A Conversation with John GrishamOne of Oxford's most celebrated writers, John Grisham's career has been an explosive journey from the start.
BY DAVID MAGEE
John Grisham’s heart was in the right place. Give him that.
“I’m not going to let this (success) change me,” he said.
The year was 1992, and we were having a quiet conversation in an office building he owned just off the Oxford Square. Grisham’s third novel, “The Pelican Brief,” was about to be released and he was still adjusting to a new normal after his first blockbuster hit, “The Firm,” sat near the top of the bestseller list throughout the year before.
Grisham had just changed his home phone number, he told me, making the new one unlisted, in hopes of avoiding the burgeoning calls summoned by his head-turning success. A few years before he was a small-town lawyer in North Mississippi barely able to pay the rent—happy for most any call.
On this day, he was still for a fleeting moment in a strange space between local resident teaching a Sunday school class at church and a famous person having to unlist his phone number. Already wealthier and more recognizable, Grisham could still walk the streets of Oxford in his limited spare time, stopping into Square Books to sign copies, or by Larson’s for milk and sticks of butter.
Oxford, he hoped, was somewhat of a safe zone because it had “been done before” in Faulkner’s town—the monumental success of a local writer. But Grisham was beginning to worry that his ability to walk the streets or stop by the local grocery store would soon be taken since all indications were that “The Pelican Brief” was going to be another hit at the same time “The Firm” was on its way to Hollywood.
There’s also the fact that Oxford didn’t do Faulkner the way it was doing Grisham. Faulkner was the “town weirdo”—words Grisham once used to describe how the city viewed the late Nobel Prize winner.
“(Faulkner) was a heavy drinker in a dry county, a Baptist county,” Grisham once told a reporter. “And he wrote stuff that nobody read down there. He never fit in down there. The town wasn’t proud of him.”
Oxford felt decidedly different about Grisham, and the per capita ownership of hardback copies of The Firm was higher than Ole Miss football season ticket holders with residents who weren’t avid readers having copies on bookshelves otherwise adorned with family photographs and knick-knacks.
We were sitting feet apart during this conversation, surrounded by dozens of boxes containing copies of his latest book Grisham had to sign for various stakeholders. The boxes crowded the room, likely totaling more than the entire print run of his first book, “A Time to Kill” (1989). One got the feeling that quiet conversations like the one we were having, talking about family members and sharing stories about friends, including the late Oxford interior designer Tim Hargrove, would end with the beginning of his upcoming book tour.
“(Success) hasn’t become a real burden yet,” Grisham told me, “but I do worry a little.”
He could see it coming but didn’t want to admit it, as if holding out hope was the right thing to do. But already friends, and friends of friends, wanted to tell him about books they had written, or hoped to write. Yes, they too had a legal thriller that was sure to be a hit.
“What’s the name of your editor?” they would ask, or, “Can you tell me the name of your agent?”
Meanwhile, Grisham was concentrating on the plot for novels four, five, six and beyond.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “The ideas are popping. I’ve got a lot more.”
The key, he said, was not letting the distractions – people – get in the way. Otherwise, he suggested, he could write dozens of books.
Grisham talked about Oxford passionately as his chosen home, explaining the reasons he and wife Renee had moved to the community and built a home on a farm just beyond the city’s limits a couple of years before using a Southern Living blueprint and proceeds from the $600,000 film rights deal he got for “The Firm.” He suggested the town felt smaller with every book sold, well-intentioned distractions creeping in closer.
Grisham said he still “liked going to the Rotary Club to speak and…visiting the local schools” but teaching Sunday school or walking the Square for leisure wasn’t as easy anymore.
“It’s a struggle,” Grisham said, regarding his evaporating privacy. “I want to be read. I don’t want to be a celebrity.”
We rarely get exactly what we want, and for Grisham being read meant celebrity status – the two went hand-in-hand. Just weeks after our visit, “The Pelican Brief” was released, reaching global bestseller status with a Hollywood deal as what little bit of local life that Grisham had left slipped away.
