Popular novelist John Grisham (born 1955) is the author of several thrillers that have been made into blockbuster films. His works, which center around the legal profession, include A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Client, and The Pelican Brief.
It is no understatement that John Grisham, author of the legal thrillers A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client, has achieved the status of what Entertainment Weekly called "a genuine pop-culture demigod." His have shared unprecedented weeks—and months—on best-seller lists, have numbered more than 60 million in print across the world, and have been translated into 31 languages. Dubbed "grab-it-at-the-airport" novels, they have also made their author a multimillionaire; Grisham's income for the 1992-93 fiscal year alone was $25 million. Along with author Scott Turow, also a former practicing attorney, Grisham has been credited with mastering a genre:the fast-paced, plot-driven legal thriller that thrusts an unwitting, sympathetic hero or heroine in the middle of a corrupt conspiracy and provides them with the means to extricate themselves. Despite his seemingly untouchable success, Grisham still wants each novel he writes to improve upon the last. "[Right now] I could crank out anything, and it would sell, " he told the same source. "But I want the next to be better than the first five. That keeps me awake at night."
Drawn to Court room Drama
Born in Arkansas in 1955, Grisham spent much of his childhood traveling with his family throughout the South, settling for short periods in places where his father, a construction worker, managed to find work. When Grisham was 12, he moved with his parents and four siblings to Southaven, Mississippi. "We didn't have a lot of money, " he remembered in People, "but we didn't know it. We were well fed and loved and scrubbed." Though not a stellar student in high school, he excelled in sports—baseball, in particular—and was captivated by the novels of John Steinbeck. Grisham later attended Mississippi State University, where he received his B.S. degree in accounting and decided on a career as a tax attorney. His first course on tax law at the University of Mississippi dampened his interest, however, and he switched to criminal-defense law instead, discovering that he was drawn to courtroom drama and had the ability to think well under pressure.
After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam in 1981, Grisham married Renee Jones, a childhood friend from Southaven, and the couple returned to their home town where Grisham became a litigator. In recalling his first murder trial, he told People, "I defended a guy who shot another guy in self-defense, but I had to explain why he shot him in the head six times at three-inch range. It was a pretty gruesome case, but I won." When he shifted his focus to more lucrative civil cases, his practice began to thrive, and he is credited with one of the largest damage settlements in De Soto County, which he won on behalf of a child who sustained extensive burns when a water heater exploded. In 1983 Grisham was elected to the Mississippi state legislature, where he served as a Democrat for seven years, hoping to increase spending for education. However, he resigned from his position before the end of his second term, because, as he told the same source, "I realized it was impossible to make changes."
Inspired by Real-Life Trial
The incident that inspired Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, occurred years before it was actually written, when he was still practicing law in Southaven in 1984. One day he went to the local courthouse to observe a trial and heard a ten-year-old girl testify against a man who had raped her, leaving her for dead. "I never felt such emotion and human drama in my life, " Grisham remembered in People. "I became obsessed wondering what it would be like if the girl's father killed that rapist and was put on trial. I had to write it down." Despite the 70 hours a week he was putting in at his own firm, he was able to complete A Time to Kill by waking up at 5:00 each morning to write, a schedule that he adhered to for three years. Then, in 1987, after the manuscript had been rejected by several publishers, New York agent Jay Garon offered to represent Grisham. Garon made a deal with Wynwood Press for $15, 000, and two years later, 5, 000 copies of A Time to Kill were published, one thousand of which Grisham bought himself. Of all his novels, it's the only one that he will not sell to Hollywood for a movie version, because, as he remarked in Entertainment Weekly, "it would be very, very easy to botch if it's not done with a great deal of delicateness and feeling. It's very dear and very special to me."
The Firm was also rejected by numerous publishers and might have suffered a similar fate as A Time to Kill if a bootleg copy of the manuscript hadn't started a bidding war in Hollywood. Early in 1990 Renee Grisham called her husband out of church to inform him that Paramount had offered him $600, 000 for the movie rights to his book, and Grisham soon signed a contract with Doubleday, one of the publishers who had rejected A Time to Kill two years earlier. The Firm is the story of Harvard Law School graduate Mitchell McDeere, who signs on with a prestigious Memphis law firm offering him an irresistible package:an excellent salary and such perks as a new BMW car, a low-interest mortgage, and membership in a posh country club. Yet just as Mitchell and his wife, Abby, are settling into their new upscale lifestyle, two of the firm's lawyers die mysteriously, and FBI investigators start pressuring the young lawyer for inside information. When he learns that the Mafia has set up the firm to launder money, Mitch faces the decision of whether to cooperate with the FBI and risk his life, or be implicated with the other firm members and spend time in prison. For Grisham, completing The Firm signalled a turning point:he decided to close his law practice and write full time.
