John Grisham's ninth novel, The Street Lawyer (Doubleday) opens as an armed homeless man invades a Washington, D.C., law firm and takes nine attorneys hostage. Dressed in rags, smelling of cheap wine, the man demands to know how much each manicured, well-fed attorney earned in the last year, and how much each gave to the homeless.
"I could be in that scene," Grisham tells PW in a conversation about his extraordinary success as a writer. "I could be in that room, as a hostage. I mean, they are a bunch of rich white guys."
Indeed. While the extent of Grisham's own earnings remain a secret known to himself, his representatives and the IRS (Forbes magazine estimates his 1996 income at $30 million), the worldwide gross of his novels and their spinoffs, including the movies, easily exceeds $1 billion. The Grisham business is very big business, and The Street Lawyer, with its first printing of 2.8 million, will expand it further. Every year since 1991, when The Firm blitzed bookstores in late February, a new Grisham novel has swept upon the spring lists like a hurricane. To accommodate it, booksellers around the country clear miles of shelfspace; book and audio clubs quicken to fill orders; motion picture studios cajole and connive to get a first peek at galleys. It's no exaggeration to say that thousands of media folk, from publishing and printing executives to bookstore owners, film producers, directors and actors and beyond, profit from, and to some extent depend upon, the annual Grisham blockbuster. So do, indirectly, a host of other legal-thriller authors like Steven Martini, Richard North Patterson, Brad Meltzer and Phillip M. Margolin, who have bobbed into prominence in the wake of Hurricane Grisham.
"You'd have to say that I've had a profound impact on this genre," Grisham comments. "Scott [Turow] rejuvenated and defined the genre. He brought all this attention to it with Presumed Innocent. At that point, I took it to a different level, as far as commercial success."
Grisham is aware of the impact of his success on the book industry. "I'm aware of, first of all, how it affects my publisher. But you know, if I skipped a year or two, my publisher's going to survive. I'll tell you what I think about: When I'm in one of those real small bookstores, some of the stores I've gone to for years to sign books, going back to A Time to Kill, I confess I've had the thought, 'What if I skipped a year?' It would have a significant impact on the store."
That's a heavy responsibility, but Grisham carries it easily. "I don't really worry about the expectations," he says. "The only pressure I put on myself is to write the best book I can write. I guess one of these days I'm going to publish a book and it's going to be a real dud that will sell half of what the last one sold. At that point, I'll probably worry about sales."
Hurricanes harbor a calm center, of course, and Grisham, speaking rapidly but softly, projects a nearly unflappable affability during our conversation. He gives the sense of man who is anchored, and his lifestyle testifies to this. As we speak, Grisham is in the garage outside his house, because he wants to smoke a cigar as he talks to us. "My wife won't let me smoke a cigar in the house," he explains, drawling the words much as his 16th cousin, Bill Clinton (one of whose grandfathers was a Grisham), does. Grisham generally shies from the limelight and spends half of each year coaching Little League on any of the six ballfields he's built near his home in a rural area of Albemarle County, Va. A Baptist, he periodically travels to Brazil with church groups to build chapels for local congregations.
Grisham's devotions to family (including his wife of 16 years, Renee, and a son and daughter), craft, baseball, church, charity work and his regional roots are more than bedrock American virtues: they are keys to understanding the Grisham business. For, ultimately, his success is a classic American story, not unlike those of many other entrepreneurs who rise from working-class roots to strike it big.
Born in Arkansas in 1955 to a construction worker and a homemaker, Grisham grew up hoping to play professional baseball. When he realized his talent didn't match his ambition, he enrolled in Mississippi State University, majoring in accounting, then in the University of Mississippi Law School, where he specialized in tax law. After he hung out his shingle, he switched to criminal law and also won election to the Mississippi state legislature.
Grisham might have enjoyed an excellent career as a lawyer and politician but, like many aspiring Americans, he had what he says was a "hobby" -- writing. Each morning in the mid-1980s, he woke early to work on A Time to Kill, which he completed in 1987. The day after he finished it he began The Firm. When film rights to that novel sold to Paramount for $600,000 and then book rights sold to Doubleday, Grisham quit law and the legislature and turned pro author. The Grisham business was born.
Today, the fruits of Grisham's enterprise include the nine novels, a scattering of screenplays and six film adaptations. Grisham also publishes a literary magazine, the Oxford American, which, he says, "is something I'm extremely proud of." He and his wife sponsor a visiting writers' program at Ole Miss, and at MSU he has funded annual grants for outstanding faculty. And he is one of the few authors with a Usenet group dedicated to him (alt.books.john-grisham).
Like any entrepreneur with a growing business, Grisham has sought expert advice over the years. His wife is his principal advisor, but two publishing dynamos have helped shaped his career. The first was literary agent Jay Garon, who agreed to represent Grisham after reading his unsolicited submission of A Time to Kill in 1987. The second is David Gernert.