I didn’t see much of John the rest of that year, nor did most people in Oxford. His next book, The Client, was another blockbuster bestseller with another Hollywood deal. Suffering the fate he dreaded, Grisham all but went underground in Oxford, slipping out only to the youth baseball park, to Ole Miss, or to Square Books. The office he purchased and hoped to keep at an old church downtown was inhabited on most days by his secretary, Penny, whose primary charge was to handle everybody who wanted some of his time so he could write and manage business affairs.
John and Renee funded the Grisham Writer-in-Residence program at Ole Miss (which has recruited stalwarts including Tom Franklin), and he kept ties with Mississippi State (where he attended undergraduate school). But he had to avoid community more than he could embrace it. And by the time “The Rainmaker” was released in 1995, he and Renee were spending most of their time at a home purchased in Charlottesville, Virginia, the year before.
“We didn’t know anyone here,” Grisham recently told a Charlottesville reporter. “That was part of the appeal. We just wanted a place to hide.”
Oxonians could take offense if they didn’t know better. But it wasn’t a dig at the town, or Grisham’s home state of Mississippi. Hardly. You know the saying, “you can take the man out of Mississippi, but you can never take the Mississippi out of the man.” Well, that’s John Grisham. He and family may have moved to Virginia, but his influence here remained significant, even if from afar.
And at opportune moments, to visit family or for the funeral of a friend, Grisham quickly found his way back home. When Willie Morris passed away in 1999, for instance, Grisham joined more than 400 members of the state’s cultural elite gathered to pay respects. Never mind that he arrived here on a personal jet.
“How was John?” I asked Jim Dees, who attended the funeral and had drinks with the noteworthies including Grisham, reminiscing about Willie’s greatness and friendship after he was memorialized.
“He looked like a million bucks,” Dees said.
“I mean, really,” Dees said. “He looked like a million bucks. He was dressed in the finest suit, one of those things from France. He was fit, rested. Not like the rest of us.”
In other words, Grisham had changed, despite his fears, but for the better.
Dees said Grisham still held a commanding presence among the writers and dignitaries—a respect they paid to him at the same time they all paid respect to a fallen friend. It was as if they still considered John one of them.
He just had another zip code. And even though he and his family moved, Grisham still made an impact on this community and this state.
He always considered Square Books his home bookstore, maintaining ties and signings until he no longer toured. He and Renee remained actively involved in the Grisham Writer-in-Residence program at Ole Miss, shaping the emerging literary scene in Oxford during the late 1990s and 2000s.
They donated that church he bought as an office—the old African-American Burns church—to the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation, and the building now stands as a centerpiece of African-American heritage in the community. The Grishams donated heavily to the Innocence Project, including dollars in Mississippi, and they contributed $5 million to aid Mississippians in relief from devastating Hurricane Katrina, plus many other contributions that the couldn’t kept private.
That’s probably why Grisham came up in a conversation this spring on the Square. It was a Friday night, with thousands in every direction. The lights in Square Books burned bright, and shoppers perused the stock while restaurants and bars nearby overflowed with storytelling. It’s been 25 years since Grisham and I had our lengthy conversation about everything important in life and more than 20 years since he moved from town, yet he still carried weight in the conversation.
“People don’t know what all this (Grisham) has done for Oxford,” a mutual friend and longtime Oxford resident told me recently, pointing to massive crowds gathered on the Square. “He had something to do with this.”
No argument here, just as Oxford likely had something to do with Grisham’s success – the literary town, home to bestselling author had a nice ring in the early days of it all. It’s just that this story took a different twist than the one Grisham envisioned when moving here after getting the big check for The Firm film rights.
He wanted to live in Oxford and be a writer, not a celebrity. And he tried to make it work. Really, he did. But he couldn’t stop the change.
Now, we have plenty of other writers, but Grisham is our biggest celebrity. He just happens to live in Charlottesville.
DAVID MAGEE has written a dozen books, including “The Education of Mr. Mayfield.” He is president and publisher of Oxford Newsmedia.