John Grisham Is Still Battling His Southern Demons
By David Marchese photograph by Mamadi Doumbouya
There are very few constants in life — and it sure feels as if the number is shrinking — but one thing readers of popular fiction can count on is that every year will bring a new John Grisham book, or two. With his latest, “Sparring Partners,” the prolific and megaselling novelist is offering his humble version of a changeup. The book, his 47th, is the 67-year-old’s first collection of novellas. It includes three separate stories, one of which features his old standby Southern-lawyer character Jake Brigance. But while his professional life has been marked by a certain steadfastness, his personal and political evolution wasn’t quite so smooth. “I’ve come a long way,” says Grisham, who was a lawyer and a politician before turning to writing. “Once I became a lawyer, most of my clients were poor people, working people, minority people who had no money. We were on one side of the street. On the other side of the street were the people with money. Real quick I realized where I stood in life and where I was going to be in life.”
With the exception of “Strawberry Moon,” the material in the new book feels to me like the kind of plots and subject matter that you normally render at full length. And, to be crass, I’ve also heard that novellas don’t sell as well as novels. So why opt for the form? Over the years, these stories keep lying around, and I realized that the birthdays are piling up and the stories are not being written. So, I said, OK, I’m going to pick out my three favorites and finish them. I’m tired of thinking about them. I emailed Stephen King and said, “You’ve done several collections of novellas; how did it work?” He said he also had a lot of stories, you’re not going to be able to write them all as novels, some don’t work as short stories, so you do something in the middle. That’s how it all came to pass. I can play around with a baseball book or a football book or short stories or a kids’ book in my spare time, but I know my readers want the legal thriller every fall.
When you know you’ve got to deliver a big new legal thriller every fall — and in between you’re often writing those other books — are you ever able to abandon an idea that isn’t working? Or do you just have to find a way to make it work?
I’ve never had the situation where I wrote myself into a corner I couldn’t get out of. At the same time, with every book I reach a point late in the game where I have doubts about the story and get nervous, even frightened, about Who’s going to believe this stuff? I’m going through it right now with “The Boys From Biloxi.” My goal each year with each legal thriller is to write about 100,000 words. That’s going to produce a novel, when published, that’s about 350 pages. To me, that’s ideal. You don’t need a big thick book for a thriller.
“The Boys From Biloxi” — I’m at 120,000 right now and sweating, because I have a lot left to cover to get to the end. So, yeah, those are issues that come up. But I cannot squeeze a novel out of every idea. A perfect example is the opioid crisis. It’s right down my alley because it’s tons of litigation, corporate bad behavior, all kinds of bad guys. I’ve been itching to write that book, but I haven’t been able to get my head around a story that I could do in 100,000 words. It’s just so big. Guantánamo’s another one. I’ve been collecting research for 20 years. We’ve kept prisoners down there for 15 years without charging them with any crime. There’s a lot of lawyers who spend time down there trying to correct a terrible situation. It’s also right down my alley because it’s the legal system, but again, I can’t get my head around that story.
This is a little left-field, but I was fascinated by the fact that as a young man, you held office in the Mississippi Legislature.4 Could the 28-year-old version of you be elected in Mississippi today? At that time I was — I’m not going to say conservative. I was a moderate Democrat. Today that person doesn’t exist in the South. If I ran today, I would hope that I would run as a progressive Democrat — and I would not be elected. I have friends who hold public office in Mississippi who had to switch from Democrat to Republican to keep their jobs. If you have the D by your name, you’re not going to be elected. It has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Also, it ought to be against the law in any state for a 28-year-old to be elected to the state legislature. I see these guys — the guy from North Carolina?
Madison Cawthorn. Yeah. Just got beat. It shows you what happens when a 26-year-old who’s off leash gets elected. He needed to be called home. You’ve got to be at least 30 years old and have some maturity before you get that job. I didn’t do any damage in my eight years, but there’s not much of a record to brag about. I didn’t do a lot of good.
What was the most morally difficult decision you had to make as a politician or a practicing lawyer?5 I’ll tell you a story. A 15-year-old girl in my church got pregnant. Her parents were devastated. Strict Southern Baptist. Small town. They were terrified people were going to find out. They came to me before they went to the minister because they were talking about adoption, the laws. Abortion terrified them. The father was 15 years old, too, so getting married was out of the question. I remember thinking, These people are leaning on me way too much. I was a 27-year-old kid, one year out of law school. They think I’m wise. I’m not ready for this. The parents weren’t a whole lot older than I was — in their early 40s, I guess. They reached a point where they trusted me, and I’m thinking, I don’t want to be in this room. I finally said: “Let’s get the minister involved. You people need help big time, and I’m not giving it to you.” My point is, I realized that on the abortion issue, that was a decision to be made by that family — that girl and the parents and nobody else. Nobody else should be in the room.