Best-Seller for 47 Weeks
People magazine called The Firm a "thriller of the first order, powered to pulse-racing perfection by the realism of its malevolent barristers, " and Library Journal noted that Grisham "set a daringly high standard, one that his readers will hope he can reach again and again." A New York Times best-seller for 47 weeks—and the longest-running paperback on Publishers Weekly best-seller list—The Firm was made into a the 1992 film directed by Sidney Pollack, starring Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Holly Hunter, among others.
Grisham's next effort to be adapted for the big screen 1993's The Pelican Brief, featuring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. Although Grisham usually disassociates himself from the movie versions of his novels, he was apparently pleased with this one, which he and wife Renee first watched with President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House. Not only was it rated PG-13, meaning that his children could see it, but it was, as he told Entertainment Weekly, "a wonderful adaptation of the novel. [Director] Alan Pakula's vision was very similar to mine."
In this story, Darby Shaw, a Tulane University law student, prepares a legal brief that becomes a crucial puzzle piece in an FBI investigation of a suspected conspiracy behind the murders of two Supreme Court justices. Like Mitch in The Firm, Darby spends much of her time narrowly escaping the evil forces around her, though here Grisham targets other bureaucratic agencies—the CIA and White House, in addition to the FBI—as demoralized and corrupt. This novel, however, did not fare as well with reviewers: Time claimed that it "is as close to its predecessor as you can get without running The Firm through the office copier"; Publishers Weekly complained that the "hairbreadth escapes … are too many and too frequent, and the menace wears thin, partly because the characters lack the humanity of those in Grisham's earlier novels." Nevertheless Grisham remained stoic about the criticism, telling Michelle Bearden of Publishers Weekly: "It's the American way. As a rookie, people were really pulling for me with The Firm, but the second time around, those same people were secretly wishing I would fail so they could rip me to shreds."
Ordinary People, Heroic Deeds
Grisham has gotten into the habit of beginning his next novel the morning after he has sent a completed manuscript to agent Garon in New York. In shaping a story he adheres to what he considers three basic principles:an opening that grips readers and makes them want to continue reading, a middle that sustains the narrative tension, and an ending that brings the action to an edge-of-your-seat climax. As in The Firm and The Pelican Brief, his protagonists are often ordinary people who find themselves caught in the middle of a conspiracy and must perform heroic feats to save their own and others' lives. "And always, there's something dark, shadowy and sinister lurking in the background, " the author told Bearden. While he seems to have hit on a surefire formula for his novels, Grisham credits Renee, who offers him particular advice on his women characters, for her role as an editor and a critic. His manuscripts must meet with her approval before publishers even see them. "She makes those [editors] in New York look like children, " he was quoted as saying in Publishers Weekly.
In reflecting on what appears to be a trend—popular books being written by attorneys-turned-writers—Grisham confided to Bearden that "most lawyers I know would rather be doing something else." Yet he admits, according to People, that much of the fiction churned out by these professionals is "dreadful, " and that to be a "master" of the genre—a category in which he places only himself and authors Scott Turow and Steve Martini—a writer must be able to convey the legal aspects of a story without overwhelming or alienating the reader. Publishers Weekly commended Grisham on this very point in its review of The Firm:"[The author] lucidly describes law procedures at the highest levels, smoothly meshing them with the criminal events of the narrative." Still Grisham acknowledges that in some respects, his writing process still needs fine-tuning. In particular, he wishes that he had dedicated more time to The Pelican Brief and The Client, which he wrote in three months and six months, respectively. He has also endeavored to address past criticism that his novels contain shallow characters by slowing down the narrative pace in his most recent books and adding more depth and dimension to the personalities he creates.
Developed Characters in The Client
The Client, which is not a true mystery because the crime, motive, and criminal are all revealed within the first chapter of the book, reflects Grisham's growing interest in character development. Mark Sway, a streetwise 11-year-old who has grown up too fast due to an absent father and little money, becomes the unwitting witness to a suicide; yet before he kills himself, lawyer Jerome Clifford tells Mark where the body of a U.S. senator has been buried and who the killer is. Once word spreads to the Mafia and FBI that Mark has this information, his life is in danger, and he retains the legal services of Reggie Love, a middle-aged female attorney whose life has been even more difficult than his own. Grisham not only put their relationship at the emotional center of The Client but also invented more complex and well-rounded minor characters than in past books, and his efforts did not go unnoticed among reviewers:Publishers Weekly commended his creation of "two singular protagonists sure to elicit readers' empathy, " and People found the character of Reggie Love to be "a truly memorable heroine … well worth a return visit."
