On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the publication of his first novel, “A Time To Kill,” John Grisham killed some time on Bill Ballard’s front porch in Hernando.
The pair later reminisced at the DeSoto County courthouse, a place where Grisham’s storied rise as a best-selling author began two decades ago.
The friendship between Ballard, a former county prosecutor and Grisham, a former trial lawyer and state representative, goes back at least that long.
Grisham still sends Ballard a copy of each new manuscript before it’s published.
There have been at least 22 Grisham novels to date and his latest, “Ford County Stories,” a book of short stories planned for this fall, returns to the fictional county of Grisham’s imagination, fashioned after DeSoto County, where the author formerly lived and practiced law.
“John gets back to DeSoto County very seldom,” Ballard said as he sipped lemonade in an old wicker chair on the front porch of the stately Ballard home, Shadow Hill, situated on aptly named Elm Street in Hernando. “He (Grisham) gets back to DeSoto County very seldom. I don’t get to visit with him very often. We go through spurts of sending e-mail back and forth. It’s usually generated by a mutual friend.”
When Grisham does return, he slips into town very quietly.
As Grisham relaxed on Ballard’s tree-shaded front porch last week, the two talked about local and national events and people, both living and dead.
The house is masked by tall trees, including a towering magnolia that stands like a sentinel in the long, circular gravel drive. The old friends were largely uninterrupted during their visit. That’s not always the case.
Grisham’s celebrity often intrudes on dinners and visits with old friends. Ballard noticed Grisham’s budding popularity almost from the start.
“I remember that I went out to lunch with him,” Ballard said of a lunch engagement years ago. “It’s amazing that some people think you want to be approached with a mouthful of food to tell you how much they enjoyed your book. I was startled at how many people would do that.”
Grisham and Ballard met with USA Today photographers at the DeSoto County Courthouse for a photo shoot and interview on the 20th anniversary of Grisham’s debut as a novelist. It was there where Ballard and Circuit Court Judge Percy Lynchard relived some of Grisham’s courtroom experiences.
A week later, Ballard reflected on how his friend’s life had changed since “A Time To Kill” was published 20 years ago.
After the book became a best-seller and screenplays based on his books were being snatched up right and left, Grisham received a note from the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was then a top editor at Doubleday. Grisham later sent a copy of the note from Onassis to Ballard.
The note, demur and inobtrusive, gently asked if Grisham would consider writing a blurb for a book on Alabama Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., the Alabama judge who struck down that state’s segregation laws.
“Here’s my buddy being asked by Jaqueline Onassis to do something,” Ballard said. “I thought to myself, we’ve come a long way.”
Grisham’s success as a novelist started out very inauspiciously, Ballard said.
At the time, Ballard said Grisham was almost reluctant to tell him that he had been writing a book. Grisham was a state representative at the time, had a law office in Southaven, and secretly began working on his novel, then-called “Death Knell.”
“Most people weren’t aware of what he was doing,” Ballard said. At the time, Grisham and wife Renee had two small children.
“It was stressful,” Ballard said. “Practicing law was stressful. If he had to get up at 4 a.m. to get in two hours of writing, he would get up at 4 a.m. He certainly has that voice in his head. When he’s writing, his characters are talking to him in his head.”
In 1989, Grisham’s novel was retitled “A Time To Kill.” Wynwood Press, a small publishing company in New York, bought the manuscript and printed 5,000 copies. Grisham helped market the novel himself. Grisham made the library circuit around Mississippi. His hometown folks rallied around him.
Ballard and his wife Brenda hosted the very first official book signing party for Grisham. On Monday, Ballard produced two sheets of yellow legal pad paper with the 50 or so names of local people who attended the party 20 years ago at Shadow Hill. The listing is a virtual Who’s Who of lawyers, judges, newspaper publishers, and sons and daughters of well-established families.
A total of 44 copies were sold that night.
Now, more than 245 million copies of Grisham’s novels have been sold and his works have been translated into 29 languages.
Ballard said Grisham’s stories are as popular today as they were 20 years ago.
“His field of interest is expanding all the time,” Ballard said. “It really doesn’t matter where he puts his stories’ location. He’s been as comfortable basing his stories in a multi-layered law firm in Manhattan as he has in a little town like Hernando. He can write about them with convincing familiarity. John is a talented writer. There’s no way around it.”