The Enduring Charm of John Grisham

20 minute read
Molly Ball/Memphis
John Grisham photographed at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.Whitten Sabbatini for TIME
20 minute read

On a rack at the front of Burke’s Book Store in Memphis is a postcard showing the store in an earlier era, overhung by a billboard that’s no longer there. “Grisham is coming,” the billboard says in big red letters, next to a photo of the youthful lawyer-turned-author. His brow is knitted, mouth pursed in a half-smirk. Below him, you can see the line of people waiting for the store to open. John Grisham picks up the postcard and looks at it appreciatively. “Oh, yeah, I remember those days,” he says in his honey-thick drawl.

The picture on the postcard is from a book signing for The Chamber, in 1994. It’s a memento of the heady days of Grisham’s early success, when he released a succession of best-selling novels that became hit movies. People camped out in line for his book signings, Hollywood studios got in bidding wars for his film rights, and stores could barely keep his novels in stock. Many things have changed in the intervening decades. The book business has fragmented and fallen on hard times, while the legal arena Grisham writes about has never seemed more tormented, with everyone from liberal reformers to an indicted former President calling the criminal-justice system’s legitimacy into question.

What hasn’t changed is Grisham’s steady commitment to giving readers what they want. At 68, he may no longer be publishing’s fresh young hotshot; his books sell a fraction of the copies that they used to, and it’s been 19 years since he had a feature film made. Yet every fall, like clockwork, Grisham publishes a new legal thriller, and every fall it shoots to the top of the bestseller list.

Since breaking out with The Firm in 1991, Grisham has released 48 consecutive New York Times No. 1 bestsellers, a feat no other writer has matched. On Facebook, where he has more than a million followers, fans gush with anticipation. (“Can’t wait!” “I always get excited when October comes around so I can get the new one!” “I’m so ready!”) “He doesn’t get enough attention, he’s taken for granted by practically everybody, but he’s had a steady output of books that people always read,” says the longtime film and literary critic Janet Maslin. “He’s very disciplined, very serious, and really careful to be able to reach everybody. He never shows off. His books aren’t polarizing. They’re just dependably good.”

This month, Grisham looks to extend his winning streak by going back to the beginning. His new thriller, The Exchange, is a sequel to The Firm, the legal thriller set in Memphis that established him as a force in publishing and Hollywood alike. The movie version released 30 years ago, starring Tom Cruise as lawyer Mitch McDeere, remains his highest-grossing adaptation. His publisher says the new book was inspired in part by Cruise’s comeback turn in Top Gun: Maverick last year. Its release is a milestone that has Grisham feeling reflective. “When I started writing the book in January of this year, I really got nostalgic,” he tells me.

More From TIME

He’s not the only one. For a mix of commercial and cultural reasons, a late-career Grisham renaissance may be in the offing. A wave of movie-critic thinkpieces have heralded a turn back to the type of adult dramas that made him one of his era’s defining genre writers. “It’s Time to Bring Back the ‘90s Legal Thriller,” a writer for GQ recently argued, while the New York Times ran a nostalgic reflection on the era “When John Grisham Movies Were King.” The youngest Gen Xers are reaching the peak of their consumer power, sparking a wave of 90s nostalgia. And after decades where Hollywood turned away from adult dramatic fare, the studios are turning back. Feature films of Grisham’s novels Calico Joe, The Confession, The Partner and The Racketeer are all in development, while several others are being turned into TV series, according to his agent, David Gernert, who says there’s more studio interest in Grisham's work than ever before. “The business changed and the studios were not making ‘John Grisham movies’ for a while,” Gernert says. “Now everything’s come full circle.”

John Grisham with Samuel L. Jackson and director Joel Schumacher on the set of A Time to Kill
John Grisham with Samuel L. Jackson and director Joel Schumacher on the set of A Time to Kill.Alamy

With over 400 million copies sold, Grisham’s books have shaped the way millions see the law and its discontents, tackling themes like racial violence, corporate greed, environmental destruction and capital punishment. By his own account, he is obsessed with injustice, and often takes a novel as an opportunity to explore an issue. But he never wants readers to feel they’re being lectured to, he tells me. “I don’t spend a lot of time delivering messages,” he says. “People take the stories in different ways. It’s often fun to watch people read themes into the stories, about loyalty and forgiveness and greed or whatever. I just want to tell a story. I want to tell a story in such a way that the reader is caught up in it, and the pages turn.”

Grisham’s high forehead is wrinkled now, his once-dark hair gone white, but he still has that sardonic gaze, the lawyerly stare, that graced his book jackets at the beginning of his rise. He is a man of strong habits and intense loyalties. He’s had the same agent and publisher for decades, and he still comes back to the same handful of Southern independent bookstores that supported him when he was a struggling lawyer and politician with no novels to his name. On this late August morning, he’s come to Burke’s to see the owners, his old friends Corey and Cheryl Mesler, who—like every bookstore, chain store, and Walmart in the country—are preparing for his next book to drop.

