John Grisham’s legal pad was blank and his knees like putty as he approached the judge’s bench. Just a few months out of law school in the early 1980s, he had made every rookie mistake imaginable in his first murder trial and now had to give closing arguments.
The judge put his hand over the microphone and asked Grisham whether he needed to vomit.
“I left for the restroom, and I did what I had to do. And I came back and I apologized to the jury for just being there, for even going to law school,” Grisham says with the humor that comes from hindsight.
But he won the case.
Earlier this month, Grisham, 54, approached that same bench for the first time in about 20 years with considerably more confidence, no longer a practicing attorney but one of the best-known writers of popular fiction. More than 245 million copies of Grisham’s 22 books — most of them legal thrillers — are in print, translated into 29 languages.
Grisham appreciates his success rather than boasts about it.
“It feels like another lifetime,” he says softly, with a hint of wonder, as he scans the judge’s bench and jury box in the DeSoto County Courthouse in Hernando, south of Memphis.
Grisham did more than try cases in this building. He set the course for his new life.
“If I had 30 minutes to an hour, I would sneak up to the old law library, hide behind the law books and write A Time to Kill,” he says.
It has been two decades since the publication of A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first novel. On June 23, Dell released a 20th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by the author.
His second book, The Firm, made him a star in 1991, but A Time to Kill remains his favorite legal thriller. It took three years to write and two years to get published.
And in this anniversary year, Grisham returns to A Time to Kill’s fictional Mississippi setting in Ford County Stories, which will be published this fall.
The back story of Grisham’s success — essentially the story of how A Time to Kill was written and sold — takes almost as many surprising, though not deadly, turns as the plots of his books.
Grisham described himself as a “street lawyer,” representing people, not banks, insurance companies or corporations for 10 years. He also served in the Mississippi state Legislature. But halfway through his legal career, he was dreaming of a way out.
“When I started writing in the fall of ’84, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was motivated for all of the right reasons,” he says. “I had a story to tell and I wanted to see whether I could tell it.”
In many ways, A Time to Kill is autobiographical fiction. Grisham and Jake Brigance, the lead character, were the same age, 32, graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School in Oxford and lived in small towns — Grisham in Northwest Mississippi’s Southaven and Jake in fictional Clanton. Neither made much money to support a pretty wife and young child.
Based on a true impulse
The trial that inspired A Time to Kill— a 12-year-old girl had been raped — was conducted in the DeSoto County courtroom where Grisham so often worked. In the book, 10-year-old Tonya is tied between a tree and a fence post, beaten and raped by two drunk rednecks.
The real girl’s testimony was “gut-wrenching,” recalls Grisham, who was in the courtroom but not working on the trial. “I had tears in my eyes.”
When she could continue no longer and the judge called recess, Grisham bolted down the back way out of the courthouse.
When he realized he had left his briefcase behind, he walked back up the stairs. No one saw him.
The only people in the courtroom were the defendant and a deputy 10 feet away from him.
“When I walked by the defendant, I was overcome with this thought that had this been my daughter, being as emotionally charged as I was and if I had a gun, I could have done it right there. Gotten my retribution.”
In A Time to Kill, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, gets his retribution, and Jake suffers atrocious consequences for defending him.
“With time and clear-headedness, I’m sure I would not have” shot the accused, Grisham says. “I would have the good sense to let the system deal with it.”
When Grisham finished his first chapter, which details the fictional rape, he asked his wife, Renee, to read it. “She always knows what works,” he says. And she read and critiqued chapters as they were written.
Bill Ballard, a close friend and attorney in Hernando, was the second person to read the manuscript.
Over the years, the men had bonded over books. They would slip away on Friday afternoons — instructing their secretaries to tell people they were in depositions — and drive about 60 miles to Oxford’s famed Square Books.
“When John told me that he was working on a book, I figured he wouldn’t write a bad one,” Ballard says. “He analyzed how best sellers were constructed, plot development, at what time readers would be engaged, at what time they would put the book down.”
When Grisham finished A Time to Kill in January 1987, it was a stack of legal pads. When typed, the manuscript was 900 pages.
The first chapters went out to a couple dozen publishers and agents. The rejections stacked up.
