DEAUVILLE, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 05: Winner of the Lucien Barriere Literary prize, John Grisham, arrives to attend his award ceremony on September 5, 2018 in Deauville, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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John Grisham: 30 Years in Isolation

Grisham hadn’t set out to be a writer, rather he drifted into it after stints at an asphalt layer, plumber, underwear salesman, lawyer (he changed colleges three times before he got a degree), and state senator from Mississippi. Then, as he tells it in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2010, “As usual, I was loitering around the courtroom, pretending to be busy. But what I was really doing was watching a trial involving a young girl who had been beaten and raped. Her testimony was gut-wrenching, graphic, heartbreaking, and riveting. Every juror was crying. I remember staring at the defendant and wishing I had a gun. And like that, a story was born.”

A Time to Kill, the story of racial injustice and the first appearance of his lawyer character Jake Brigance, took four years to get a publisher. It was rejected by 28 of them until Wynwood Press gave it a modest 5,000 print run in 1988.

Grisham continues in the Op-ed: “The book didn’t sell, and I stuck with my day job, defending criminals. Still, something about writing made me spend large hours of my free time at my desk. I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. But it paid off. Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had, but it’s worth it.”

His second book, The Firm, ended up on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 47 weeks. Paramount bought the film rights for $600,000. Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman starred in the 1993 adaptation which made $158 million at the box office.

The Pelican Brief starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington came out that same year and made $101 million. The Client followed in 1994 starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, earning $92 million. Seeing that Grisham’s movies were all hits, Hollywood made A Time to Kill in 1996. It starred Matthew McConaughey in his first major role. Here’s Grisham on his casting: “I had the right to veto the top actors, and one was Jake Brigance, the lawyer hero. They had the crew and, budget, screenwriter, everything ready to film it down in Mississippi, but they didn’t have Brigance. We were going back and forth and I was vetoing some actors and [director] Joel Schumacher said, let’s take a look at this kid. He’s unknown but I got a screen test. From the moment we saw Matthew, we said “this is our guy”.”

Chris O’Donnell), The Rainmaker (1997, Matt Damon and Claire Danes), The Runaway Jury (1997, John Cusack and Gene Hackman), Christmas with the Kranks with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2004, based on Skipping Christmas, and the TV movie A Painted House with Scott Glenn and Logan Lerman in 2003.

mso-color-alt:windowtext’>What the leads in Grisham’s legal thrillers have in common are that they seem to be his alter-ego in a way – young Southern men with hardscrabble childhoods who become lawyers to fulfill some idealistic idea of justice. Then they become disillusioned when they find that justice is not fairness. Themes of racial injustice, class warfare, and capital punishment also abound. In fact, Grisham is on the board of the Innocence Project whose mission is to use DNA evidence to free prisoners unjustly incarcerated by a broken justice system. He has testified before Congress on behalf of the organization, and written three books on the subject – The Confession for which Grisham was awarded the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction; his 40th book, The Guardians, whose protagonist is a priest and an “innocence lawyer;” and a nonfiction book,  of 2006. Grisham considers that one the most important he’s ever written “because it’s about a very, very serious issue that’s still in play in this country because we have so many innocent people in prison. And it’s very difficult to get them out.”

Outside of the legal thriller genre, Grisham has written about another passion, baseball, in A Painted House. He even wrote the screenplay for a baseball movie, 2004’s Mickey with Harry Connick, Jr. Skipping Christmas was a comedy, and he’s written a series of children’s books featuring child lawyer Theodore Boone for 9-12 year-olds.