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John Grisham

Interview: John Grisham
Best-Selling Author

June 2, 1995
Williamsburg, Virginia

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Did you have a clear idea of wanting to write books? What was your earliest goal?

John Grisham Interview Photo
John Grisham: To play professional baseball, like every kid, from the time I was six years old until I was 20. It took a long time for the dream to die. It took a long time to realize I didn't have the talent to play, which is always difficult to accept.

At what point did you decide to become a lawyer, and how did you go on to become a writer?

John Grisham: There was a pivotal moment. I grew up in a very small, close-knit, Southern Baptist family, where everything was off-limits. So I couldn't wait to get to college and have some fun. And I did for the first two years. And I regret a lot of it, because my grades were in terrible shape. I never got in serious trouble, except for my grades.

For two years of college, I was going nowhere. And before my junior year in college I said to myself, "Enough of the partying, it's time to get busy and get serious." And I decided to study accounting, which was a tough degree to get, and to take that and go to law school and become a tax lawyer. I had sort of a business background, or mentality, I guess. That's what I enjoyed. And I did. At that point I just said, "Okay, it's time to get serious." And I was 20 years old. And at about the same time I said, "Okay, it's time to forget about playing baseball." I'd played baseball in junior college, and so it was time for that boyhood dream to go away. And at that point I was no longer a kid.

Sometimes giving up a dream can lead to other dreams.

John Grisham: Yeah. I had to give that up before I could really be happy pursuing something else. It had been with me so long and the talent simply was not there. I can't tell you what made it happen, but it was a very real, definite moment, when I said, "Okay, it's time to grow up."

John Grisham Interview Photo
The writing has come fairly late in life. I never dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid, even a student, even in college. In fact, I'd been practicing law for about three or four years in the early '80s, when I decided to make a stab at writing a story that I'd been thinking about. And the story eventually became A Time to Kill.

It took three years to write it, and I was very disciplined about doing it. It was very much a hobby. By the time I finished it, I had developed a routine of writing every day. When I finished it, I went to the next book, which was The Firm. Once that was written, everything started changing. I wouldn't use the word "accident," but it certainly wasn't planned. I never dreamed of it.

You found the time to write, so you must have been pretty motivated.

John Grisham: The bulk of the first two books,

A Time to Kill and The Firm, those books were written over a five-year period, back-to-back, from about 1984 to about 1989. The bulk was written at five o'clock in the morning, from five 'til seven in the morning. I'd get up and go to the office that early. And again, it wasn't any fun, but it was a habit. It got to be part of the daily routine. And I remember several times being in court at nine o'clock in the morning, really tired, because writing takes a lot out of you. It's draining. And I would do it for an hour or two in the morning, and get ready for court, and go to court. Be standing, waiting for the judge, and be really tired.

What is so satisfying to you about writing?

John Grisham: When I started all this, my motives were pure, I was not driven by greed or money. I had a story. It was a courtroom drama.

I was doing a lot of courtroom work, I was a very young lawyer. But I was handling a lot of court appointed criminal cases, in trial a lot. And I knew the criminal system, and I knew a lot about it. And so, I came up with a story about a murder trial, and some of it was based on personal experience, most of it was not. And I kept telling myself, I would like to be the lawyer who defended a father who murdered the two guys who raped his daughter. I think that would be a fascinating case. One thing led to another, and I was sort of consumed with this story. And one night I just said, "Okay. I'm going to try to capture it, see what I can do with words." And that's what happened.

Did you have any experiences when you were a kid that inspired you?

John Grisham: There were a couple of things that were very important in my childhood. Number one, my mother did not believe in television. We just didn't watch much of it. She just thought it was bad, and that was 30 years ago. She believed in books, and we were taught to read early. We were encouraged to read, throughout childhood and adolescence, by my mother.

We moved a lot when I was a kid, throughout the deep South. We would always go to a new town and go to the library, get our library cards and load up with books. And we spent our time reading, reading to each other. And my mother spent a lot of time reading to us. I've always had a love for books and a love for literature and a love for reading. Oddly, I never thought about writing until late in life.

Was there a person who inspired you?

