Writers & Company

How John Grisham turned his passion for justice into bestselling legal thrillers

The bestselling author on how his previous life as an attorney in the American South shaped his storytelling and activism.
American author, attorney and activist John Grisham spoke with CBC host Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (Stephen Myers, Doubleday)

John Grisham's books have sold 300 million copies around the world and topped the bestseller list 28 consecutive times. His work has been translated into more than 40 languages and made into hit movies, including The Firm, The Pelican Brief and A Time to Kill, which starred Matthew McConaughey in his breakout role. Last year, Netflix adapted Grisham's only work of nonfiction, The Innocent Man, into a six-part docuseries of the same name.

In his new novel, The Reckoning, Grisham re-imagines a story he encountered more than 30 years ago about a murder in small-town Mississippi. His fictionalized version centres on Pete, a cotton farmer returning from the Second World War, and the mystery surrounding his motive for the crime.     

But it was a scene Grisham witnessed as a young lawyer in Mississippi that inspired him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill. He transformed the harrowing testimony of a 12-year-old girl against her rapist into a compelling book about racial tensions and vigilante justice.

When he's not writing legal thrillers, Grisham is active as a director of The Innocence Project, dedicated to helping the wrongly convicted. He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto.

Life in America's Deep South

"I was born on a cotton farm. My dad was a cotton farmer. He rented the land, as did his father before him. Those days are still vivid. I'll never forget the first few years of life — riding on the tractor with my dad to plant, plow and pick cotton. I'll also never forget my mother and grandmother working long hours to grow food. It was a rough life.

"We were lucky enough to get away from that life and go on to something better. But I know a little bit about that world of the South — the social and class structure — because of my family history. If we had not escaped the farm, when we were lucky enough to do so, I don't know where I would be today. But I wouldn't be here."

Big-time lawyer

"I initially became a lawyer to make a lot of money. In college, I came up with this goofy notion to become a tax lawyer and that got me into law school. Halfway through law school I studied tax law and realized it was the last thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

"But I'd also become enamoured with courtrooms. I really enjoyed the mock trial competitions in law school. In my last year in law school I would watch the docket at the federal court down the street. If a good lawyer was in town to try on a big case, I would cut class and go watch the trial and the lawyer. So I had this dream of becoming a big-time courtroom lawyer."

Righting (and writing) wrongs

"After just a few years, I was growing disenchanted with the law practice. In a small town, there are too many lawyers and it's hard to make a buck. Most of my clients were working people who couldn't pay, so most of my work was for free or for reduced fees. I then became a politician, which I hoped was going to be a big advantage. It turned into a disadvantage because I had to play politics with the law office to keep people happy. It just bled me dry. It just really took up so much time and energy. Even at the age of 30, I didn't see much future in the law.

"The first chapter of A Time to Kill is based on a true story that happened an hour from where I lived at the time. Back in the late 1970s, a horrible attack occurred when two white guys picked up and assaulted a little black girl. I heard about the case when I was in law school. The case became somewhat noteworthy because they sentenced the two boys to prison but not for very long. The whole community was upset, both blacks and whites. This gave me the inspiration for the book's first chapter. In the book, the father, of course, is the one who gets revenge."

A seed of an idea

"The Reckoning comes from a story I heard 30 years ago about a murder in a small town. I was in the state legislature in Mississippi as a 30-year-old elected official. There was a lot of downtime, and I would kill time drinking coffee and listening to stories told by my colleagues, who were tremendous storytellers.

"I heard this story about a murder in a small town in 1930s Mississippi where a prominent farmer named Pete drove into town one day and parked in front of the hardware store. He walked inside, said hello to the owner and then shot him dead. He drove back home, sat on the porch and waited for the sheriff to come get him.

"The sheriff questioned him, but the farmer had nothing to say so they took him to jail. There was speculation there was something going on between the victim and the man's wife, but to protect her honour and her reputation, the farmer would never say. He took it to his grave.

"That's a heck of a story. I didn't create it but I remembered it."

Writing cleanly and clearly

"Becoming a writer was not a childhood dream. I didn't study it in college. But I do recall reading Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and remember thinking I should write that clearly. And so I have always been driven to write clearly, even as a lawyer. I cut through all the extra words and verbiage and tried to make my briefs and pleadings as a lawyer read smoothly and cleanly.

"I was somewhat successful. I got compliments from judges that my writing was easy to read and told a story. And when I started writing A Time to Kill, which was the first thing I'd ever tried to write, it just kind of flowed. I told myself I wanted to write that book clearly. I've done that now for so many books and so many years."

John Grisham's comments have been edited for length and clarity.