Grisham’s New Pitch

9 minute read
Lev Grossman

On a side street in the small, leafy university town of Charlottesville, Va., there is an unassuming door with a buzzer next to it marked Oakwood Books. It doesn’t look like much–it’s next door to a mini-mall–but behind it is an enterprise that earns in the neighborhood of $20 million annually. Its sole asset fits in a comfy chair at a red-leather-covered conference table. The asset is good-natured and at ease with himself. With his smooth Southern accent, listening to him talk is like sniffing bourbon.

The asset’s name, of course, is John Grisham, author of relentlessly satisfying legal thrillers. There are best sellers, and there are best sellers, but even among the rarefied club of writers who routinely hit the lists, Grisham is unusual. James Patterson, who goes to No. 1 every time his cat steps on his keyboard, might sell 1 million copies in hardcover. Grisham often tops 2 million. By most measures, Grisham was the most successful novelist of the 1990s, when he sold over 60 million books. For seven straight years, 1994-2000, he had the best-selling novel in the country.

The secrets of Grisham’s success are no secret at all. There are two of them: his pacing, which ranges from fast to breakneck, and his Theme–little guy takes on big conspiracy, with the little guy getting the win in the end. But Grisham has been getting restless. There are signs that the Theme is not enough for him. “It’s human nature to question whether or not you can do something else,” he says. “You do something really well a few times, and you don’t want to get stereotyped as just the one kind of writer. You want to explore a little bit.”

And he has. In 2001 he assayed a fictionalized memoir about his childhood (A Painted House). Since then, he has written an inspirational holiday novel (Skipping Christmas), a football novel (Bleachers) and a spy thriller (The Broker). He even wrote and produced a movie, the Little League– themed Mickey (sharp-eyed viewers will spot Grisham as the league commissioner). Now the writer who defines American escapism has strayed even further from the Theme. He has written his first book of nonfiction–a gritty, harrowing true-crime story, The Innocent Man (Doubleday; 360 pages).

It would be difficult to imagine a man who looks less like a writer than John Grisham. A whisker under 6 ft., Grisham, 51, is handsome and trim, a former jock who’s still in shape. He wears jeans and has an almost actorly sense of self-possession about him. He talks in measured phrases. He doesn’t fidget. If you feel like a Diet Coke, he’ll fetch it himself. His charm is Clintonian; in fact, the two are distant cousins.

The Theme is Grisham’s own story. He grew up poor in Mississippi, the son of a construction worker. As a child, he picked cotton on his grandparents’ farm. As a young man, he became a lawyer and then a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, but all the while he nursed a secret writing habit. Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, had a print run of just 5,000 copies. His second book, The Firm, wasn’t looking any more promising until Hollywood offered him $600,000 for the movie rights. After that Grisham’s writing habit became very public.

A decade and a half later, he’s sitting on a stack of 18 best sellers. He has a 1,000-acre farm outside Charlottesville with 15 horses (Grisham moved his family from Oxford, Miss., after too many fans dropped by; he even surprised a Japanese couple getting married on his lawn) and a vast office with blond wood floors, movie memorabilia and sliding, brushed-metal screens.

Amid all this gleaming fanciness, there is one messy room. It’s in the back, and it contains, along with copies of The Rainmaker in Norwegian, about 50 linear feet of transcripts, clippings and photographs, all bearing the name Ron Williamson.

Williamson was a second-round draft choice by the Oakland A’s in 1971, out of a small town in Oklahoma called Ada. He was tall and handsome and hard throwing but without much discipline. He lasted six years in the minors, including a stint with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees, before a bad arm and some bad habits landed him back in Ada at 24.

It was a tough adjustment. Williamson developed emotional problems; doctors whispered about manic depression and even schizophrenia. He drank and chased women and bounced from job to job, clinging to the delusion that his career wasn’t over. He had a knack for making the worst of his bad luck, and his luck was terrible.

Very early on the morning of Dec. 8, 1982, a woman named Debbie Carter was raped in her apartment in Ada and then choked to death. The police knew Williamson as an erratic individual who kept late hours. He sometimes went to the bar where Carter worked. They liked him for the murder.

His trial was a charade. His lawyer was over the hill and, literally, blind. The state’s case rested on jailhouse snitches and a few hairs found at the scene that resembled his. Williamson was sent to death row, where he would scream that he was innocent. His mental problems deteriorated into full-blown insanity.

Williamson didn’t have much luck in life, but he caught a break after his death when Grisham read his obituary. “I love the obituaries,” he says. “Lot of times, that’s the only thing I read in the New York Times if I’m in a hurry.” Williamson’s story hit him like a thunderbolt. Grisham writes on a strict and orderly schedule: he likes to start a book every August and finish it by Thanksgiving. Williamson died in December 2004, when Grisham had just finished The Broker, and he didn’t want another book to write. But there was something about Williamson’s life that he couldn’t get away from. “It was a natural,” he says. “He and I are about the same age and grew up at the same time, in the same part of the country. I really dreamed of playing professional baseball, but he was a second-round draft pick! And then to get devoured by your own hometown, to the point where you become mentally ill …”

Within an hour Grisham had placed calls to his agent, to his publisher and to Annette Hudson and Renee Simmons, Williamson’s sisters, who at first assumed it was a prank call. They realized he was serious when he got them a lawyer and bought the exclusive rights to their brother’s story.

The deal was done, but Grisham’s troubles had just begun. Williamson’s story just wasn’t shaped like a Grisham novel. Structure and pacing were exactly what Ron Williamson couldn’t do. He spent years frittering away time, drifting in and out of institutions, going through endless trials and appeals, and rotting in jail. And he didn’t always act like a hero. He wasn’t relatable. “That was the hardest part,” Grisham says. “I mean, when you’re writing a novel, you want people to love your hero on Page One! With Ron–I mean, he’s a cocky athlete, a spoiled child, hell-raiser, boozer, you name it.”

Plus the ending is all wrong. Williamson was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999, but 12 years behind bars had broken his mind and body, and he died five years later of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51.

He didn’t fit the Theme, but Williamson was exactly what Grisham needed as a writer, for exactly that reason. His thrillers are gleaming, perfectly calibrated machines, but books don’t look right unless they have a few rough, unfinished patches. They cease to resemble reality, which is nothing if not rough around the edges. The Innocent Man may not handle like The Street Lawyer. It may never be a movie starring Tom Cruise. But it is undeniably real.

And that’s important to Grisham. He’s a humble man. He has fierce political convictions–he’s currently raising money for Democratic Senate candidate James Webb–but he shuns the limelight. He keeps his wife and two children out of the media. “They hear some crap every now and then,” he says. “But I told them years ago, I said, Look, you can’t change your name, and I’m not going to stop writing books. The good outweighs the bad. So shut up. Learn to deal with it.”

But when it comes to his books, there’s a desire in him to mean something. He talks seriously about John Steinbeck and John le Carré–The Little Drummer Girl “has had more of an influence on me than any other work of suspense”–and Truman Capote. Grisham read In Cold Blood twice last year. “It’s a beautiful book; it’s mesmerizing; it’s a classic. But there are times when I would read something that Capote wrote, and I’d say”–he makes a face. “Just, you know, I wouldn’t say it that way.”

Grisham is going back to fiction, but don’t be surprised if you see a more ambitious Grisham novel on those airport bookstore racks. “Everything I’m thinking about writing now is about politics or social issues wrapped around a novel,” he says. “It’s fun to write a book like The Broker, which has no redeeming social value. But I’d much rather tackle a social issue.” In that respect John Grisham–like Ron Williamson–has never stopped dreaming of the big leagues. •

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