An Interview with John Grisham
At the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate, 2018
by Sarah Morgan
There is an audible hush around the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival because we’re in the presence of greatness, a man whose books have been international bestsellers for almost 30 years – John Grisham.
His work has been turned into blockbusting films starring the likes of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, and he’s recently released his 40th novel, The Rooster Bar, yet this unassuming, sharp-witted former lawyer from small town Mississippi almost never put pen to paper.
“It was a crazy time”
“I never thought of being a writer,” he claims. “But I grew tired of the law and hit on a story about a young lawyer like me, so I wrote it. But A Time to Kill (his first book) flopped. I told my wife, ‘if the second book flops, I’m gonna quit this hobby’. But it was The Firm and it was a huge hit.”
But even The Firm’s road to glory wasn’t smooth. His agent had little faith in it, especially after Grisham refused to follow his advice to sex it up. The film rights sold first, sparking an international bidding war among publishers. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It made more money than I ever had as a lawyer. It was an amazing thing for me and my wife – just two kids from Mississippi living the dream. The Firm came out 25 years ago this month, The Pelican Brief six months later, and then The Client. It was a crazy time.”
“I don’t think in terms of experimenting”
It was also a period when Grisham honed his craft. Few authors understand how to create popular page-turners quite so well. The man himself reckons the key to success is to keep things simple.
“I don’t think in terms of experimenting,” he reveals. “I don’t think how it fits in with the other stuff out there – I think about if it’s a good story.”
As an attorney, he “liked using the law as a hammer, a tool to help people,” and in a way he continues to do so, gaining insights and inspiration from his son, who has followed him into the profession.
“Inform, expose and enlighten”
“I take a fictionalised case, use it to inform, expose and enlighten the public about an issue, but with an unexpected ending.”
Grisham makes the creative process sound so simple, but there is one aspect of his career he finds difficult – coming up with titles.
“You want something great like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Grapes of Wrath, but it just doesn’t happen.”
Never mind. With a string of seemingly never ending hits on his CV, we’ll let this issue go. Case closed.
images: CAG Photography