Books

30 interesting facts about legal thriller master John Grisham

It has been just over 30 years since John Grisham published his first novel. His interview with Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel will broadcast on March 24, 2019.
American writer John Grisham poses with his 2018 novel The Reckoning. (CBC)

It has been just over 30 years since mega-bestselling writer John Grisham published his first novel. On March 24, 2019, he'll be interviewed by Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio One.

Brush up on some trivia on the thriller master below.

1. John Grisham was born on Feb. 8, 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

2. His father was a cotton farmer and construction worker and his mother was a homemaker.

3. Grisham spent the first seven years of his life on a very unsuccessful cotton farm, which his family fled in the middle of the night: "It was the best move of my life to get off the farm," Grisham said in a 2018 radio interview.

4. Growing up in the deep American South of the 1950s and 1960s, Grisham tells radio host Diane Rehm that he was raised to be racist and began to recognize the error of these values when he left home for college: "It was a white world. Our schools were white. Our churches were white. Our neighbourhood was white… It's taken me a lifetime to struggle with the racism I was born into and still struggle," he said, adding, "[When I] got away from home and got off to college and began to see the big world and make black friends, I began to realize that the way we had been living for the last 100 years, since slavery, was wrong. We have to be able to work towards civil justice."

5. Grisham went to law school thinking he'd study tax law, but he found that he enjoyed performing in a courtroom. He ended up becoming a criminal defense and personal injury lawyer in Southaven, Mississippi.

6. His experiences in court would become the inspiration for his hugely successful legal thrillers: "I seriously doubt I would have ever written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial."

US writer John Grisham poses on the red carpet before the screening of the movie Adrift as part of the 44th Deauville US Film Festival in Deauville, northwestern France, on September 5, 2018. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

7. Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, was written after hearing the testimony of a young rape victim. The book is about a father who seeks vengeance against the men who attacked his daughter.

8. The manuscript for A Time to Kill was rejected 28 times, but was eventually picked up by a small publisher called Wynwood Press.

9. Five thousand copies were printed in 1988. Grisham was officially a published author.

10. Sales for A Time to Kill were so bad that Grisham bought 1,000 copies and tried to sell them himself. He decided to finish writing his second book, The Firm, and see where it got him.

11. Before it even had a publisher, The Firm's film rights sold to Paramount Pictures for a staggering $600,000, effectively putting Grisham on the map.

​12. The Firm went on to become the bestselling novel of 1991. After over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Grisham retired from law to write full time.

13. On a book tour for The Firm, Grisham was told that the big literary successes — Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, etc. — wrote a book every year. He published The Pelican a year after The Firm and says: "that was the best decision I ever made." 

14. He has now written over 40 books — most of them legal thrillers, with a smattering of nonfiction, short stories and middle grade fiction.

15. His first and only work of nonfiction so far is The Innocent Man, published in Oct. 2006.

16. The book is about the exoneration of two Oklahoma men, who were wrongly convicted in the murder of a young woman named Debra Sue Carter. The book was turned into a docuseries for Netflix. 

17. Grisham has been against the death penalty since researching his fifth book The Chamber, which told the story of a young lawyer working to save his client from death row.

18. Grisham has long been on the board of an organization called The Innocence Project, which focuses on exonerating people through DNA evidence.

19. Grisham's childhood dream was to be a professional baseball player. He has built several ballfields at his home in Virginia and is the commissioner of his own local Little League, hosting 26 teams and hundreds of kids each year. 

20. Some of Grisham's literary heroes include Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens.

John Grisham, pictured above in Deauville, France, won the Lucien Barriere Literary Prize in 2018. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

21. Before his writing career took off, Grisham briefly entered politics and served in the Mississippi House of Representatives for the Democratic Party from 1983 to 1990.

22. According to Grisham's website, over 300 million of his books are in print worldwide and have been translated into 40 languages.

23. His novels have been adapted numerous times and in different formats, including films, Broadway plays and television. Some of the stars that have acted in adaptations of his books include Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson

24. Forbes estimated him to be the fourth highest paid author of 2018, roughly approximating his earnings at $21 million.

25. Grisham maintains a pace of publishing one book a year. He says it's not really that difficult for him: "It's easy to write during the wintertime when things are slow and all that. I mean, I have no real job, you know? This is not a real job. I have plenty of time to write. I haven't worked 40 hours a week in, like, 30 years, OK? So it's not a real job."

26. While on book tour in 2017, Grisham released a podcast of his stops on the road, talking to writers like Jodi Picoult, Ann Patchett and Emma Straub along the way. He is now hosting a special series on WMRA called John Grisham Writers Hour, interviewing a variety of literary powerhouses in front of a live audience. His first guest was James McBride. 

27. Grisham begins writing his new books usually on Jan. 1, spending three or four hours each morning on it in a room with no phone or internet or noise. His wife Renee is his first editor and he always finishes the book by July 1. 

28. Grisham says only once has he tried to write a sex scene. When his wife read the draft, she laughed at him and said he should not try to do it again. 

29. He told journalist Christina Ianzito of AARP that he tends to ignore what literary critics have to say about his work: "Once you sell a lot of books, they dismiss you forever, so I'm not trying to please those people, because you can't." 

30. Now in his 60s, Grisham isn't interested in retirement and still maintains a pace of publishing one book a year: "When it stops being fun, I'll just quit," he said to Ianzito, adding that he'll continue, "as long as I have the ideas, as long as I think the stories are good and the readers still enjoy the stories." 

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