Including the government? No government, no lawmaker, no judge. That’s when I began to realize what’s at stake with abortion. I’m opposed to abortion. I didn’t want her to get an abortion, because the baby was going to be healthy — and the baby did make a great gift for someone else. She was able to leave and go live with an aunt in another town, have the baby well cared for, adopt it out. She came back, the family rallied, the church rallied. Made the best of a bad situation, and somebody got a beautiful baby. But there were times when I was thinking the quickest solution would be an abortion. I didn’t say that, but it was a quandary I was in because I was getting way too much input. That had a big impact on me as a lawyer, because you realize the influence you have. The law degree is a powerful tool. You can do a lot of good things. That’s the fun part of being a lawyer, when you help people. I was not a very good lawyer.
Why not? You’ve got to be kind of tough on the business end, and I could never say no to people who were in trouble, especially people I knew in the community. When you take everything that walks in the door, you’re going to go broke. That was my downfall. At the same time, I had strong ambitions about being a skilled courtroom lawyer. That was my goal, inspired by some great old-fashioned country trial lawyers in Mississippi I knew. I was never afraid of going to court. Most lawyers are. A lot of them are afraid to try a case in front of a jury, but I thrived on that. I dreamed of being so good that people with really good cases — injury cases or wrongful-death cases or medical-malpractice cases — would come to me and I would have the chance to make some money, which I never did.
You said that you’re opposed to abortion. For religious reasons? I’ve just never been able to stomach the idea of abortion on demand or women having multiple abortions just because they get pregnant. And I’ve always thought that late-term abortion, partial-birth abortions were something that we should not tolerate because the fetus is viable. I’ve always been turned off by that notion of abortion. I guess it’s probably religious grounds. But at the same time you don’t know what you’re going to do until you’re in that situation. That’s when it becomes a matter of choice.
What political positions did you hold when you were 28 that you don’t hold now? Death penalty, for sure.
You used to believe in it? Big time. I’m in favor of tougher gun control. I am much more suspicious of the police and prosecutors because I’ve seen so many wrongful convictions. Also, race relations: I grew up in the Jim Crow South. A very segregated, racist society was almost in my DNA. It’s a long struggle to overcome that and to look back at the way I was raised and not be resentful toward my parents and other people who helped raise me for their extreme racism. It was such a hard right-wing, racist society that I grew up in. The Baptist Church was that way too back then. I’ve come a long way. I have a lot of friends and even kinfolk who never tried to move beyond the racism. But I try every day. It’s been an ongoing, gradual transformation. My wife was another factor, because she grew up in North Carolina, and it was not as hard-core racist as Mississippi. She and her parents were much more tolerant. So she had a big influence on me. You know, we’re all tribalists. We all want to be around our people or believe in our people, and it’s often too hard to get beyond that. It’s still a struggle for me.
Has your sense of the South as a literary setting changed? To my mind, the open resurgence of racist violence makes a book like “A Time to Kill” read even more disturbingly today than it did when I first read it in the mid-90s. It’s changed in many ways. That story is based on an actual assault that happened in the 1970s in a small town not too far from where I lived and went to law school. When I wrote that story, I was 30 years old and had never written before. I can’t tell you there was a lot of careful forethought with “A Time to Kill.” I didn’t think about the portrayal of Southern Blacks and Southern whites in a small town. That was just my world. At the same period of time, in 1988, I was back from my second term at the Legislature. We had a progressive young governor, a progressive young House speaker. We thought finally Mississippi could change things. We were on the cusp of this progressive revolution. We believed it. Thirty-four years later, it’s astonishing how far backward the state has gone. The politics there are very displeasing to me.
Let me shift gears: This could be apocryphal, but I heard that you and Michael Crichton used to have some one-upmanship over money. Each of you wanted to be paid a dollar more than the other guy. Is that true? In the 1990s, for about five years in a row, my agent would take my latest manuscript — “Pelican Brief,” “The Client,” “The Chamber,” “The Rainmaker” — to Hollywood, get the studios in a room and have an auction. And when they paid, they paid millions. I don’t know what was actually said because I wasn’t there, but it was like, “Crichton got this amount; we want more.” It was back and forth. We were gaming the system big time. It was working beautifully — until it stopped. I sold the film rights to “The Runaway Jury” in 1996 to New Regency for a record amount. I can’t get a fraction of that today. You can say, Well, we choked the golden goose, but all those films made money. Then Hollywood changed. I don’t understand that world. Nobody understands that world. There’s no rules. We learned years ago, do not believe a word until they start filming. “Runaway Jury” was actually the last big contract I got. I helped write the script, which was a huge mistake. Joel Schumacher was the director. We had Sean Connery, Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton ready to start filming. It was a done deal, and Joel Schumacher jumped off the bus. The whole cast walked away. It took years to make that movie.
