John Grisham: ‘Non-lawyers who write legal thrillers often get things so wrong’

In 1984, 29-year-old John Grisham was a small-town lawyer working at the DeSoto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi when he witnessed a trial that changed his life. Two young sisters had been attacked and raped in a remote farmhouse just miles from his law office, and as he listened to the 12-year-old give her harrowing testimony, Grisham began to wonder what would happen if the girls’ father decided to take justice, or vengeance, into his own hands. In that moment, the seed of Grisham’s debut thriller A Time to Kill was planted. “I saw the spark because I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” says Grisham, now 67. “Most lawyers are good storytellers because they tend to embellish and they see a lot of crazy behaviour. I had never written before, never thought about it. But I recognised a great story.”

Eventually published in 1988, A Time to Kill marked the start of a literary career that has seen Grisham grow into one of the world’s bestselling authors. His books have sold 300 million copies worldwide, including no less than 28 consecutive number one fiction bestsellers over the past three decades. His first big hit came in 1991 with his second novel, The Firm, a rollercoaster legal thriller about an ambitious young attorney who finds himself in the grasp of organised crime. It spent 47 weeks on the bestseller lists on its way to being crowned the year’s highest-selling novel and was adapted into an acclaimed film starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman in 1993. “The Firm set me free,” recalls Grisham. “It found a market real fast, became popular, then went nuts when the movie came out. Suddenly I was bored with the practice of law and realised I could make more money writing about it.”

Grisham was born in February 1955, the second of five children, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He grew up on a cotton farm in Southaven, Mississippi, and his earliest memories are of helping his father pick cotton out in the fields at the age of five. In his teens, Grisham earned his first steady pay cheques watering rose bushes at a nursery for the princely sum of a dollar an hour. He went on to work a string of manual labour jobs, including building fences, plumbing and laying highway asphalt beneath the blistering Mississippi sun. The experience was enough to convince him to buckle down and focus on college, and by 1981 he had graduated with a law degree and returned to Southaven to work as a trial lawyer.

Grisham began his career with idealistic visions of helping ordinary people, but soon found himself becoming disillusioned with the realities of the American legal system. He saw that political change was needed, so ran for office as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives and was elected in 1983. Once there, he again found it difficult to really help the people who needed it most. He says little of substance has changed in all the years he’s been practicing and writing about the law in America.

“Our criminal justice system has not improved in the last three decades,” says Grisham. “There are still thousands of innocent people in prison and more get locked up every year. The police and prosecutors responsible for wrongful convictions are immune from punishment. Racism is a huge factor at every phase: suspicion, arrest, bail, indictment, trial, and sentencing.” Despite the lack of real progress, he says he can still find room for hope. “We could solve so many problems if we only had the political will to do so,” he adds. “It takes legislation, and at least the two sides are talking.”

After the runaway success of The Firm convinced Grisham to focus on writing full time, he returned with a string of bestselling follow-ups. In 1992 he published suspense thriller The Pelican Brief, which was quickly adapted into a hit movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and the following year published The Client, which likewise went straight to Hollywood with a cast featuring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. Grisham says he had no qualms about handing over control of his stories to the film studios, adding that he’s been fortunate that his work ended up in the capable hands of directors like Sydney Pollack and Joel Schumacher. “I want all of my books adapted to film,” he says. “Who doesn’t enjoy a good movie or series? I’ve been lucky with Hollywood: great directors, big name casts, good films.”

Later this month, Grisham will appear on stage at the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival where he’ll be interviewed by his friend and fellow bestselling author Hampton Sides. Having published 36 novels, a work of nonfiction, a collection of stories and six novels for younger readers, Grisham has the chance to look back and take stock on an unexpected career that has made his name synonymous with the legal thriller. After so many successes, he reveals he’s been able to boil the genre down to its essential components. “Authenticity,” he says, first of all – “non-lawyers who write legal thrillers often get things so wrong.” Then there’s plausibility and suspense. “Fiction can be anything but it has to be believable,” Grisham explains. “[And] a likable hero or heroine has to get into serious trouble.” Great, compelling bad guys are also crucial, as “villains you despise keep the pages turning”. Finally, aspiring thriller writers should remember to open their stories with a hook and end it with a curveball. “Something dramatic and realistic needs to happen in chapter one,” says Grisham. “The story builds to a dramatic ending, one with a twist.”

Grisham may be happy enough to break his stories down to their raw components, but don’t ask him to choose between them. “It’s impossible to rank them,” he says, before adding: “A Time to Kill will always be a favourite because of how it all started.” He jokes that his loosely autobiographical 2001 novel A Painted House, inspired by his childhood in Arkansas and Mississippi, is the “most enjoyable to read” on account of their being “no lawyers”. In the end, though, Grisham points out that if he wasn’t so passionate about telling these stories he’d never have become so prolific. “I love them all,” he says. “I have to in order to finish writing them.”

John Grisham will appear at the Santa Fe Literary Festival on 21 May. The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will be providing coverage across each day of the festival as well as during the lead up with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website. To find out more about buying tickets click here.

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