Author Joe R. Lansdale Talks about ‘Cold in July’ and Writing


By Jason Harris

Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale

JH: The movie version of Cold in July comes out in May. Did you have any involvement with the filmmakers?

JRL: Yes, Jim Mickle, the director, and Nick Damici the writer, kept me in the loop and asked my opinions frequently. I was on the set for two weeks watching them film. It was a great experience, and as icing on the cake, I like the film. A lot.

JH: If you did have any involvement, what was your involvement and how did you feel about it?

JRL: Mainly just as an adviser. They respected me enough to make me a producer on the film. I did teach Sam Shepard a finger lock for one of the scenes.

JH: What do you think about the casting of Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson in the roles of characters you created?

JRL: It was like they were born for those parts. I didn’t think about them as the actors, but as soon as they said their names, I thought, oh hell yeah.cold_in_july

JH: Are there anymore film adaptations in the works of your books?

JRL: There are several. The Bottoms is the only one I can talk about right now. Bill Paxton is set to direct, and there is a great script by Brent Hanely. He wrote Frailty and Bill directed it. I think we’ve got a winning team. Next actors are to be chosen. The plan right now is to shoot this fall.

JH: How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning? Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend?

JRL: Sometimes I just want something common. And there are times when I feel something a little unusual is better. I’m not picking names like Bill Storm or Willie Hammer, but now and again I go for something a little exotic like Vanilla Ride.

JH: Do you have a favorite conference to attend? What is it?

JRL: ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas. I go most years.

JH: What is your least favorite part of the publishing/writing process?

JRL: Proofing and promotion, though I have learned to embrace those things.

JH: Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?

JRL: I don’t know. I never say never, but I’m sure there are some things I wouldn’t want to write about, but I’d have to come up on that one before I’d know it.

JH: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? Love? Action? Racy?

JRL: Not really. Not if I like the story and feel it works in the context of that story.

JH: Just as your books inspire authors, what authors have inspired you to write?

JRL: Too many to name here. But among them: Jack London, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, William Goldman, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, [William] Faulkner, a little, Flannery O’Conner, a lot Glendon Swarthout, some [Larry] McMurtry, and the list goes on.

JH: What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?

JRL: Read a lot, and learn to write regularly, daily. Put your ass in a chair and write. Have a reasonable goal each day. Say one to three pages, and reach it, and if you go over, great, but try hard to reach that goal.

Editor’s Note:

THe movie version of Cold in July comes out in limited release in theaters on May 23.

You can read an earlier article about Lansdale receiving the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement award here.

Vampires coming to The Mark Twain House & Museum


Featuring “The Tillinghast Nightmare” documentary
and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker

The Mark Twain House & Museum and Historic Haunts present VAMPIRES!, a spooky, fun-filled evening starting with The Tillinghast Nightmare, a documentary chronicling the transformation of the blood-thirsty vampire from vile, menacing neighbor in rural Eastern Europe to the beguiling, aristocratic stranger known as Dracula. The documentary also explores the Tillinghast family’s decision to exhume the body of their beloved daughter Sarah and burn her heart in 1799 Exeter, Rhode Island .

This thrilling documentary screening takes place on Wednesday, October 30th at 7:00 p.m. in the Mark Twain House Visitor’s Center.

The film will be followed by a conversation with author Dacre Stoker, the great grandnephew of Twain friend and Dracula author Bram Stoker. Mr. Stoker will be discussing his research on vampires, as well as his book Dracula – The Un-Dead.

Tickets are $15.00 and are available by calling (860) 280-3130.


According to legend, in 18th century Exeter, RI, Stutely Tillinghast dreamed that half his orchard was destroyed. Soon after, his daughter Sarah became sick and died. One by one, his children took ill and followed Sarah to the grave. To save the lives of those remaining, Tillinghast dug up the body of his beloved daughter Sarah, cut out her heart and burned it.

The Tillinghast Nightmare documentary explores the facts and folklore of vampire exorcism in New England in an effort to shed light on this gruesome practice. The documentary also explores the transformation of the vampire from diseased kin to the aristocratic Count Dracula.

Award-winning director Alec Asten is from Westerly, Rhode Island. The Tillinghast Nightmare documentary is his second in the Historical Haunts series. The documentary was filmed at various locations in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Tillinghast Nightmare documentary is made possible in part by grants from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Dacre Stoker, great grandnephew of Dracula author, Bram Stoker will share the Stoker family perspective on mysteries behind the writing of Dracula, including the intriguing connection between Samuel Clemens and Bram Stoker, who were for a time, neighbors in London. Born worlds apart, Clemens and Stoker, shared a rapport built on humor, their similar life outlooks and common interests – spiritualism, as well as science and technology. The two borrowed material – one gentleman complimenting the other: a line from Following the Equator inserted into Dracula and for years, Bram’s story about a priest who jumped to conclusions was a part of Mark Twain’s lectures. Samuel Clemens and Abraham Stoker, writers who each made his indelible mark, interesting individuals and a fascinating friendship.