“Mitch is back!” Grisham tells Corey Mesler, an aging hipster in a fedora and Hawaiian shirt. 

“Is Mitch in Memphis at all in this book?” Mesler asks.

“He’s in Memphis briefly. Just to say hello.”


“And then the story moves elsewhere. He’s based in New York now. It’s 15 years later, so he’s 41 years old now, living the good life in New York City, a big international lawyer.”

“And something happens,” Mesler prompts.

“Something happens,” Grisham chuckles. “There might be some dead bodies.”

“Is Tom Cruise too old to play it?” Mesler asks.

“He’s about 60, right? But he looks 40. He looks great. The rumor is that he’s reading the book now.”

Memphis, Grisham says, is functionally his hometown. He grew up in several small towns in Arkansas and Mississippi, all within an hour or two. “We did everything in Memphis—we shopped in Memphis, we came to restaurants in Memphis, we came to Memphis for parties,” he says. Grisham was born on a cotton farm, his father a sharecropper. He remembers picking cotton as a young child, his fingers bleeding. He put himself through college and law school and scraped by for a time in private practice in northwest Mississippi, hustling for clients. (Grisham has said that Jake Brigance, the small-town lawyer of his first novel A Time to Kill, who was played in the movie adaptation by Matthew McConaughey, is largely autobiographical.) 

A couple of years out of law school, Grisham got himself elected as a Democrat to the Mississippi House of Representatives. As he tells it, he ran for office because he wanted to end the state’s shameful status as the only one in the union not to offer public kindergarten. In his spare time—starting at 5:30 each morning—he drafted a novel in longhand, inspired by a court scene he’d witnessed, about a Black man who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is brutally raped by racist rednecks, and the lawyer who defends him. 

A Time to Kill was barely published. An imprint of an obscure Christian press printed 5,000 copies, and Grisham implored local bookstores to stock it. The book attracted little notice, but Grisham was already at work on another he hoped would be more commercial: the tale of a Harvard-educated tax lawyer from a humble background who moves to Memphis to work for a mysterious firm, only to find himself caught between the Chicago Mob and the FBI. “I set the book in Memphis because I hadn’t been anywhere else,” Grisham tells me. “I was 33 years old. I’d never traveled anywhere.” (His only trip out of the country had been to the Cayman Islands, another locale that figures prominently in The Firm.) Locating the story in a sleepy Southern city also made it more plausible that a law firm whose attorneys have a habit of turning up dead could sidestep scrutiny. “People have always said, ‘Why’d you put the book in Memphis?’ Well, that’s kind of the story.”

The Firm still didn’t have a publisher when a Hollywood scout smuggled the manuscript to Los Angeles, sparking an improbable bidding war and a $600,000 contract with Paramount Pictures. By the time the book was published by Doubleday in 1991, it was hotly anticipated. Still, no one was prepared for what came next. “The book just started to sell immediately,” says Gernert, who was an editor at Doubleday before becoming Grisham’s agent. “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. The very first day it hit the marketplace, I got back from lunch and I had all these messages saying it was flying out of the stores.” Gernert recalls walking down Fifth Avenue with Grisham, passing by multiple bookstores, and at each one, watching a customer pick the book up off the front table and take it to the register. “John turned to me and said, ‘Is this normal?’ And I said, ‘No!’” The book stayed on the bestseller list for nearly a year and sold more than seven million copies. 

From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Merchant of Venice, there have always been dramas about the legal system, points out Scott Turow, whose smash hit Presumed Innocent came out in 1987, helping to create the market for legal thrillers that Grisham cashed in on. Books like theirs were different partly in the way they focused on the personal lives of lawyers. The Firm had a separate publicity campaign dedicated to the legal profession, and many of Grisham’s readers are attorneys. (While reporting this story, I learned for the first time that my own brother, a lawyer in Denver, entered the field in part because of a Grisham book he read in high school.) Turow believes such books struck a nerve in an era when authority was no longer unquestionable, and issues once considered unspeakable were being put up for debate. “In the world I grew up in, in the 1950s, father knew best and you didn’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table,” Turow tells me. Once that changed, “for better or worse, the courts emerged as the arbiter of values.”

It was on the publicity tour for The Firm, Grisham tells me, that he picked up a bit of wisdom that would define his career: he overheard a publishing executive mention that the biggest authors—Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon—tended to release a book every year. “It should be obvious to someone like me, who’s a big reader, somebody who wants to write bestsellers, but I’d never thought about that,” Grisham says. “And I thought, that makes a lot of sense. I want to be a big writer. So I hustled back to the farm in Oxford and finished The Pelican Brief in no time.”

