gone on to sell close to 300m copies and been translated into 40 languages. Nine of his novels have been turned into films starring A-list actors such as Julia Roberts, Gene Hackman, Sandra Bullock, Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman. They have been directed by Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Schumacher and Alan J Pakula. Grisham regularly features on literary rich lists with an estimated fortune of $600m and an annual income in the tens of millions. For most of the 1990s Grisham Day, when his new book went on sale, was a fixed point of the publishing year – to be avoided by other publishers and celebrated by bookshops.
“My name became a brand and I’d love to say it was the plan from the start,” he says. “But the only plan was to keep writing books. And I’ve stuck to that ever since.” His 24th, The Litigators, was published in the UK in October. Lighter in tone than much of his work, it features a pair of morally dubious Chicago street lawyers, Finley & Figg, who find themselves teamed with a young, burned-out corporate lawyer, David Zinc, in an unequal battle against big pharma. Grisham first developed the idea as a sitcom script. “The humour was there from the start. When you work at street level you never know who’s going to walk through your door. Life is full of fun stuff, sad stuff and crazy stuff. I survived as a street lawyer for 10 years and bumped into guys like these. I got to know them quite well.”
But a few things have changed since Grisham began to practise law 30 years ago. “Back then the term ‘ambulance chaser’ was very derogatory. You might sneak around trying to get cases quietly, but you didn’t want people to know that. This was all before TV and billboard advertising which, in America, is now out of control. It used to be that your reputation brought you clients.” He says the nature of the work he took on meant that sometimes he got paid and sometimes he didn’t. “I had a lot of trouble saying no and therefore I never made that much money. But you always had that chance, as my character Oscar says, of a good car wreck. These days someone who’s had a car wreck is lying in hospital watching TV, they see an ad and can call a lawyer. But that guy can’t try your case. He’s a lousy trial lawyer and afraid to go to court. It’s just a volume thing. To make as many settlements as they can, which is not always in the interests of the person who has been injured.”
Grisham has occasionally moved away from the legal world in his novels, and has also made sorties into non-fiction – in a book about a miscarriage of justice – short stories and, recently, children’s fiction. But all his work has a concern for social issues and often deals directly with the legal and moral questions around such matters as the death penalty, homelessness, health insurance and prison conditions. Like the best crime fiction, his books often focus on where society is broken, and while he prefers not to call himself a liberal – “I am a moderate Democrat” – he remains politically engaged. As a strong critic of the Iraq war he was delighted to see Bush leave office, but he was, and remains, wary of Obama.
“Throughout the 2008 primary season between Hillary and Obama, which was a very bitter race, it was often pointed out that this guy did not have experience, that he had not been proven. And that has been shown over the last three years. It has been a great disappointment. His timing was impeccable, but he had not been tried and tested. I’m not saying I won’t vote for him again, I probably will. If you’re from a background like mine, there won’t be another option.” He says he was raised in a very strict and conservative manner, “but the business of Democrats being liberal and Republicans being conservative didn’t quite apply back then. People had warm sentiments towards Democrats because of the social programmes they had introduced in the 1930s. The new deal had brought rural electricity and social security. The Republicans had fought these changes every step of the way. They have always been a party to protect the rich and powerful. The Democrats, put simply, helped poor people. And that was us.”
Grisham was born in 1955, the second of five siblings, and was brought up on an Arkansas cotton farm. “We kids didn’t really realise just how bad things were,” he says, “but the first 10 years of my life were lean times for cotton farming and there was not much money around.” The family then began to move round the south as his father took up various different jobs, and within a few years things had improved. “My father worked seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, for a construction company. He would take all the overtime the company would give him and we started to do well as a family. That sense of hard work bringing rewards was very much instilled into all of us.”
Grisham’s literary hero was and still is Mark Twain. “I wanted to be Tom Sawyer. I loved that romanticised view of a kid’s life. It wasn’t until a lot later that I realised there was more going on with Tom and Huck than just an adventure.” Steinbeck was also important to him, as was Dickens, and he has been gratified by several critics praising the “Dickensian” feel of The Litigators. “And, of course, I read Faulkner. If you grow up in Mississippi you have to. He is God and you are force-fed him at high school, but I never got on with it that well. I do appreciate his genius. No one can do the sights and sounds of that part of the world quite like him. His description of the smell of walking into a country store is perfect, but I also thought he was intentionally vague and obtuse. Maybe I just don’t think reading a book should actually be hard work.”
In his late teens Grisham took on a string of dead-end jobs before embarking on a series of unfinished college courses. It wasn’t until 1981 that he graduated with a law degree and set up shop as a criminal and personal injury lawyer in Southaven, Mississippi. In The Litigators there is an idealistic speech about the value of working with “real people with real problems who need help. That’s the beauty of street law. You meet the clients face to face, you get to know them and, if things work out, you get to help them”. It comes straight from Grisham’s own experience – the philosophy of his law practice mirrored his politics.
“I represented real people, poor people, who often couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer, but still had problems. Directly across the street from my office were insurance companies, banks and big corporations. It was a very clear line between us, and I learned very quickly who my friends were. That’s when I became a Democratic activist and eventually ran for office.” He ran specifically on a platform of improving education in the state – “I found Mississippi’s lack of emphasis on education embarrassing” – and was elected in 1983, aged 28. “And when I got there I just couldn’t get things done. I was very naive, homesick for my young wife and baby and distracted. Ultimately my heart just wasn’t in it.” Grisham had married Renee Jones in 1981 and they have two children: Ty, who is a 28-year-old lawyer doing much the same type of criminal work his father did 30 years ago, and 25-year-old Shea, who is a primary school teacher.
