John Grisham looks back
Master of the legal thriller will speak Tuesday night at Aspen Words Book Ball, publish new novel in October
John Grisham got out of politics in 1990 after six years in the Mississippi state house, shortly after the publication of his first novel “A Time to Kill,” planning to focus on writing books and to leave public life behind.
Ironically, the novels — which became some of the most read in modern history, quickly defined the legal thriller genre and made Grisham one of the most famous writers on Earth — gave him a bigger public platform than he ever would have had in elected office.
He has used that platform judiciously over the past three decades, wary of sacrificing his work on the page for the allure of celebrity power.
“You have to be careful when you have a platform,” said Grisham, who will keynote the Aspen Words Book Ball at the Hotel Jerome on Tuesday. “You can’t turn a platform into a bully pulpit. You can’t assume that your readers always share your politics. You can’t succumb to the urge to preach all the time.”
That said, Grisham has been a prominent advocate for death row inmates, has campaigned to exonerate the wrongly convicted through the Innocence Project and has worked for related issues around mass incarceration. Many of his books, like 2019’s “The Guardians,” also have tackled these issues, and others like “The Appeal” have dug into wider legal corruption issues.
“If you read what I write with anti-death penalty stuff, wrongful convictions and mass incarceration issues I care about, it’s pretty obvious on what you know what sad street I’m on,” he said. “I just don’t like to wave a lot of flags.”
Grisham also often lends his celebrity to raise funds for charities and groups like Aspen Words.
These days, Grisham is writing two types of novels — the issue-driven ones and the entertainments, though both are compulsively readable.
His latest is an entry in the latter category, “The Judge’s List,” and will be published in October. It marks the return of Lacy Stotz, who was first featured in Grisham’s 2016 novel “The Whistler” investigating crooked judges in Florida. The new book finds her in pursuit of a judge who may be a serial killer.
It’s an old-fashioned thriller, a fun page-turner that brings back a smart, funny protagonist in Stotz who readers — and Grisham — like spending time with in a no-nonsense potboiler.
“I’ve written a number of pretty heavy books about issues and some wrongful convictions and issues that I do care about,” Grisham said. “And after I do a few of those in a row I tell myself, ‘Let’s take a break and just have a good old fashioned mystery and crime novel without some looming social justice issue that I want to expound on.’”
Grisham has no pretensions about writing both kinds of books for a wide readership.
“My wife is very good about saying, ‘Stop preaching for a while and just write a good old thriller,’ and that’s what this is,” he said. “The Lacy books are all about escapism and whodunit.”
Grisham has brought back just a handful of protagonists over the course of his career, the most popular among them Jake Briggance, the small-town Mississippi lawyer in “A Time to Kill.” Briggance remains Grisham’s most autobiographical character — returning in “Sycamore Row” (2013) and “A Time for Mercy” (2020) — and one of the few he’s been compelled to resurrect on the page.
“It’s rare I go back and think about a character,” Grisham said. “Most of my protagonists are dead or in jail or something like that, and I can’t go back. But Lacy I wanted to — I fell for her when I first wrote about her. She’s cool, smart, hip and frustrated, and I always wanted to go back to her again.”
Grisham has been publishing about a book a year for more than 30 years now — 28 of them have been No. 1 bestsellers and he’s sold an estimated 300 million copies — creating consistently satisfying and original stories of courtroom drama or more arcane areas of law.
Writing, generally, from 7 a.m. to about noon for five days of the week, always aiming to hit 1,000 words a day, he’s been able to maintain a remarkable consistency. For most of his career, Grisham has started a new legal thriller on New Year’s Day with a goal of finishing by July.
“That sounds like a crazy schedule, but it’s not,” he explained.
If he can move along at his steady 1,000-word daily clip, he’ll keep finishing a book a year.
“I can’t imagine not doing that,” he said. “It’s just a 35-year habit now. … I really have yet to find anything else to do during those early morning hours to keep me busy. There’s just nothing else.”
He has a list of book ideas and plots that he wants to get to, so he does not expect to slow down any time soon.
Grisham, 66, does spend a lot of time with his grandchildren, he said, and does often take writing breaks to travel with is wife, Renee, often building trips around book festival’s like this week’s Autumn Words literary festival and writers’ conference in Aspen. He is a relatively recent convert to the joys of mountain living. The Grishams spent a week in Aspen in summer 2014 and “just fell in love with the area,” returning regularly since then.
“We don’t do too well on snow, being from Mississippi,” he said. “But summertime is a delight, and we were taken with the scenery, the town and the lifestyle.”
While the quality and output of Grisham’s novels have been steady, what has not been consistent — and which few would have predicted — is the film adaptations of Grisham’s books.
In the ’90s, Grisham’s first seven novels were all adapted into movies that were major cultural events, with his books drawing the best and most popular actors and directors to make them. From Tom Cruise in Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of “The Firm” in 1993 through Robert Altman’s “The Gingerbread Man” in 1998, Grisham’s magnificent seven first books were fodder for some of the best and most popular blockbusters in Hollywood.
That run of films is still revered by critics and rewatched by audiences decades later (“The Firm” is among the movies tackled by the popular Ringer podcast “The Rewatchables”). But his books don’t get adapted anymore. None have made it to the screen since 2004, as Hollywood has largely given up on adult dramas and legal thrillers.
“I do miss it,” Grisham said of the adaptations. “They were all huge hits and life was crazy and fun and good. The movies sold even more books and it was easy. I’d finish a manuscript, my agent would take it to Hollywood and sell the rights and make the movie. And, boy, has that changed!”
Grisham estimated he currently has six or eight projects in development for his books to be adapted for film or television, but many have sat dormant for years. He has some hope of books making it to TV — as his nonfiction “The Innocent Man” did on Netflix in 2018 — but the days are over when he could expect to see a Joel Schumacher or Francis Ford Coppola make a lush cinematic version of his book with the best actors alive, simply because nobody makes those movies at all anymore.
“It’s all cartoons and ‘Spider-Man 10’ and stuff like that,” he said of the Hollywood landscape today.
And while that industry has changed, the popular novel itself also has shifted from the center of the culture. Novels have ceded the proverbial water cooler and cocktail party conversation terrain to serial television. That’s true even in Grisham’s circles, he noted.
The days are behind us when a new novel might be omnipresent in casual conversation and on beaches and commuter trains and planes and nightstands in the U.S. The next generation of emerging writers won’t have a titanic popular novelist like John Grisham among them, or if they do it will more likely be a social media content creator or a video game creative.
“We’re trending away from books and away from reading,” Grisham said. “And that worries me, though I’m not sure what I can do about that as one writer. … That’s the present. That’s the future. It’s not good for books, but that’s what we are.”
Grisham recalled his first true binge-watch of a TV show from a few years ago, getting hooked on “The West Wing” and watching all 107-plus episodes over three months — a nightly habit for he and Renee. But the experience motivated Grisham to create something that might be as compelling for a binge-read: “I kept thinking, as a writer, ‘I would love to be able to write something that is that smart, clever, plot-driven and character-driven.’”
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