Grisham tells the story with charming humility, as a series of lucky breaks for which he’s everlastingly grateful. But it is also a story of the purest type of publishing success: a book by a nobody that succeeded almost entirely on its own merits. The Firm changed everything for Grisham. He left the law and never looked back. A Time to Kill was reprinted and became another hit. For years, he and his wife, Renee, would refer to “BF” and “AF”—before The Firm and after The Firm. But it was his discipline and consistency in the subsequent years that made him enduringly rich and famous.

John Grisham in an interview during the 2005 Virginia Film Fest
John Grisham in an interview with Hollywood reporter and critic Duane Byrge about the film-adaptations of his novels, during the 2005 Virginia Film Fest on Oct. 28, 2005.Andrew Shurtleff—The Daily Progress/AP

In the wake of his meteoric success, Grisham was determined to guard his privacy. After a few years in Oxford, Miss., he moved his family to a large plot of land outside Charlottesville, Va., and has been there ever since. (He and Renee also split their time between several other properties. Writing has made Grisham very rich.) Due to the solitary nature of the profession, even the world’s most famous writer rarely gets recognized in public. Grisham likes it that way. “It’s the perfect degree of fame,” he tells me as we walk down the street in Memphis. “I tell people I’m a famous writer in a country where nobody reads.”

Grisham’s routine hasn’t changed in many years. Starting on Jan. 1, he holes up in an outbuilding on his property to begin writing that year’s legal thriller. Beginning around 7 a.m., he types on a computer disconnected from the internet, typically writing about 1,000 words per day. He begins by going over the previous day’s work, and he is usually done by noon. He works from an extensive outline. “When I write the first scene in January, I know what the last scene is going to be,” he says. “That takes some work to get there. But if you know that, it’s really hard to get lost.” In addition to the annual legal thriller, he sometimes puts out a second book he was moved to write that year.

All he ever wanted, Grisham says, was to make a living. Had writing not proved a path to that goal, as is the case for most aspiring writers, he doubts he would have continued in legislative politics, but he imagines he would have run for judge. “A judgeship was financial security,” he says. “I had a nice base politically in my home county, and I had served as a city judge in my hometown and liked that.” Under a Democratic President, Clinton or more likely Obama, he thinks he could have then successfully lobbied for a federal judgeship.

Politics, Grisham says, separated him from his conservative Southern Baptist upbringing, as white Southern churches in the Moral Majority era became increasingly affiliated with right-wing Republicanism. Today he is a loyal Democrat—Renee was a Hillary Clinton superdelegate in 2008—who is getting more liberal as he ages, particularly when it comes to issues of race. For years, he tells me, he resisted the idea of taking down Confederate statues, but lately he’s had a change of heart. “Over time I’ve come to realize how offensive that would be to a Black person, to have to drive by Robert E. Lee’s statues,” he says. “Growing up in the South, the war is so horribly romanticized. It’s taken a while to realize how bad that was.” Grisham was in high school when his Mississippi district became the last one in the state to integrate, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

In 2016, Grisham assumed Donald Trump would never appeal to the moralistic Christian conservatives he grew up with. “Boy, was I wrong.“ He worries that the constant drama that keeps the former President on the front page is bad for America and the Democratic Party alike. A passionate advocate for the wrongfully convicted and opponent of the death penalty, he sits on the board of the Innocence Project and speaks frequently about criminal-justice issues. But he doesn’t tweet or otherwise wade into the public discourse. “He’s your basic good guy, low-key, relaxed, but with a strong social conscience and equally strong opinions,” his longtime friend Stephen King tells me in an email. “We both get sent books for blurbs. About one—I won’t say which one—he cried indignantly, ‘It’s a train wreck!’ And he was right.”

Grisham walks down Memphis’s Union Avenue and turns the corner onto Front Street, past the Cotton Exchange, where Mitch, in The Firm, meets his accomplice Tammy as they’re planning his turn against his mob-front law firm. There’s a plaque on the wall of the stately old stone building: JOHN GRISHAM, it reads in raised bronze letters, accompanied by several lines of text about his smash success and connection to the city.

“I had nothing to do with it!” Grisham says of the plaque. The mayor at the time showed up at one of his marathon book signings with a proclamation, eager to grab a piece of Grisham’s exploding fame for the city. (Was this the book signing where he had to put his arm in an ice bucket every few hours? Or the one where, meeting a man who called himself Memphis’s first Black chiropractor, Grisham had the fan accompany him backstage to crack his back so he could go on signing? Or the one where he learned a woman several hours from the front of the line had gone into labor and dashed back to sign her book so she could go to the hospital, or the one the following year where the same woman came back with her baby? Eventually, he had to stop doing signings altogether.)