With his novel The Chamber, Grisham put in more time—it took more than nine months to write—and wrote it out longhand, which he had not done since he'd penned his first effort, A Time to Kill. The Chamber features Sam Cayhall, an aging former Ku Klux Klan member who has been convicted of bombing the office of a Jewish civil rights lawyer and killing the man's two young sons. In trying to prevent Cayhall's execution after he has received the death penalty, a shrewd lawyer named Adam—who turns out to be Cayhall's grandson—not only faces bureaucratic agencies that seem as debased as the criminal himself but, finally, he confronts his own conscience. Time applauded Grisham for his struggle to show the complexities of capital punishment as an ethical issue:"[The Chamber] is a work produced by painful writhing over a terrible paradox; vengeance may be justified, but killing is a shameful, demeaning response to evil." Grisham was also pleased with the outcome of this novel and particularly proud of its characters. "It's much more about the people, " he told Entertainment Weekly. "It will appeal to different kinds of readers. I have no doubts about it."
Returned to the Courtroom
For Grisham, the 1980s meant hard work and, at times, going without. While A Time to Kill has since joined the ranks of his other novels in best-sellerdom, it was not very long ago that he couldn't give copies away for free. "We'd give them as Christmas gifts, " his friend and fellow state legislator Bobby Moak recalled in Entertainment Weekly. "A truckload got wet and mildewed, so we just took 'em to the dump. It was hell gettin' rid of those dadgum things."
That was a far cry from Grisham's success in the 1990s. He was paid a $3.75 million advance for the The Chamber, and his 1995 book, The Rainmaker, shot to the top of the bestseller lists. In The Rainmaker, a poor young lawyer fights a corrupt insurance company. Entertainment Weekly commented, "The Rainmaker seems very tapped into America's current skepticism about lawyers and the legal system."
Continuing his focus on the legal system and current topics, Grisham in 1996 released The Runaway Jury. The story centers around a trial in which a woman, Celeste Wood, is suing a cigarette company for the death of her husband, Jacob. There is much intrigue and inside dealings with the jury, especially the secretive juror Nicholas Easter. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times commented, "The story's suspense builds like that of a lengthening cigarette ash that refuses to drop off, " and praised the plot as "entertainingly unpredictable."
In addition to his writing career, in 1995 Grisham announced he was returning to the courtroom. He had not practiced law for seven years, but agreed to represent the estate of an employee of the Illinois Central Railroad who was killed on the job. He had accepted the case in 1991. USA Today reported that Grisham "came across as a nice guy:well-prepared, deferential, sincere-sounding and self-effacing."
Continuing to craft best-selling novels, Grisham saw the publication of The Partner in 1997. In this story, a lawyer steals $90 million from his firm and its wealthiest client, fakes his own death, and flees to Brazil. "For lawyers, the main dream of escape is to get out of the profession, " Grisham told the New York Times. "They dream about a big settlement, a home run, so that they can use the money to do something else." Grisham himself has taken the money and run, all the way to Hollywood, which routinely turns his novels into movies.
In the wake of his success, Grisham continues to rely on friends and family to help him stay grounded. He and Renee have used part of their windfall to build a Victorian-style home on 20 acres of land in Oxford, Mississippi, and he spends as much time as he can with his children— attending his daughter Shea's soccer matches and coaching his son Ty in Little League. Grisham, who never loses sight of the fact that his success may be transient, remains positive about those blessings in his life that cannot be measured by book sales. "Ten years from now I plan to be sitting here, looking out over my land, " he told People. "I hope I'll be writing books, but if not, I'll be on my pond fishing with my kids. I feel like the luckiest guy I know."
Further Reading on John Grisham
Entertainment Weekly, April 1, 1994; May 5, 1995.
Library Journal, January 1991.
New York Times, May 23, 1996, p. B5; March 31, 1997, p. C11.
People, April 8, 1991; March 16, 1992; March 15, 1993.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1991; January 20, 1992; February l, 1993; February 22, 1993.
Time, March 9, 1992; June 20, 1994.