John Grisham: I had the benefit of some very good high school English teachers. One in particular when I was a senior in high school. I was a jock, okay. I was not a student. Although I enjoyed reading, that was about it as far as academics.

But she forced us to read good books and good writers, particularly good American writers. We weren't too thrilled to do it initially, but she taught us how to do it. Through that, I discovered some of my favorite authors, particularly John Steinbeck. Once I had gone through all of Steinbeck's books, I realized that I had had a wonderful experience.

I remember reading a lot of Steinbeck in high school and thinking, "I'd love to be able to write this clearly." At the same time we were having to read Faulkner. So we had Faulkner on one hand, and Steinbeck on the other, and Steinbeck looked remarkably clear, compared to Faulkner. I can't say that when I'm in Mississippi, but I can say it here.

What was the teacher's name?

John Grisham: Francis McGuffey. She's still teaching, and we still correspond. She comes to my book signings in Memphis when I'm there. I send her an autographed copy of every book. We're still friends, still buddies.

What particular books meant a lot to you when you were young?

John Grisham: I read a lot of books when I was a kid, just for the sheer fun of reading. All the series of mysteries and books like that.

The first book I remember that really grabbed me was a book that Miss McGuffey made us read, a book called Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck. And when I read it, I really enjoyed the book. And so I went to her and said, "This is really -- I like this." And she was shocked that I would show any interest in what she was making us do. So she said, okay, read this. And the next one was Of Mice and Men. So she sort of fed the Steinbeck books to me. When I read The Grapes of Wrath -- we saved that for last -- I knew that was a very powerful book. And I don't know if it had anything to do with my writing style, or me as a writer, because I wasn't thinking about it back then. It had a lot to do with the way I viewed humanity and the struggles of little people against big people. It was a very important book for me.

Was there a moment in your career that really stands out?

John Grisham Interview Photo
John Grisham: There have been some wonderful phone calls from New York. The biggest phone call yet was the first time, a truly magical moment. After a year of being turned down, my agent called one day in April of '88 and said, "We have a publisher for A Time to Kill. It's going to be a book." At that point it had been turned down by 30-something publishers. Everybody had said no to it. He found a very small press in New York, and they wanted to buy it. That was a huge moment.

Another time, he called and said, "We've sold the film rights to The Firm to Paramount." It was totally unexpected, because at that time there was no book deal, it was just in manuscript form. Those are big moments. I don't know if you sort of get jaded, or callous to success, but it's still terribly exciting. It's still hard to believe.

The Firm was published four years ago, so it's been awfully quick. The Firm was not the first book, but it was the first book anybody read. My career is still in its infancy and it still feels brand new. Something happens every day that makes me stop and try to remember where I am and what's happening.

Tell us about your family and your friends.

John Grisham: It's easy to remember friends.

When A Time to Kill was published, it was an unknown author, unknown book, unknown publisher. There was no money for promotion, so I tried to sell the book myself. And I went to a lot of book stores in the Memphis, mid-South area and a lot of them had no time, you know? They didn't want a new author, especially one with a publisher they'd never heard of. But there were a handful who opened their doors and said, "Sure, come in. We'll try to sell some books, and we'll have a party, and we'll invite all of our customers."

And, you know...

It's hard to forget people like that. And it's fun now. I go back every time. I've gone back with every book. There are five stores. I call them -- they're my home stores. These are friends of mine, and I can't imagine publishing a book and not going back to their stores. I mean, now the book signings last for, you know, ten or 12 hours, but you know, it's still fun.

It's tiring, but it's only once a year. I don't do it every day. And there are worse things in life than signing lots of copies of your own books. I'm still gratified that people show up and wait in line to get a book signed.

Are there personal characteristics that you think are important for success in every field?

John Grisham Interview Photo
John Grisham: I love to talk to kids and ask them where they're going to college, and what they want to study. And so often it's all planned. They know exactly where they're going, what they're going to do and where they're going to be ten years from now. I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm, but I want to say, "You can't plan everything." I never planned to write books, it was not something I ever thought about. I thought I'd be a lawyer for the rest of my life. It's important to have goals and to work hard for them, but life has a way of presenting opportunities that you don't really notice at first. Success a lot of times depends on whether you make a change and try something that you hadn't planned, something new.

