When best-selling novelist John Grisham returned home to DeSoto County in November 2009, his latest book, “Ford County,” had climbed to No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.
No copies were to be found at the Hernando Public Library, the place where Grisham had his first book signing two decades ago. All available copies had been checked out.
The irony of his literary career then and now is not lost on one of the world’s best-selling authors.
“When ‘A Time To Kill’ was published 20 years ago, I soon learned the painful lesson that selling books was far more difficult than writing them,” Grisham writes in the dedication of his new book of short stories. Grisham dedicated “Ford County” to his friend Bobby Moak, who helped a much younger Grisham peddle his first novel in 1989.
To hear Grisham tell it, selling his first novel as an unknown and unproven writer was a challenge.
“I hauled them in the trunk of the car and peddled them at libraries, garden clubs, grocery stores, coffee shops, and a handful of bookstores. Often, I was assisted by my dear friend, Bobby Moak.”
Moak, a 25-year veteran of the Mississippi Legislature, said Monday that he fondly recalled the days that he and Grisham spent at book signings.
Grisham, a former Mississippi legislator from DeSoto County, and Moak, who hails from south Mississippi, shared a condo in Jackson when the Mississippi Legislature was in session.
“Grisham was broke, then – I know I really shouldn’t say that,” Moak said of those early years of Grisham’s writing career. “He was working on (A Time To Kill) upstairs in our condo. He was probably a tad timid about letting people know he was writing a book, but we would have conversations about people and places. When he finally sold it to a very small publishing company, Wynwood Press, he purchased a lot of his own books and he sold them at these book signings we would go to. We used Bogue Chitto as our base in south Mississippi.”
Moak said he loves the book of short stories and is pleased that Grisham decided to tackle the genre, after years of writing blockbuster novels.
The characters and the situations in the book have a ring of authenticity, Moak said.
According to Moak, his favorite short story in the book is “Fish Files,” a story that should resonate with most lawyers.
“Everybody who has practiced law, we all have those files sitting around our offices that are getting just a little bit smelly. We know they are there and we are afraid to touch them.”
Another favorite of Moak’s is “Casino,” which describes a humorous attempt to land a casino in fictional Ford County.
DeSoto County encountered such controversy more than a decade ago when several unsucessful attempts were made to legalize gambling in the state’s fastest growing county.
Just as in Ford County’s tiny town of Clanton, evangelists and gambling promoters squared off in real-life DeSoto County. Moak, who is now chairman of the House Gaming Committee, remembers those times well.
Earlier this year, Moak said he was quite surprised to learn that Grisham had dedicated “Ford County” to him.
“He sent me the very first one off the press,” Moak said. “That was very nice. He has been a very good friend over the years. I was lucky enough to get to read those stories early. I didn’t know the dedication was coming.”
Moak said for all of his friend’s fame and fortune, the lawyer from Southaven has basically remained the same.
“John is a good guy,” Moak said. “The magic carpet ride that he has been on for the past 20 years has not changed him or (wife) Renee. They are a very close family.”
The Grishams got together to celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday. There were a few John Grisham sightings around town, including when Grisham was eating with his family at a Southaven restaurant.
Despite the autograph hounds and constant barrage of media coverage, when Grisham does come home to DeSoto County, he does so quietly.
He slips into town, visits a few old friends, and then he usually flies back to his home in Charlottesville, Va.
Grisham’s college roommate, DeSoto County Property Tax Assessor Parker Pickle, said he also received an early copy of “Ford County,” and considers it one of Grisham’s best books to date.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Pickle, who was Grisham’s roommate, first at Delta State University and then Mississippi State University from 1974-75.
“He sent me the book about a month ago. I thought it was quite interesting. Everybody from the South will know somebody who is in the book. John is very funny, and has a really dry sense of humor. You don’t really pick up on that at first.
“He’s such a shy person and doesn’t talk much. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s such a great slice of Southern life.”