The Mark Twain House & Museum ( ) has restored the author’s Hartford, Connecticut, home, where the author and his family lived from 1874 to 1891. Twain wrote his most important works during the years he lived there, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

In addition to providing tours of Twain’s restored home, a National Historic Landmark, the institution offers activities and educational programs that illuminate Twain’s literary legacy and provide information about his life and times.

The house and museum at 351 Farmington Ave. are open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5:30 p.m. For more information, call 860-247-0998 or visit

Programs at The Mark Twain House & Museum are made possible in part by support from the Connecticut Department of Economic & Community Development, Office of the Arts, and the Greater Hartford Arts Council’s United Arts Campaign.  

Amanda Hocking, the Writer Who Made Millions by Self-publishing Online

This article originally appeared on The Guardian website.

Amanda Hocking, the Writer Who Made Millions by Self-publishing Online

by Ed Pilkington

A couple of years ago, Amanda Hocking needed to raise a few hundred dollars so, in desperation, made her unpublished novel available on the Kindle. She has since sold over 1.5m books and, in the process, changed publishing forever

Woman makes millions from self published books

Amanda Hocking: 'I didn't have a lot of hope invested in ebooks'. (Photograph courtesy of Carlos Gonzalez/Polaris)

When historians come to write about the digital transformation currently engulfing the book-publishing world, they will almost certainly refer to Amanda Hocking, writer of paranormal fiction who in the past 18 months has emerged from obscurity to bestselling status entirely under her own self-published steam. What the historians may omit to mention is the crucial role played in her rise by those furry  wide-mouthed friends, the Muppets.

Switched: Book One in the Trylle Trilogy

To understand the vital Muppet connection we have to go back to April 2010. We find Hocking sitting in her tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Austin, Minnesota. She is penniless and frustrated, having spent years fruitlessly trying to interest traditional publishers in her work. To make  matters worse, she has just heard that an exhibition about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, is coming to Chicago later that year and she can’t  afford to make the trip. As a huge Muppets’ fan, she is more than willing to drive eight hours but has no money for petrol, let alone a hotel for the night. What is she to do?

Then it comes to her. She can take one of the many novels she has written over the previous nine years, all of which have been rejected by umpteen book agents and publishing houses, and slap them up on Amazon and other digital e-book sites. Surely, she can sell a few copies to her family and friends? All she needs for the journey to Chicago is $300 (£195), and with six months to go before the Muppets exhibition opens, she’s bound to make it.

I’m going to sell books on Amazon,” she announces to her housemate, Eric.

To which Eric replies: “Yeah. OK. I’ll believe that when it happens.”

Let’s jump to October 2010. In those six months, Hocking has raised not only the $300 she needed, but an additional $20,000 selling 150,000 copies of her books. Over the past 20 months Hocking has sold 1.5m books and made $2.5m. All by her lonesome self. Not a single book agent or publishing house or sales force or marketing manager or bookshop anywhere in sight.

So let the historians take note: Amanda Hocking does get to Chicago to see the Muppets. And along the way she helps to foment a revolution in  global publishing.

I’ve come to Austin, legendary birthplace of Spam (the canned as opposed to the digital version), to find out what this self-publishing revolution looks like in the flesh. I can report that, from the outside, it’s surprisingly conventional. Hocking no longer lives in that pokey apartment, but then she’s no longer a struggling would-be author. She’s bought herself her own detached home, the building block of the American dream, replete with gables and extensions, its own plot of land, and a concrete ramp on which to park the car.

But step inside and convention gives way to a riot of colour. It is just before Christmas, and Hocking has decorated the house with several plastic trees bedecked in lights and two large Santa stockings pinned expectantly over the mantelpiece. The sofa is scattered with animals, some of the cuddly toy variety and others alive, notably Elroy the miniature schnauzer and Squeak the cat (apparently they get on very well).

She greets me at the door and, without preamble, we talk for the next two hours about her extraordinary rags-to-riches tale and what it means for the future of the book. At 27, and with only a few months in the limelight, she is patently new to the fame game. She seems nervous at first, answering my questions in short bursts and fiddling with her glasses; but gradually she relaxes as we discuss what for her has been the central passion of her life since an infant.

She was brought up in the Minnesota countryside on the outskirts of Blooming Prairie about 15 miles north of Austin. Her parents divorced when she was young, money was tight and there was no cable TV to wallow in. “So I read a lot. I would go to the library, or get books at rummage sales. I got through them so quickly I started reading adult books because they were longer. I remember my mom giving me a box set of five books to last me all summer; I devoured them all in two weeks.”