Why was it a mistake to work on the script? I’m not a screenwriter. It’s not something I enjoy doing. One of the most frustrating parts is the teamwork. You get notes from people who don’t have a clue, who do not understand the basics of storytelling. You wonder if they even make movies. The worst note I got — it’s a great story. In 1993, ’94, somewhere in there, “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client” came out in the span of about 12 months. All three books were at the top of the list, along with “A Time to Kill,” which had been rediscovered. Things were hopping. I was finishing “The Chamber,”10 and this was a stupid thing we did: A big-time Hollywood guy said, “OK, we want to buy your next book right now sight unseen.” I sent the manuscript, what I had, and this studio honcho read the first draft of an incomplete manuscript and wasn’t too crazy about it. Which really pissed me off. Suddenly this guy’s a literary critic? He sent a faxed note, I believe, to my agent at the time and said, “We can’t buy this book for a movie unless Grisham will promise three love scenes and a happy ending.” [Laughs.] If I ever write a Hollywood tell-all, that’s the title of my book: “Three Love Scenes and a Happy Ending.”
Do you think about your critical legacy as a writer? When you get started in the business and you have some success, like I did with “The Firm,” you want to be taken seriously as a writer, but you have to be honest with yourself. You can’t sell books and be loved by critics. It’s not going to happen. There are very few literary authors who sell a lot of books. The best seller for a literary novel is 25,000 copies. Fifty max. If you do sell a lot of books, you’re dismissed by critics. So I decided a long time ago, I’ll take the money and run. You talk about legacy? I don’t care. I’m going to be dead and gone.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the Talk columnist.
John Grisham: A Prolific Literary Force
Since releasing his first hit novel, “The Firm,” in 1991, the writer hasn’t gone a year without publishing a book.
- On Judges: A former criminal defense and personal injury lawyer, Grisham is a student of the shortcomings of the American justice system.
- The Pandemic: The writer spent 30 years churning out legal thrillers, but Covid’s impact on college sports prompted him to shift his focus to basketball.
- Movies: In 1993, Bill Clinton was president, the New South was ascendant and the film versions of Grisham’s stories were topping the box office.
- Writing Tips: The best-selling author shares his list of do’s and don’ts for budding fiction writers.
John Grisham’s Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Popular Fiction
By John Grisham
Since advice is usually ignored and rules are routinely broken, I refer to these little pearls as merely “suggestions.”
There is nothing original about this list. It has all been said before by writers much smarter than me. I’ve just arranged things differently, and I keep changing them as the years go by. There’s nothing binding here. All suggestions can be ignored when necessary. I do it all the time. However, I write each day with these habits ingrained. — J.G.
1. DO — WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY
That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.
Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.
2. DON’T — WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST
This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.
Plotting takes careful planning. Writers waste years pursuing stories that eventually don’t work.
3. DO — WRITE YOUR ONE PAGE EACH DAY AT THE SAME PLACE AND TIME
Early morning, lunch break, on the train, late at night — it doesn’t matter. Find the extra hour, go to the same place, shut the door.
No exceptions, no excuses.
4. DON’T — WRITE A PROLOGUE
Prologues are usually gimmicks to hook the reader. Avoid them. Plan your story (see No. 2) and start with Chapter 1.
5. DO — USE QUOTATION MARKS WITH DIALOGUE
Please do this. It’s rather basic.
6. DON’T — KEEP A THESAURUS WITHIN REACHING DISTANCE
I know, I know, there’s one at your fingertips.
There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category
and use restraint with those in the second.
A common mistake by fledgling authors is using jaw-breaking vocabulary. It’s frustrating and phony.
7. DO — READ EACH SENTENCE AT LEAST THREE TIMES IN SEARCH OF WORDS TO CUT
Most writers use too many words, and why not? We have unlimited space and few constraints.
8. DON’T — INTRODUCE 20 CHARACTERS IN THE FIRST CHAPTER
Another rookie mistake. Your readers are eager to get started. Don’t bombard them with a barrage of names from four generations of the same family. Five names are enough to get started.