John Grisham spoke to a University of Virginia politics class on March 23. The best-selling author spoke candidly to hundreds of students about his seven years as a state representative in Mississippi. Grisham said he became bored and fed up with politics and that’s when he became a writer.
It was Grisham’s frustration with the state’s legislature that spawned “A Time to Kill,” the first of more than a dozen best-selling legal thrillers that have brought him international acclaim.
Speaking to University of Virginia students in professor Larry J. Sabato’s Introduction to American Politics course, Grisham said he came out of the University of Mississippi Law School having somewhat mapped his life’s plan.
And that plan began taking shape in 1983 as the then-28-year-old Grisham campaigned against, and beat, a longtime Mississippi House of Representatives incumbent.
But Grisham started becoming blasé about politics as he spent months knocking on thousands of doors during his first campaign.
“About half of the doors were of people who were not registered to vote,” he said.
But Grisham said he listened to people’s complaints because he wanted to put up as many signs in as many yards as he could.
Once in the legislature, Grisham and others took up a campaign to oust a speaker of the House who they thought had been in power too long.
When that effort failed, he and the others who mounted the campaign found it hard to be effective.
Nevertheless, Grisham ran again for office four years later, that time unopposed. With his victory seemingly sewn up, Grisham again mounted a campaign to knock off an incumbent senator with whom he was at odds.
“Turns out that the state senator had recruited two ladies to run against me,” he said.
In the end, both incumbents won re-election.
But Grisham was not long for the political world, and in 1990 left the legislature. By that time, the film rights to “A Time to Kill” had been purchased and his eventual bestseller “The Firm” was in the works.
“Once people vote for you they think they own a piece of you,” he said. “I never adjusted to the constituents. They all wanted something. … There was a long list of things they expected you to do.”
During his time in the legislature, he recalled, everybody was trying to crush everybody else’s legislation.
“Huge sections of [“A Time to Kill”] were written in the state capitol because I had nothing else to do,” he said.
On his time in the legislature: “I accomplished nothing.”
Twenty-one novels later, the author has rebounded and today leaves politicking to the professionals — showing his support for friend and fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton during the presidential race.
“We’re still disappointed [at Clinton’s loss],” Grisham said of himself and his wife, Renee. “But at the same time we’re excited by the change.”
But Clinton is not the only Democrat Grisham supports. He has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Grisham donated $431,325 to political causes and campaigns from 1998 to 2008. Just last December he gave $50,000 to Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign.
“Terry’s an old friend. We sort of go back to the old Clinton administration and I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’d make a wonderful governor, and that aside, Terry’s ability to raise money is going to be crucial,” said Grisham.
Asked by a student what he thought of President Barack Obama’s administration so far, Grisham said, “I think he’s got to get away from this Jay Leno, rock-star stuff [referring to the president’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” last week]. … If he can survive the economy, the potential is there for greatness.”
Finally, Grisham says he’s always looking for his next book idea. He also told the class he’s lucky to have never faced “writer’s block.”