Many scenes in The Firm are set at the Peabody hotel, a Memphis landmark that pops up in other Grisham novels as well. Grisham had his senior prom here, in 1973, and his sister-in-law was married here. The hotel is known for the ducks that spend the day swimming in its lobby fountain, a tradition that stems from a manager’s drunken stashing of his live decoys in the 1930s. Today the ducks are trained to walk a red carpet to the fountain from the elevator in an elaborate, twice-daily “ceremony,” attended by a full time “duckmaster” and a large crowd of tourists. The whole hotel is duck-themed, from the logo to the duck-shaped soaps in the guest rooms. Nothing could be more Southern, it seems to me, than to take a drunken prank and sacralize it into a hallowed tradition.

In The Exchange, Mitch returns to Memphis on a legal errand and stays at the Peabody, sending the 41-year-old on a trip down memory lane that serves as a flashback summary of the first novel’s plot. Mitch seeks out the building that housed his old firm, only to find that it has “been renovated, renamed, and was now packed with condos advertising views of the river.” Rounding the corner, Grisham and I come upon the building. This one boasts no commemorative plaque. Sure enough, a sign on the first story boasts, “All New Luxury Apartments!”

Other than the brief trip to Memphis, the sequel has little connection to the plot of The Firm. The early pilgrimage to Memphis turns out to be a red herring; Mitch never returns. “It was a big issue in the story,” Grisham says of the Memphis detour. He wrote the scene there intending to take it out, he says, but his inner circle of first readers—Renee, Gernert, his publisher Suzanne Herz—enjoyed it too much to let it go. 

The Exchange takes place largely in New York City, where Mitch is a partner at a massive international law firm, and Gaddafi’s Libya, where he goes on behalf of a client, only for things to go awry. The backstory that lent tension to the young striver of the first book has been ironed flat: Mitch’s outlaw brother and mentally ill mother are offstage, living peacefully in Florida; the in-laws who once tormented him now help out with the kids. Though Mitch gets entangled in high-stakes international intrigue, nobody sees fit to even mention that his unusual past might have something to do with it, and indeed it does not. We even learn that Mitch lived for several years in Italy, yet the Mafia whose grasp he barely escaped in the first book is nowhere to be found. There are enough undropped shoes to fill a closet. I kept turning pages, expecting a twist that never came. This version of Mitch seems less like the character from The Firm and more like a generic action hero—a Tom Cruise character. And the ending feels less like a resolution than a cliffhanger, a cheap setup for the next sequel. Publisher’s Weekly called The Exchange “disappointing” and “a letdown.”

I tell Grisham I found the book perplexing. “I kept thinking the Mob was going to come back,” I say. He and I are talking in the Peabody’s History Room, a memorabilia-lined chamber down the hall from the ballroom where he had his senior prom.

Grisham, in his disarming way, agrees with me. “That’s the biggest problem with the book,” he says, with more zeal than distress, as if congratulating me for solving a puzzle. “Fifteen years later, where’s the Mafia? That’s a huge problem.” Here he is, arguably the most famous writer in America, basically admitting that his new book makes no sense, yet he does so merrily—with the good humor, perhaps, of an author who knows he’s essentially review-proof. It’s a Grisham book; people will buy it; people will enjoy it, flaws and all; who am I to take that from them?

“The Mob never forgets,” Grisham continues, making my critique for me. “I mean, he stole a bunch of money from them!” The Exchange does a decent job of explaining what happened to Mitch’s old partners at Bendini, Lambert and Locke, but they were only the Mob’s lawyers, he continues. “The Chicago Mob’s still there. And I lost sleep over that, and talked to David, my agent, a lot about, you know, is this plausible? [Mitch is] walking down the streets of Manhattan like he doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s at a big law firm. Is his life really that safe? I decided to let it slide and see how many people comment on it. I think it works as is. But you do have that nagging question.” 

Grisham says he cannot bear to read his old books, which may account for some of the puzzling discontinuity in The Exchange. In his young-adult series, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, he was constantly having mistakes spotted by 10-year-olds, he tells me. Embarrassed, he hired someone to read the books for him. Even his staunchest supporters don’t try to claim he’s a great writer. John Evans, the proprietor of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., another of the independent bookstores Grisham has helped keep in business since the 1990s, tells me that Grisham’s charm is his unpretentiousness. “He doesn’t make any pretense that it’s a literary novel, and that has a charm to it,” Evans tells me. “He wants them to be read and enjoyed, and he’s not trying to do anything other than that.”

For Grisham, who owes his career to The Firm, returning to the material was a daunting prospect. “I was afraid to bring Mitch back because, you know, he’ll always be the guy in my first big book,” he says. “At the same time, you can’t take this stuff too serious. Let’s bring him back and have some fun. I like the story, now that it’s done. And there’s a possibility of doing it again."—With reporting by Julia Zorthian

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Molly Ball at