For John Grisham, money in the bank buys time to write


March 06, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — John Grisham still gets up early, enjoying the unhurried pace and quiet, blissful moments on his 70-acre farm outside Oxford, Miss. He still begins writing at 6, before the distractions can pull him away from the work at hand.

But now he does not have to cut his writing short to head to the law office and a 10-hour day. No longer do family life and a daytime job vie for his time and energy, giving him but an hour here or there to work on his book. No longer does he wonder if anyone will ever see the novel in print.

Because as the author of "The Firm" -- his second novel and the mega-selling publishing success story of 1991 -- he has millions of books out there with his name on them, and millions of dollars in his bank account. "The Firm" is No. 1 on the paperback charts, with 2.2 million copies in print. "The Pelican Brief," a thriller about the assassination of two Supreme Court justices, has just been released with a first printing of 600,000, and should be a sure-fire best seller despite so-so reviews ("a mildly diverting piece of trash," wrote a reviewer in the Detroit Free Press).

As for the money, consider this: His payoff for "The Pelican Brief," is well into seven figures, says Mr. Grisham's agent, Jay Garon. Filming will begin this fall for both "The Firm" and "The Pelican Brief" -- Mr. Grisham received $600,000 for the rights to the former and $1.75 million for the latter.

No wonder that for John Grisham, the soft-spoken, small-town lawyer and former state legislator, the sunrises are more beautiful and the days more bright and fulfilling. And no wonder that at 37, as the biggest-selling author from Oxford, Miss., since a certain William Faulkner, he is able to look at his success with a good sense of appreciation -- and relief.

"It has not been scary at all," he says, loosening his tie in his Washington hotel room after a grueling, 2 1/2 -hour book signing. "I've been very fortunate in that my success happened very quick -- not in five books or 10 books, or whatever.

" 'The Firm' was a big financial success before it was published, with the film rights and the foreign rights being sold and all. It was incredible. It was a very easy thing for me to do to walk out of my law office and never come back."

That's where the relief comes in. Even before the success of "The Firm," a fast-paced thriller about a Memphis law firm that is a front for the Mob, it would have suited Mr. Grisham just fine if he never had to work another day as a lawyer.

"Every lawyer I know would rather do something else," he says, the vowels stretched ever so softly by his Northern Mississippi accent.

"I just signed books at Crown Books. A bunch of lawyers showed up and they were all happy that I had got out -- sort of like, 'You made it, you've escaped. You went over the wall, you've been paroled, you're out of jail.' " He gave a soft, knowing laugh.

That's why he's embraced the writing life so eagerly, he says, and enjoys friendships with other literary types in Oxford, such as Larry Brown, Barry Hannah and Richard Ford. Oxford, in fact, seems the perfect place for him: It's got a good literary history, obviously, but as the father of an 8-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, he finds it a good place to raise the children.

Mr. Grisham is quick with the self-deprecating remark, yet obviously possesses a quick mind and fierce drive; he seems an appealing mixture of big-city worldliness and small-town values. "Sometimes people ask me if I want to move to New York or Hollywood or some other place, and I can't think why," he says. "We might go off and live some place for a year or so and then come back, but Mississippi is home. Home is where your friends are, where your family is. And there are a lot of advantages of living in a small town."

Still, says his friend Mr. Brown, a respected novelist and short story writer ("Joe," "Big Bad Love"), fame has meant some accommodations for Mr. Grisham. "I think on the whole he's handled it pretty well, but he's had to make some major changes in his lifestyle. He gets the letters and the phone calls and people who want to come see you. . . . It can be a bit much."

Although he is a thorough-going son of the South, born and raised in the Memphis suburb of Southaven, Miss., and educated at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi law school, Mr. Grisham's books aren't likely to evoke images of magnolias and Spanish moss. When he speaks of influences, he's more likely to mention Robert Ludlum than Faulkner.

"People think of a Mississippi writer, or Southern writers, and they think of a guy or a woman who writes about place, characters, history, Gothic themes," Mr. Grisham says. "And here I am writing purely commercial legal thrillers.

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