A Time To Write

Before he was famous, John Grisham was a hit with Mississippi State. This article profiles a then-aspiring writer.


A Time To Write

by Sammy McDavid
Mississippi State Alumnus Magazine, Winter 1990


In 1989, John Grisham Jr. of Southaven achieved what thousands could only dream of. The attorney and second-term state legislator had his first novel published.

A Time to Kill, released in the spring by Wynwood Press of New York, is, as the subtitle declares, "a novel of retribution." Within its 415 pages, the 1977 Mississippi State graduate details how complacent citizens in the fictional northwest Mississippi town of Clanton are affected by an emotional whirlwind that begins with the abduction and brutal rape of a 10-year-old black girl by two white men. The two men's subsequent killing by the girl's distraught father frames the book's central questions: Were their deaths execution or murder, revenge or justice?

The book has sold well; all 5,000 first-edition copies were gone by late autumn. And, while nothing has yet developed, Grisham's New York agent has received inquiries from at least two California movie production companies. Reviews have been positive, the best coming from veteran Mississippi journalists. "Grisham is a powerful writer who possesses an achingly fine ear for the rhythms of our language," wrote Scott County Times editor Sid Salter ('88) in his weekly syndicated column. "His work is particularly compelling in that Grisham illuminates the most volatile of our Southern cultural idiosyncrasies without apologies."

Phyllis Harper, feature editor of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, said, "My guess is that Mississippi is about to add another name to its impressive list of successful writers." Even up north, words have been kind. In a review for Library Journal magazine, David Keymer of the State University of New York at Utica said, "Grisham's pleasure in relating the Byzantine complexities of Clanton politics is contagious, and he tells a good story." Keymer went on to recommend the book to the magazine's national audience of librarians.

Reading through the intense and fast-paced whydunnit, even an avid reader could assume Grisham to be a veteran writer. In fact, the 647-page manuscript he produced in 1986 was his first complete work after two earlier tries.

An accounting major at MSU who went on to complete law school at the University of Mississippi, Grisham never had a college creative writing course. Fortunately, an excellent background in English and literature received at Southaven High School stimulated a love of reading and, not surprisingly for a creative mind such as his, writing. Having developed an early love for the works of John Steinbeck, he later would use the Nobel Prize-winning novelist's stark, realistic style as a standard for his own.

Grisham's first pass at fiction took place in Evans Residence Hall as an MSU senior when he sought creative diversion from studying. That first story idea came from a personal journal in which he had recorded several ideas for a book. As it happened, many of the people and events he later included in A Time to Kill would come from notes accumulated during his college years.

"I don't want to say what the plot was because it was so bad," he said half-jokingly of his inaugural venture. "I tried to do it too fast while taking some difficult accounting courses. Basically, it dealt with local characters in small-town Mississippi . I've always wanted to write about people like this because the list of story ideas is absolutely limitless." Small Southem towns and their residents fascinate Grisham, perhaps because his early life was spent in quite a few of them. He was born in 1955 in Jonesboro, Ark., the second oldest in a family of five children. When he was young, his father joined a construction company crew that did work throughout the South.

"We moved all over-from Jonesboro to Crenshaw, Miss., to Delhi, La., to Parkin, Ark., to Ripley, and finally, in 1967, to Southaven," he said. "Though we moved around like gypsies, it was a lot of fun."

After graduating from high school, Grisham entered Northwest Mississippi Junior College at nearby Senatobia. "I had decided I wanted to be a career athlete, though I hadn't decided whether it would be football or baseball," he said. "I thought I was good and after playing baseball for a year at Northwest, I transferred to Delta State University so I could play for Dave 'Boo' Ferriss."

For those youngsters who don't know, the legendary Ferriss enjoyed an impressive college baseball career at Mississippi State in the early 1940s before going on to pitch the Boston Red Sox to the American League pennant in 1946 and win that year's Cy Young Award. Ferriss, after later serving as pitching coach at Boston, came to Delta State in 1960 as head baseball coach and athletic director.

"It was 'Boo' who eventually convinced me I was not cut out for baseball," Grisham said. "In a nice way, he told me I should try something else-like books and studying." Transferring to MSU in early 1975 after one semester at Delta State, Grisham found he liked the campus environment well enough to make it his college home. He also discovered that his previous lack of academic concentration had left him deficient in transferable credits. "My grades were pretty bad at Northwest and Delta State," he admitted. "However, after finishing my sophomore year at State, I decided to buckle down and start studying. Since my dad had just opened his own heavy equipment dealer ship, I thought accounting was the route to go. Also, I had begun to think of becoming a tax lawyer."

It was while finishing his senior year in law school, and shortly before marrying Renee Jones-"the little girl next door who grew up while I wasn't looking" that Grisham again contracted "novel fever."

