Contractually, John Grisham did not have to write a book in 2009.
Financially, he never has to type another word.
“But I get bored,” says Grisham, the 54-year-old world-renowned author who grew up in Desoto County and became a lawyer and Mississippi legislator. “One day last January I was sitting around at our house in Charlottesville (Va.) watching it snow and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ “
So he went to his writing room, turned on the computer and began sifting through pieces of stories. Some were recent. Some were 20 years old. “All of them started out as novels, but they either weren’t long enough or complicated enough,” he says.
That was the beginning of Grisham’s newest book, Ford County, his first collection of stories.
“We called them ‘stories’ because they’re really not short stories,” he says. “I actually wanted to call them ‘long stories’ because I’ve never seen anyone do that before. But the folks at Doubleday said no, and I didn’t feel like fighting about it. Plus, they’re pros and know what they’re doing.”
In the seven stories, Grisham touches on subjects such as strip clubs, retirement homes, casinos, death row, old rivals, AIDS and homosexuality. He mixes humor with gut-wrenching sadness.
“I really, really like it,” says Joe Hickman, manager of Lemuria Books in Jackson. “The stories kind of remind you of (the late Mississippi author) Larry Brown – nice stories that give you a whole reading experience.
“And I believe this book might do something that probably John didn’t even see coming. People who read Grisham but don’t normally read literary fiction might say, ‘Wow, I like this’ and expand their own reading habits. They might look at literary fiction in an entirely new way thanks to John.”
Lance Bowman, 38, of Jackson has read all 23 Grisham books. “Ford County is the best writing he’s ever done,” Bowman says. “His other books were fast-moving thrillers, and I loved those. But these stories touched my heart.”
Grisham keeps almost everything, especially the notes he makes while trying to figure out his next project.
The first story, Blood Drive, dates back to 1990, before The Firm was sold and started him on a mega-million-dollar writing career.
That was the story he looked at first on that snowy January day. It focuses on three less-than-suave guys from Ford County – a fictional place in north Mississippi – who travel to Memphis to give blood to a friend in need. “The wheels sort of come off during the trip,” Grisham says. They drink too much beer and spot a billboard advertising a nearby strip club.
Grisham laughs. “Can’t you just picture these three bozos when they see this billboard with a woman about to pop out of her clothes, and they realize they’re just a few miles away and they can actually walk in and see this woman? One of the guys, Calvin, gets there … he’s always been looking for a job, and he thinks he’s found his life calling, working in this strip club.
“I laughed my head off the whole time I wrote it.”
It wouldn’t work as a novel but was perfect for a story. “It was almost finished when I looked at it again,” he says.
Grisham and his agent sent Blood Drive and two others – Casino and Fetching Raymond – to Doubleday. “They got pretty fired up, so we decided to proceed with it,” he says. “They wanted eight stories. I gave them seven. Could’ve given them eight, but I was up against deadline and the seven stories worked. The book turned out being 308 pages, and that is about right.”
The book’s final story, Funny Boy, was written from scratch over a two-week period in May. It is about a white man dying with AIDS who returns to his small-town home and is shunned by family and friends. He spends his final days under the loving care of a black woman.
“All the stories are scaled-down novels,” he says. “There are very few characters and no subplots. So it’s just a basic story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. And they really weren’t hard for me because that’s how I write novels.”
It was natural, he says, that the stories are set in Ford County, which dates back to his first book, A Time to Kill.