John Grisham’s Love of Small Towns Remains Strong

on April 18, 2004

Although he’s earned international acclaim for his numerous best-selling legal thrillers, John Grisham still thinks small – and he has no plans to change.

With sales of his 17 books topping 150 million copies in nearly 30 languages, Grisham and his family – wife Renee, son Ty and daughter Shea – could literally live anywhere in the world. But they’ve remained immune to the glamorous allure of big cities and instead opted to remain residents of small towns.

For nearly 15 years, Grisham has been recognized as the most famous novelist in Oxford, Miss., since the late William Faulkner. However, he moved his family to a Victorian farm near Charlottesville, Va., in 1994 and they now spend most of the year there. (The Grishams still own a house in Oxford that they visit as frequently as their schedules will allow.)

“We are small-town people,” Grisham says. “Our idea of a big town is Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve never lived in a big city and don’t ever plan to live in one. I love to go there and visit – I love New York City for 48 hours – but that’s about my limit.

“We’ve never been tempted to become something else,” says Grisham. “Not that we’re simple people, but at the same time, we’ve always had the attitude that everything is temporary. Popular culture goes in cycles, whether it’s film, music, art, and even athletics. One of these days, the books are not going to be as popular as they are now; that is inevitable.

“I hope I don’t get to the point where I’m cranking them out just to make a buck, like a lot of authors do when they start to decline. When it’s over, I hope I have the sense to realize it’s over. We’ve always said we want to be able to look back and say, ‘It was a heck of a ride, a lot of fun, we’ve kept our feet on the ground and didn’t change. We didn’t become something else. We’re 13 years into it now, and so far, I think we’ve kept our feet on the ground.”

Grisham, the son of a construction worker and homemaker, was born in Jonesboro, Ark., and in 1967, his family moved to Southaven, Miss., which is near Memphis, Tenn. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. He was among the starters on his high school team and even played one season at a local junior college.

However, his fantasies abrupted ended in 1974, when he transferred to Delta State University and tried out for Coach David “Boo” Ferris, a legendary baseball coach. After three weeks, Ferris summoned Grisham to his office to break the bad news: he wasn’t good enough to make the college team.

Perhaps surprisingly, Grisham says it wasn’t one of the worst days of his life. “It was really pretty easy,” he says of getting cut as a 19-year-old sophomore. “The day before, we had an inter-squad game and the opposing pitcher was throwing 90 miles an hour. I had never seen that before and have never seen it since on the field. It was one of the most horrifying things I had ever seen in my life. I said, ‘I would really like to go back to the dugout. It’s over; I don’t want to do this again.’

“For years I was sad because I really wanted to play the game. I watched the other guys my age play the game and I admired them because they were out there and I wasn’t. But there were many things I could do as well as them, but I knew I couldn’t hit that 90 miles an hour. It wasn’t a relief, but I was saying, ‘My game is over.’”

Changing career paths, he earned an accounting degree from Mississippi State University and a law degree at Ole Miss in 1981. He spent the next decade practicing law in Southaven, where he specialized in criminal defense and personal injury litigation. He was elected to Mississippi’s House of Representatives in 1983 and served until 1990.

While in a Dessoto County courthouse, Grisham overheard the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim and began wondering what would happen if the girl’s parents had murdered the attackers. This inspired him to get up at 5 a.m. every day to write his first novel before heading off to his law office. It took him three years to finish the book, A Time to Kill, which was published in 1988 by Wynwood Press, who only printed 5,000 copies of the book.

“I practiced law 10 years in a small town, just like Jake Brigance in A Time To Kill,” Grisham says. “When I wrote the book, I was doing it every day. I was not very profitable and I had a wife and young kids, so I was struggling and worrying about paying the overhead and worrying about where the next case was coming from.

“There are always too many lawyers in small towns. That was me. I did not like the big firms. I did not like big corporations, insurance companies or banks; those were not my clients. I represented little people, working people, poor people. You do that for 10 years and it really shapes who you are and what you believe. It spills over into the fiction every time.

“I love the little guy,” he says. “I love the David and Goliath stories. I have been roundly criticized over the years for going back to the same old David and Goliath stories and I’m guilty of that and I’ll do it again when the story is right. That is what I enjoy doing.”

Despite the lukewarm reception that his debut novel initially received, Grisham began penning his second novel the day after he completed his first. His second novel was The Firm, a page-turning adventure about a bright young lawyer who was lured to one of the South’s top law firms, only to discovered that it was heavily involved in organized crime. He sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures for $600,000, a move which caught the attention of New York’s biggest book publishers. Doubleday purchased the book rights and The Firm became the best-selling novel of 1991. He followed that with the best-selling novels The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker and many more. He released his 17th book, The Last Juror, in February.

“I get a lot of criticism for abusing the legal profession and a lot of it is true, but I’ve also created some pretty good guys, pretty good lawyers, young guys who are good role models for young lawyers,” he says. “I used to be horrified when kids would walk up to me and say, ‘You inspired me to go to law school,’ especially after The Firm, for some reason. I would say, ‘Why? From where?’ There are some good people, good lawyers in the book, not all of them.”

The Grishams moved to Oxford, Miss., in 1990 and thought they would live there forever. “We came up here for a weekend in May 1993 to see Monticello,” he says of his Virginia home. “We had never been up here, didn’t know a soul here. We were sort of casually looking for a hiding place.

“We got ambushed by the notoriety (in Oxford). A few of the books had been out by then, two or three of the movies, and things changed overnight. We had a hard time adjusting to the loss of privacy. We are very private and we’ve never enjoyed the attention.”

They found a 250-year-old home in Albemarle County and began visiting it occasionally. “For a year, that was our refuge,” he says. “We would come up here on long weekends and holidays. Nobody knew that we were here and we didn’t know anyone here. It was wonderful. After a year of doing that, we said, ‘OK, let’s go live there for one year.’ Then gradually the years piled up and now we’ve been here for 10 years and our son is a third-year student at the University of Virginia.”

But for many loyal Grisham fans, it just doesn’t seem right that he’s not living in Oxford yearround. “I know,” he says. “Ten years later, it still doesn’t seem right because we got married in Oxford, our kids loved Oxford, our families were close by. We love Oxford, but at the same time, we fell in love with this palce, as a lot of people do. We go back to Oxford as often as we can. It will always feel like home.”

Meanwhile, Grisham is entrenched in the small Virginia community and has already begun making lasting impacts on the lives of his neighbors through his generous charitable donations of both his time and money. For instance, he built and continues to fund Cove Creek Park, a multi-million-dollar, seven-field baseball park near his home.

“I’ve had enough attention to do me the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m well content to stay here, stay home and go to ball games and hang out here.

“I’m completely spoiled. I get to do anything I want. I write a book a year, usually August through November, which means six hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six. I finish by Thanksgiving every year.

“It’s allowed me to stay home and not miss anything with my kids. My son is in college and my daughter is going to college in September, so the nest is about to be empty. I’m the luckiest guy I know, I really am. I have a wonderful family – a wonderful wife and two great kids. Everybody is healthy, and beyond that, not much else matters.”

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