That April 15, after Grisham returned from his accountant frustrated, broke and about to borrow money to pay his taxes, agent Jay Garon called wanting to represent him.
Wynwood Press, a small company in New York, bought the manuscript a year later and printed 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill — at a length about a third shorter than the original manuscript — in June 1989. Grisham ordered 1,000 himself.
Wynwood didn’t have marketing muscle, so Grisham concocted his own book tour.
“I had this scheme where I would throw a party in my local library and the whole town would show up and I would sell a lot. I have pictures of kids climbing on stacks of A Time to Kill.” But when the party was over, he still owned most of the copies.
Only briefly thwarted, he decided to make similar stops all over the state. Places such as Starkville, Coffeeville and Calhoun City. Friends of the library would make punch and cookies; Grisham would answer questions. About three months and 30 libraries later, he finally sold all of his copies.
His first official book party was on Ballard’s porch in Hernando. “Most people around here didn’t know a published writer, and they were proud of him,” Ballard says.
“Some had a glass of wine, fumbled around with the books and left. They didn’t want to drop $16.95 for a book that’s worth a couple of thousand now. But the people who did buy one” — 44 copies were sold, he recalls — “are quick to tell you they did.”
Then Grisham set his sights on Square Books.
“He wanted to do a book signing. I explained how we typically try to sell,” says store owner Richard Howorth. “Our staff has to develop an enthusiasm, and no one had even read the book.”
The next day, Grisham gave Howorth a manuscript. “I thought, ‘Oh, brother.’ But I took it home that night and was still up at 2 in the morning absolutely absorbed in the story.”
About 50 books sold at the signing, a good showing, he says.
While selling his first book, Grisham finished writing another, The Firm, at his desk wedged between the washer and the dryer in the laundry room.
The Grishams — who have a son, Ty, and daughter, Shea — moved to Oxford from Southaven in 1990, and John kept his law office open until year’s end.
Grisham got what he calls the luckiest break in his career when, unbeknownst to him, a copy of The Firm’s manuscript surfaced in Hollywood in late 1989. Paramount bought the film rights; two weeks later, Doubleday, a major New York publishing house, bought the book and published it in 1991.
Having The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client topping best-seller lists in consecutive years certainly raised his profile around town, but the release of the movie adaptations added a blockbuster layer of attention.
“People from anywhere would start driving up to their house,” Howorth says.
“We are extremely private, and we really got sort of ambushed by the notoriety,” Grisham says.
“The Deep South has the friendliest people in the world. They will do anything for you. They also want to know what’s going on and won’t hesitate to ask questions.
“It has been said that we were run out of town. We were not.”
Howorth, now mayor of Oxford, explains the effect of Grisham’s success: “John is gregarious and makes friends easily. When they moved here, he and Renee got involved in PTA, their church. And those people were supportive.
“But inevitably when a person begins to gain fame and monetary success, the same people who hosted him for library teas or ladies’ book clubs wanted him to come to their sister-in-law’s book club in Memphis or speak to the Rotary Club in Tupelo. He tried to oblige everyone.”
Getting some distance
In 1994, the Grishams did sneak away to the countryside outside Charlottesville, Va. They intended to stay a year. It has stretched to 15. But they maintain their home outside Oxford and visit frequently.
And Grisham returns to Square Books with each new book.
“I said, ‘John, you don’t need to do this. You’ve more than repaid any debt you think you had to us,’ “ says Howorth. “But he continues, I think out of loyalty.”
Ford County Stories, Grisham’s first extended return to Clanton since The Last Juror (2004), was not planned as part of the 20th anniversary of A Time to Kill.
“I am not that calculating,” Grisham says. “But the stories were piling up.”
He had worked on one for 20 years, he says. He started writing another only a month ago. A couple of the stories are about lawyers in particular; another is about an execution. But only one character reappears from A Time to Kill, Jake’s slovenly, acerbic, ethically challenged but steadfast friend Harry Rex Vonner.
Grisham’s next novel is scheduled for publication in November 2010. He’ll start writing at the beginning of the year.
“He knows the last page of the book when he starts writing the first one,” says Ballard.
“All of my books are designed to be entertaining,” Grisham says. “The pages are supposed to fly by.”