I give commencement speeches occasionally to colleges and high schools, and I usually dwell on that, tell the students, "Get your education and work hard, but don't race toward the age of 22 or 23 when you're out of college, and you've got the credit card, and you've got the BMW, and you want everything right then at the age of 23, because you're not going to enjoy your education." I tell kids to stay in school until they're 30 years old. Their parents hate me for it, but nobody really takes you very seriously until you're 30 anyway. You need to spend a lot of time in school.

What advice would you give to one of these kids if they wanted to write a novel?

John Grisham: There are certain things you can do now. I don't know how much of it is talent. There has to be some talent there, the ability to tell stories, the ability to handle language. There are certain things you cannot do now, but there are certain things you can do now to prepare for it.

The basics of grammar and vocabulary are very important. And you tend to take it for granted, until you start trying to write. It is terribly important to read extensively. Virtually all writers I know are voracious readers still, and that is preparation. The more you read, the more you know. The more your imagination works, the more you read. And that's -- those are the tools of a good writer. You have to live. Nobody wants to hear -- the world does not want to hear -- a great novel from a 21 year-old. You've got to get a real job and get a real career, and you've got to go to work. And you've got to live and you've got to succeed and fail, and suffer, a little bit, or see suffering, heartache and heartbreak and all that before you really have anything to write.

If you've got the money, it's nice to travel. Keep journals. Take notes about what you're doing. You can practice writing. You can start writing now, writing stories and books, or whatever you want to write. The discipline of it is important. All those things are important. Now, can you piece them all together and tell a wonderful story? You won't know until you try.

Did you have any conception of the kind of success that you've come to?

John Grisham: It's been one book at a time. A Time to Kill was published, but nobody bought it. About the time it was published, I was finished with The Firm. The Firm slowly became a best-seller when it was published. While it was getting this attention, I was writing the next book, which was The Pelican Brief.

Each book has built on the other. Then the movies came along and added a much heavier layer of fame and notoriety, and pressure. It's just snowballed, but there's no way I could have predicted that, because I can't predict what's going to happen next year with the movies and the books. I don't have a feel for everything that's coming.

The pressure of really sudden notoriety and success, it's good and bad. I mean, it's something you think you'd like to have, and it's something that's nice. There are a lot of rewards. The good far outweighs the bad. But you catch yourself trying to remember what's important to you, your friends and families and what you enjoyed doing years before. We have two small children, and we had a life before all this happened. And even then -- we call it BF, before The Firm, that's how we judge time -- everything we did revolved around the kids, and it's still that way. We've sort of regrouped as a family, and we kind of stick to ourselves, with a few friends.

John Grisham Interview Photo
It makes you appreciate the friends you had, because now everybody wants to be friends. It makes you deeply appreciative of the people who are truly friends. We've stayed away from the success. We live in Mississippi, and in Virginia. We live in both places, but it's country living. We try to keep it simple, and we stay away from Hollywood, New York and all those places where the attention really is.

What does the phrase, "the American Dream" mean to you?

John Grisham: It's hard to define, but I guess I'm living it. At times I feel like I'm living a dream.

My parents did not have the benefit of college. They didn't get to go to college. They were from a very rural part of the deep South, where most of my relatives were from. College to them was always a dream. For us, it was always a requirement. We knew -- because they told us -- we'd go to college. And they worked very hard to pay for it, and to provide it for all of five kids. And I was the first member of my family to finish college, and to get a graduate degree in law, and to start practicing law. And for the family, that was a source of immense pride. To me, that's the American Dream, for one generation to keep building the dream for later generations.

John Grisham Interview Photo
My success was not planned, but it could only happen in America. We entertain the world. There are very few foreign authors that sell here. There are a lot of American authors who sell well around the world. There are very few foreign movies that anybody will watch here. Yet our movies and our music are watched and listened to around the world.

True. Thanks for talking with us. It's been great.

You're welcome.

This page last revised on Mar 23, 2009 11:42 EDT