By the age of seven she was reading Jaws by Peter Benchley and anything by Stephen King. Michael Crichton, JD Salinger, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Kurt  Vonnegut and many others fed an insatiable appetite.

It was a way, she now thinks, of coping with the depression that troubled her childhood. “I was always depressed growing up. There wasn’t a reason for it, I just was. I was sad and morose. I cried a lot, I wrote a lot, and I read a lot; and that was how I dealt with it.”

What went in had to come out. The child Hocking began telling her own stories before she could walk. She was forever inventing make-believe worlds, so much so that the counsellor to whom she was sent for depression concluded that her incessant storytelling was an aberration that had to stop. Fortunately for Hocking, and for her many fans, her parents took her side in this argument, and she was never sent back to see him.

At 12 she had already begun to describe herself as a writer and by the end of high school she estimates she had written 50 short stories and started countless novels. The first that she  actually completed, Dreams I Can’t Remember, was written when she  was 17. She was very excited by the  accomplishment, and printed it out for friends and family, as well as sending it to several publishers.

“I got rejection letters back from all of them. I don’t blame them – it wasn’t very good,” Hocking says.

Hocking went on to develop an intimate relationship with rejection letters. She has somewhere in her new house a shoebox full of them.

Yet she would not give up. She wrote unpublished book after unpublished book. “Sometimes I’d say: ‘I’m done, I’m never going to write another book,’ but then a couple of months later I’d have another idea and I’d start again. This time it was bound to work.”

In 2009 she went into overdrive. She was frantic to get her first book published by the time she was 26, the age Stephen King was first in print, and time was running out (she’s now 27). So while holding down a day job caring for severely disabled people, for which she earned $18,000 a year, she went into a Red Bull-fueled frenzy of writing at night, starting at 8 p.m. and continuing until dawn. Once she got going, she could write a complete novel in just two or three weeks. By the start of 2010, she had amassed a total of 17 unpublished novels, all gathering digital dust on the desktop of her laptop.

She received her last rejection letter in February 2010. Hocking says she hasn’t kept the letter, which is a crying shame because it would surely have been an invaluable piece of self-publishing memorabilia. As far as she can remember, the last “thanks-but-no-thanks” came from a literary agent in the UK. If that agent is reading this article, please don’t beat yourself up about this. We all make mistakes …

April 15 2010 should also be noted by historians of literature. On that day, Hocking made her book available to Kindle readers on Amazon’s website in her bid to raise the cash for the Muppets trip. Following tips she’d gleaned from the blog of JA Konrath, an internet self-publishing pioneer, she also uploaded to Smashwords to gain access to the Nook, Sony eReader and iBook markets. It wasn’t that difficult. A couple of hours of formatting, and it was done.

“I didn’t have a lot of hope invested in it,” she says. “I didn’t think anything would come of it.” How wrong she was.

Within a few days, she was selling nine copies a day of My Blood Approves, a vampire novel set in Minneapolis. By May she had posted two further books in the series, Fate and Flutter, and sold 624 copies. June saw sales rise to more than 4,000 and in July she posted Switched, her personal favourite among her novels that she wrote in barely more than a week. It brought in more than $6,000 in pure profit that month alone, and in August she quit her day job.

By January last year she was selling more than 100,000 a month. Being her own boss allowed her to set her own pricing policy – she decided to charge just 99 cents for the first book in the series, as a loss leader to attract readers, and then increase the cover price to $2.99 for each sequel. Though that’s cheap compared with the $10 and upwards charged for printed books she gained a much greater proportion of the royalties. Amazon would give her 30% of all royalties for the 99-cent books, rising to 70% for the $2.99  editions – a much greater proportion than the traditional 10 or 15% that publishing houses award their authors. You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to see the attraction of those figures: 70% of $2.99 is $2.09; 10% of a paperback priced at $9.99 is 99 cents. Multiply that by a million – last November Hocking entered the hallowed halls of the Kindle Million Club, with more than 1m copies sold – and you are talking megabucks.

The speed of her ascent has astonished Hocking more than anyone. She was so elated to receive her first cheque from Amazon, for $15.75, that she didn’t cash it and still has it pinned up on a noticeboard above her desk. “It went from zero to 60 overnight,” she says. “Everybody was buying my books and it was overwhelming.”

In internet-savvy circles she has been embraced as a figurehead of the digital publishing revolution that is seen as blowing up the traditional book world – or “legacy publishing” as its detractors call it – and replacing it with the e-book, where direct contact between author and reader, free of the mediation of agent and publishing house, is but a few clicks away. There is certainly something to that argument. The arrival of Hocking onto the Kindle bestseller lists in barely over a year is symptomatic of a profound shift in the book world that has happened contiguously. Her rise has occurred at precisely the moment that self-publishing itself turned from poor second cousin of the printed book into a serious multi-million dollar industry. Two years ago self-publishing was itself denigrated as “vanity publishing” – the last resort of the talentless. Not any more.