"Throughout my school years, I read constantly and became familiar with what books were getting published," he said. "As a result, I came to believe that my story idea could also be published. No one knew I was attempting a second book and my plan was to finish it before I married and completed law school. But, lord, it took a month just to write, type and revise the first chapter. I finally said, "There's no way.'"

As with his first effort, Grisham is reluctant to discuss the plot, other than to say it dealt with an international terrorist incident on an American college campus. "I still think my story idea was a good one . . . it just never got off the ground." Early failures notwithstanding, Grisham persisted. The seed of A Time to Kill was a brutal rape in DeSoto County in the early 1980s. However, as he often does when speaking to audiences, Grisham emphasized that events depicted in the book are not from DeSoto County alone or from any other single geographic location, for that matter. Rather, he said, they are drawn from a compilation of legal cases and situations he learned of over the years both first- and second hand.

"I've always been intrigued with the question of what a jury in a small Mississippi town would do with a father who took the law into his own hands for the rape of his daughter," he said. "Of course, that's what Carl Lee Hailey does in the book." All the while he was writing the manuscript, Grisham read every book he could find dealing with the book publishing industry. As he prepared to travel to Jackson in early January for the opening session of the 1987 Legislature, Grisham put his well-researched plan into action.

"I sat down with my secretary and we made up two lists," he said. "One contained the names and addresses of 30 publishing house editors; the other, 30 names and addresses of literary agents. Having already put together a package containing a query letter, book summary, and the first three chapters, I had the secretary make 10 copies of each. She was to send a copy of each to the first five editors on the first list and the same to the first five agents on the second.

"When a rejection came back with the material we had sent, she simply crossed that name off the list and immediately sent the package with a new query letter to the next one on the list. This way, we always had some going out as others were coming back. The rejection letters were filed and I would read them when I went to the office each weekend." The first dozen publishing companies and about the same number of agents all sent their regrets. Through it all, though, Grisham said he never got depressed. "I never thought of quitting. My attitude was: 'What the heck, let's have some fun.' Honestly, I believe I would've sent it to several hundred people before I would have even thought of giving up." Good news came one week in April when three agents called. Even after he had chosen one, it would be a year before the book was sold to Wynwood Press, a new subsidiary of the Fleming Revel publishing conglomerate whose best known product is Guideposts magazine.

After signing a contract with Wynwood, Grisham found the first thing the editors wanted to do was revise some of the content. "While they wanted some things cut, they also wanted some embellishment , particularly in strengthening some of the characters. Dealing with editors is much like negotiating across a table between two opposing sides. The difference is that the writer and editor are working toward the same goal-to make the book as good as it can be. Eighty percent of the book is my original manuscript and I wrote all the revisions."

As an attorney in small-town general practice-he forgot about specializing in taxes once he enrolled in law school-Grisham is experienced in communicating the intricacies of the judicial process to everyday citizens. It is understandable, therefore, that he found the lengthy and necessary explanations of criminal litigation among the easiest parts to write.

"The only technical material I had to master was the insanity defense, which I had never been involved with in a trial," he said. "I did have to simplify it some, but none of the legal material required any revision. " Despite a lack of formal training in writing-or, perhaps, because of it Grisham has a smooth writing style. It is an achievement that has not gone unnoticed by readers.

"I have had readers say they liked the book because it 'really flowed,"' he said. "As a writer, that is a tremendous compliment, because it is truly painful to write smoothly. "When I began, I simply sat down and began with the rape and ended with the verdict. I wanted it to be smooth and I wanted it to move quickly. I can't write any other way. I have no patience with writers . . . who try to be obtuse and obscure. When I read, I want a good story, well-told. I don't have time for the other kind." To help keep the creative juices flowing and his mind off the lengthy process of getting a first book published, Grisham took the advice of his agent and immediately began writing a second novel, which he completed in late August. In October, he started a third.

"For me, writing has gotten to be a habit and I think I'd like to do it all the time," he said. "I'm getting out of politics after this term of the Legislature] ends in 1991. I'm really looking forward to having that time available to write." Grisham, ever protective of revealing his plot before the book is published, will only say the second book "deals with a group of Memphis lawyers." About the third, he is a bit more expansive.

The reason is obvious. "The third book will again be set in Ford County [where Clanton is located," he said. "It will deal with the after-effects of a big trial 20 years before in which the defendant, who was convicted, comes back to town after being paroled. It will jump between the events of the trial as they happened and the present, with the backdrop being the 20-year difference in Mississippi. "

Though Steinbeck is Grisham's favorite author and literary beacon, the young writer is taking a page from another legend of letters, Mississippian William Faulkner, in plotting his future. "I would like to do what Faulkner did carve out a little piece of Mississippi territory and claim it for my own," he said, referring to Faulkner's fictional town of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County. "There are a lot of characters in Clanton and Ford County who have stories that need to be told. As long as someone will publish my books, I plan to do just that."

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