Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: Not all English majors read only the classics, in spite what some believe. No, we — just like most people — read a variety of things depending on our present need. I read all kinds of things — some for research, some for pleasure, some out of curiosity, some to further my education. All that I read is rewarding in one way or another.

The first novel by John Grisham that I read was A Time to Kill. I stumbled across it, actually. I had never heard of Grisham (most hadn’t at that time) but heard that this debut novel would be worth my time. Today Grisham is known by many readers and is recognized as one of America’s pre-eminent novelists. His novels have entertained millions around the world.

In spite of Grisham’s commercial success, there are some English majors who sniff at Grisham’s work and call it “hack writing”. Perhaps they should stick to the classics. — GP

John Grisham

John Grisham was born in 1955 in Jonesboro, Ark., to parents who lacked much formal education but who understood the importance of both education and reading. When Grisham was growing up, his career goal was to be a professional baseball player. That didn’t work out, but he has never lost his love for the game. He loves it so much that he has donated his own money to support the sport in many ways, including through building regulation Little League fields in two states.

The family settled in Southaven, Miss., where Grisham’s earliest jobs included watering plants at a nursery, building fences, and working for a time on a plumbing contractor’s crew. His dad, a construction worker and farmer, helped Grisham get a job with a highway asphalt crew. Grisham said later that this job changed his life and turned his thoughts toward college. He would attend Northwest Mississippi Community College, Delta State University, and eventually graduate with a B.S. degree in accounting from Mississippi State University. Although he loved literature and writing, he didn’t think he could make a career as an author. When he graduated, Grisham became the first person in his family to graduate from college. Soon thereafter, he became the first to graduate from law school. He graduated from the University of Mississippi School of law in 1981, determined to be a tax lawyer.

Grisham married the girl of his dreams (who was actually the 6-years-younger neighbor he hadn’t paid much attention to during the earlier years) also in 1981. Elizabeth Renee Jones married Grisham in their pastor’s study in the Sunday School building of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss. She was a top student in English and literature, but Grisham said that he was more impressed that she could play basketball and not sweat! The couple have two children, a daughter and a son.

A Professional Career

in the Law

Newly-wed Grisham opened a law office specializing in personal injury and criminal defense. Later he would say that he took anybody’s case who could pay the fee. Grisham quickly discovered that he could rarely turn down a case when the client needed help. He did, however, refuse clients and cases based on his personal faith. He didn’t do divorce work, and he turned down some defendants if he didn’t believe their stories. When Grisham was 8 years old, he became a Christian. He has often said that his salvation experience was the most important event in his life. After law school, he worked in Brazil through the First Baptist Church in Oxford’s mission work.

Three years after opening his law practice, Grisham was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1984. He was a Democrat, and had beaten a 20-year incumbent. He served one full term, but resigned before the end of his second term. By his own admission, he was a “terrible” legislator. Grisham had the highest absentee rate among the freshman legislators. He hated the large segments of time that he had to spend in the capital just waiting for discussion of pending bills.

As is so often the case with successful writers, an English teacher at Southaven High School helped to introduce Grisham to the magic of writing. Ms. Frances McGuffey taught him Senior English and whetted his appetite for reading. John Steinbeck’s works especially intrigued the young man. Reading Steinbeck and others raised Grisham’s awareness of the power of the written word.

While languishing in the capital (“killing time” in the Legislature was how he put it), Grisham sought out committee rooms where he could work on his first manuscript. The idea had come to him when he observed a criminal trial in 1984 concerning the alleged rape of a 12-year-old girl. He heard the young girl’s testimony and it haunted him. He decided to try to write about this trial.

Grisham had his law practice for only a decade, but he credits it for helping make him the person that he is. His clients were primarily the “little people’ fighting against much bigger foes. He loved representing the “little guy” against them. Some of his cases involved Workman’s Compensation claims. He was good at these, and a judge who had just heard a case that Grisham had tried and won suggested that Grisham consider a career specializing in them. Grisham thanked him, but told him that he was going to write the great American novel instead. Later, when his first novel was published, Grisham sent a copy to the judge inscribed, “I told you so”.

A Time to Kill

Deathknell was the working title for Grisham’s first novel. Later, when he completed the draft, he was reading Ecclesiastes and decided that A Time to Kill fit the story better.

Grisham essentially learned how to write a novel by writing one. He struggled three years to complete it. He has said that he wrote when sick, with no sleep, and in quiet rooms that he could find in the state capitol. Later, Grisham learned to write an outline and could complete a manuscript in just over 6 months.

Wynwood Press, a small New York publisher, agreed to publish 5,000 copies of A Time to Kill in 1989. Grisham had received 28 rejections before this acceptance came. Grisham bought 1,000 copies and took them to bookstores and other places where he thought there might be interest. He had a book signing at Mississippi State but there wasn’t much interest. However, the librarian there asked him if anyone had asked to collect his papers. Grisham hadn’t even thought of such a thing. After all, he had only one published novel. The librarian said that MSU wanted to set up a place to collect his literary, legislative, and legal papers. He agreed. In 1988, the John Grisham Room and Special Collections opened on the top floor of the Mitchell Memorial Library on campus.

And the Rest of the Story

Over the years after A Time to Kill was published, Grisham has written over two dozen additional legal genre novels. The Judges List, number 26, is scheduled for release this month. It concerns the investigation of a judge believed to be taking bribes from a crime syndicate. The investigation leads to a cluster of serial murders that are unsolved.

Earlier this year, he published his 45th book in all, Sooley. This is his fourth novel dealing with sports (three others have dealt with football or baseball). This one explores the life of a South Sudan youth who is selected to come to America to play exhibition basketball (and perhaps win a scholarship). The book is a typical Grisham page-turner, and the ending is totally unexpected. In all these years, Grisham hasn’t lost his touch.

In his “spare” time, Grisham has also written several other books including a 7-volume series of children’s books. It was Grisham’s daughter, Shea, who inspired him to write the Theodore Boone children’s books about law. A 5th-grade teacher, she saw the importance of that age group learning about the law and its importance in their lives.

Today, there are more than 300 million Grisham books in print. Other than J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter’s creator) and Tom Clancy (Patriot Games and other thrillers), Grisham is the only other author to sell 2 million copies on a first printing. He reportedly earns $50-80 million annually in royalties and advances. He and his wife are active volunteers and support a number of charitable causes — many through The Oakwood Foundation Charitable Trust, the Grishams’ foundation.

Grisham has often said that a “good year’ is one in which he can give away more than he earns. He once wrote, “When you make charitable contributions, you realize you can’t save the world so you find a small area you can go into and hopefully do some good and do it with your own money and your own sweat and you see the results.” That, for Grisham and his wife, gives purpose to their wealth.

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