A survey carried out last year by the book blog Novelr found that of the top 25 bestselling indie authors on Kindle, only six had ever previously enjoyed print deals with major book publishers. With e-book sales reaching $878m in the US in 2010, an almost fourfold increase from the year before, some 30 authors have already sold more than 100,000 copies through Kindle’s self-publishing site. That’s the kind of statistic that made Penguin’s chief executive, John Makinson, say recently that he saw “dark clouds” gathering in 2012.

But Hocking’s new-found stature as self-publishing vanguardista is not something she welcomes. “People built me up as a two-dimensional icon for something I was not. Self-publishing is great, but I don’t want to be an icon for it, or anything else. I would rather people talk about the books than how I publish them.”

She also resents how her abrupt success has been interpreted as a sign that digital self-publishing is a new way to get rich quick. Sure, Hocking has got rich, quickly. But what about the nine years before she began posting her books when she wrote 17 novels and had every one rejected? And what about the hours and hours that she’s spent since April 2010 dealing with technical glitches on Kindle, creating her own book covers, editing her own copy, writing a blog, going on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, responding to emails and tweets from her army of readers? Just the editing process alone has been a source of deep frustration, because although she has employed own freelance editors and invited her readers to alert her to spelling and grammatical errors, she thinks her e-books are riddled with mistakes. “It drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn’t. It’s exhausting, and hard to do. And it starts to wear on you emotionally. I know that sounds weird and whiny, but it’s true.”

In the end, Hocking became so burned out by the stress of solo publishing that she has turned for help to the same traditional book world that previously rejected her and which she was seen as attacking. For $2.1m, she has signed up with St Martin’s Press in the US and Pan Macmillan in the UK to publish her next tranche of books. The deal kicks off this month with a paperback version of Switched. It’s a fast-paced romance featuring changeling trolls called Trylle who are switched at birth with human babies. The novel cannot be classed as literary, but then it makes no pretensions to be so. It is precision-targeted at a young-adult audience, and is surprisingly addictive. Once the Trylle trilogy is out, Hocking’s new series of four novels, Watersong, revolving around two sisters who get caught up with sirens, will be released from August in hardback and e-book simultaneously.

Hocking’s editors on both sides of the Atlantic point to the deal as evidence that traditional and solo digital publishing can live in harmony. “There’s a lot of talk about publishers being left out of the loop,” says Jeremy Trevathan, Macmillan’s fiction editor. “But this whole thing is an opportunity for writers and publishers to find each other.” Or as Matthew Shear, publisher of St Martin’s Press, puts it: “It’s always been the same since the days when people self-published from the back of their car – cream will rise to the top.”

There’s something peculiar about all this: one of the leading figures in the self-publishing revolution is now being vaunted by major book houses in London and New York as evidence that traditional publishing is alive and kicking. Hocking is very aware of the paradox, which she observes with a wry writer’s eye. “A lot of people are saying publishing is dead,” she says. “I never did, and I don’t think it is. And they want to use me to show it isn’t.”

Switched, the first in the Trylle Series by Amanda Hocking, is out now in paperback and e-book formats, featuring previously unseen extra material. Published by Pan Macmillan in the UK and St. Martin’s Griffin in the USA. For further information, see

Some of the other Kindle Million Club members

Stephen Leather

Widely hailed as Britain’s most  successful “independent” writer, two years ago Leather took three novellas that had been turned down by Hodder & Stoughton and issued them for the Kindle through Amazon. Last year, he put his monthly income from ebooks at around £11,000.

Joe Konrath

The Chicago-based author is both prolific – he has written seven thrillers, a horror series, and a sci-fi novel, each under a different pseudonym – and candid about the benefits of self-publishing. “One hundred grand – that’s how much I’ve made on Amazon in the last three weeks,” he boasted on his blog last month.

HP Mallory

The “urban fantasy and paranormal romance” author sold around 70,000 copies of her e-books in two months last year, and signed a three-book contract with traditional publisher Random House. She sums up her appeal thus: “If you’re all about fairies and witches and vampires (oh my!) … and you like men who get a little hairy during a full moon, I got the goods.”

John Locke

Last summer, the one-time insurance salesman from Kentucky became the first self-published author to sell 1m Kindle e-books. Alongside his lurid thrillers fans can download an advice book entitled How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!.

Oliver Pötzsch

German novelist and film-maker Pötzsch has reached the highest echelons of the Kindle bestsellers list with the English translation of his historical novel The Hangman’s Daughter. It’s a big success story for AmazonCrossing, which identifies books selling well in other languages, and republishes them in English.

A life in writing: John Grisham

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.”