It’s the moment John Grisham became America’s story teller. Grisham was working in Mississippi as an attorney when he wrote the book “A Time to Kill.” His second book, “The Firm,” became an instant hit in 1991, and it was turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise. Since then he’s sold more than 300 million copies of the 31 novels he’s written.
Many of his books incorporate scenes from the rural South, experiences from his grandparents’ farm in Northeast Arkansas. Grisham hasn’t done a book tour in decades, but this fall he decided it was time to reconnect with his fans. He spoke to a group at Christian Brothers University in Memphis on Thursday (Oct. 26).
“You never write the first scene until you write the last scene,” Grisham said.
Grisham was born Feb. 8, 1955, in Jonesboro. He father was a construction worker and his mother was a homemaker. The family was a tight-knit group, he said. The future best-selling author spent many hours on his family’s farm in rural Northeast Arkansas. His vivid descriptions of rural life in the South were gleaned from these childhood experiences. His novel, “A Painted House,” is based on his experiences in the cotton fields near Black Oak. The actual “Painted House” is located in Lepanto. It’s one of the few Grisham books outside the legal thriller genre.
He dreamed of playing professional baseball, but it wasn’t meant to be. He decided to become an attorney, and he graduated from law school at Ole Miss in 1981. When he heard the heartbreaking testimony of a 12-year-old who had been raped, it inspired him to write his first novel. No major publisher was interested in “A Time to Kill,” but several independent book stores agreed to carry the book, including That Bookstore in Blytheville, one of the most well-known bookstores in the Mid-South.
“I love to go to independent bookstores,” Grisham said. “I love great storytelling.”
After the success of “The Firm,” he went on to write eight other books that were turned into films. Watching his novels become movies has always been an odd experience, he said. Many times the script doesn’t adhere closely to the book, but he was given some advice from fellow author Stephen King.
“He told me to tell them (Hollywood producers) ‘Give me a check, and don’t call,’” he said.
One movie that adhered closely to the book was “The Rainmaker,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The director insisted Grisham spend a lot of time on the set. Once actor Matt Damon asked Grisham how to improve his Southern accent for the film. The advice was simple.
“I told him you can’t fake a Southern accent. We can always spot a faker,” Grisham said.
When the film was completed, Coppola invited Grisham to his home to preview it. Neighbors, including “Star Wars” franchise creator/director George Lucas, were among those who attended.
It’s been 15 years since any of Grisham’s novels have been turned into films, and Grisham doesn’t know why. Hollywood has turned toward the blockbuster super hero action movies, and the classic thriller isn’t en vogue, he said. He’s attempted to get directors and producers interested in his novels, but says he’s had little luck.
“This (film) is not my world … it’s frustrating,” he said.
Grisham attempts to release one novel per year. His process is typically the same. He kicks around two or three ideas until one cements in his mind. He pitches his ideas to his wife, and she gives him advice, he said. He starts writing his novels in January. He writes in a shop away from his main house. There’s no phone or internet in his office. He drinks coffee and starts writing at 7 a.m., and tries to write for three or four hours per day. Many authors focus on character development, but Grisham thinks there’s a more important element.
“To me, plot is far more important than the characters,” he said.
He enjoys writing about legal issues and social injustices. He likes to delve in the realms of human suffering. Grisham has written nonfiction, but it’s not his favorite genre. He’s also written a series of children’s books, and it has brought him a lot of joy, he said. His newest book, “The Rooster Bar,” was released Oct. 24.