The spark for his first book, A Time to Kill, came from a court case when Grisham observed a 12-year-old girl give evidence of her rape. Looking at the girl’s father, he imagined what would happen if he took matters into his own hands and how the law and society would respond. “The story was also autobiographical in that it was about a trial in a small Mississippi town where this young lawyer gets a big verdict. That was pretty much my dream at the time. My ambitions were still legal, not literary.”
He took three years to write A Time to Kill and it was two more years before it received its low-key publication. By this time he had also broken the back of The Firm, which was published in March 1991. “It became popular so fast I was in a daze. It is something you just can’t prepare for. When it hit the New York Times bestseller list at number 12 I clipped the list from the paper and stuck it to my office wall. I did the same thing for the next 44 weeks.”
It was while on an early book tour that Grisham received his most useful piece of career advice. “A very young executive with a big book chain just said in passing that ‘the big guys come out every year’. He meant the likes of Clancy, King, Crichton, Ludlum, Follett. I heard that loud and clear. At the time I was about halfway through The Pelican Brief and had no idea when it would be finished or published. But I went home, locked myself away for 60 days and finished the book. It was published a year after The Firm. One year after that I published The Client. Those three books had an enormous impact on everything that followed. A Time to Kill was reissued and now, after all these years, is probably my bestselling book. I didn’t plan any of that. But I did plan to get The Pelican Brief out a year after The Firm, and that was the best decision I ever made.”
And while books came out in rapid succession so did the film versions. Throughout the 90s Grisham and Michael Crichton regularly exchanged the record for the most lucrative deals. “We had a good thing going. It was a ping-pong match. I was told that Crichton’s agent started asking for the X million Grisham got plus a dollar. And these were cash deals, not options. Money on the table. And everyone involved made money. Now I can barely give film rights away. The business has completely changed and TV has become far more fun and creative.”
A TV series of The Firm, taking up the story 10 years after the novel ended, airs in the US in January, and Grisham has several other TV projects. But however his work is consumed, it remains a highly lucrative operation. He says he and his wife have worked hard to keep their lives as quiet as possible. “We don’t live lavishly, we don’t splash money around, we don’t publicise gifts. But, at least within our part of the country, I did become very well known and when something like Forbes magazine prints lists of people’s incomes, then it is difficult to keep things quiet.” And it’s not only in his public life that the money has changed things. “You go from being just one of the family to something slightly different. And while it’s easy and rewarding to take care of your children and your parents, for other people close to you it can make for a difficult relationship. There’s no rule book and you are dealing with human frailties and personalities. Twenty years later we are still trying to work it out.”
Grisham has used his wealth to endow scholarships at southern universities, has five little league baseball diamonds in the grounds of his Virginia estate that are used by more than 500 children each year, and has funded a literary and cultural magazine, the Oxford American. He has also given financial backing to political candidates, but says he was slow to realise the potential for incorporating political issues into his fiction.
“It wasn’t until I wrote The Chamber” – his fourth novel, published in 1994 – “that I realised I could weave a novel round things such as the death penalty and some of the racial history of Mississippi.” Grisham is from a strict southern Baptist household – it went without saying that he believed premeditated murder deserved the death penalty. “And that’s still very much the consensus among white people in the deep South. Black people know better because they have seen so many wrongful convictions and executions.” Even as a criminal defence lawyer, who had handled murder cases although not capital cases, he says he didn’t really think about the issue until researching The Chamber on a Mississippi death row. “I was talking to the chaplain in the holding room, a tiny cell where the inmate has his last 30 minutes of life before they walk him next door. It is a very cramped, dark and surreal space. The chaplain said to me: ‘John, you are a Christian?’ I said yes. And he then said: ‘Do you really think that Jesus would condone what we do here?’ I said ‘No, he would not’. The chaplain nodded, and in that moment I did a 180 on the death penalty. It was a remarkable feeling.”
His treatment of homelessness in The Street Lawyer saw changes to the way the issue is handled in Washington DC, and his adapting of a real case in which an insurance company failed to pay out to a young leukaemia patient shone a light on American health care. He is currently engaged with cases of wrongly incarcerated prisoners.
“I have spoken to many innocent prisoners and they all have the most amazing stories to tell. But I’m also well aware that you can’t preach too much while working in popular culture. You cannot assume that your politics are the same as your readers’. I have a very wide readership and I love every one of them – I don’t want to force my politics on them, just as I don’t want people to force their politics on me. We all have strong feelings. Every now and then my wife tells me to get off my soapbox because no one wants to hear it. And there’s truth in that, so over the years I’ve written two types of books: those that pick up an issue, and what Graham Greene called entertainments. The Litigators is an entertainment. I take a few potshots at the plaintiff’s bar for their sleazy advertising and the way pharmaceutical companies test their drugs in third world countries. But it is not centred on one thing. But if I can take the wrongful execution of a man in Texas to make people stop and think about this rush to execute people that we have in this country, I will. If I have access to a soapbox, then the least I can do is occasionally use it.”