The Grisham-Gernert relationship is unique in big-league publishing. Gernert is Grisham's agent, but he is also his editor. Beginning with The Firm, Gernert edited five Grisham books at Doubleday and had risen to the position of editor-in-chief there when, in 1995, Garon died and Grisham invited Gernert to fill his sh s. Leaving Doubleday, Gernert founded the Gernert Company, with Grisham as his first client.
Gernert is a year younger than Grisham but, in conversation at least, acts as a protective older brother. He is congenial but chooses his words with a guardedness absent in Grisham, speaking cautiously, at half Grisham's pace. When asked what, exactly, he does for Grisham, Gernert responds, "We -- 'we' being the Gernert Company -- oversee and, hopefully, coordinate the many aspects of his career, be it books or film, internationally."
As editor and agent, Gernert's influence with Grisham extends to the creation of the novels. "I've always been heavily edited by David," Grisham admits. "A year ago, I started writing a novel. I wrote about a third of it, and David read all I had written, and he was lukewarm. And my wife was, shall we say, much cooler than lukewarm. At that point I ditched it. David's got to like the story. If I've got to work to convince David it's a good idea, then I'm wasting my time."
Gernert pleads a more modest role, indicating that his initial encounter with each book is, after a portion is written, to "react as a good, smart reader who is also a friend and who knows his work very well." Once the manuscript is ready, Gernert begins editing, with Doubleday, he says, "hiring me in a kind of freelance way."
Like any brand-name author, Grisham receives innumerable offers to expand his business; these Gernert takes care of. "A fairly large part of what we do," Gernert explains, "is handle the requests that come in for John to do everything from give a keynote speech to appear in a commercial to write an essay for Newsweek or whatever." Gernert hastens to add that the Gernert Company--which includes two ancillary agents and represents several other writers, including Peter Straub, Stewart O'Nan and Peter Guralnick--does "not function as a lecture agent. Because John really doesn't do that."
Grisham doesn't do commercials, either (no trenchcoat-clad Amex spots for him) and, despite his golden touch, has no plans to move into electronic media. "There are very few writers whose work obviously is appropriate to that," comments Gernert.
In stating this, Gernert may be displaying an appreciation of the possible limits of growth for the Grisham business. Grisham remains America's favorite writer, but his popularity may have leveled off a bit (albeit at an astonishingly high rate) around 1994, when The Chamber, which boasts the highest hardcover and audio in-print figures of any Grisham novel, was released.
Could this be due to too much product in too brief a time? When asked this, Grisham replies: "Well, we've been worried about overexposure for a long time. There was a time about three or four years ago when The Chamber was number one in hardback and The Firm, The Pelican Brief and A Time to Kill, or something like that, were one, two and three in paper. And there was a movie out, I think it was The Client. That was about as crazy as everything could possibly get. We talked a lot about overexposure and worried a lot about it, and still do."
Grisham denies, however, that the decision to withhold the sale of film rights on last year's The Partner and now on The Street Lawyer stemmed from fear of audience overload. "It's just taking a break from Hollywood," he says. "The films add another layer of notoriety and stress and hassle that I don't care to deal with."
Some notoriety accrued to Grisham last fall when the film of The Rainmaker was released as John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Grisham explains that he agreed to the title change only upon the repeated requests of Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the movie. "He can be very persuasive," Grisham says. "And I said, 'Okay.' I did it, and I'll never do it again."
Even so, there are at least two, perhaps three, more Grisham films in the pipeline. The Runaway Jury is, according to Gernert, "in active development at Warner Brothers." The Gingerbread Man, based on a screenplay that Grisham wrote in the late 1980s, is due out from PolyGram on February 6th. Directed by Robert Altman, starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., the movie traces the fate of a Savannah lawyer who defends a waitress stalked by her own father. And Grisham reveals that this past summer he wrote a "Little League baseball movie" script.
Grisham intends to focus on novels for the foreseeable future, however, at his customary rate of one a year -- but only, he insists, as long as he has viable stories. "I'm not just cranking these things out. It looks like it. But Updike comes out every year and nobody accuses him of just cranking them out. If I didn't have a story, I wouldn't write the book."
Grisham, who recently created a corporation to umbrella his writings -- The Street Lawyer is copyrighted to Belfry Holdings, Inc. -- is currently working through a multibook contract with Doubleday/Dell. Gernert refuses to discuss the contract terms, but he does aver that "John has a very good relationship with BDD. He enjoys being published by a company that is large, and we have a good relationship with Jack H ft (BDD's chairman and CEO), which is very important to John."
Whether Grisham remains with Doubleday/Dell or eventually moves on, he apparently sees little appeal in forsaking his traditional arrangement of ever-increasing advances in favor of the sort of low-advance, high-royalty deal -- in effect a profit-sharing arrangement -- that Stephen King has entered into with Scribner. "I think you reach a point with advances when it is a profit-sharing deal," Grisham contends. "When you start talking about the money that is paid to me and to Clancy and to King and to Crichton and maybe even to Danielle-I think those are the top five-in my opinion, it's profit sharing. The writer gets to make X number of dollars and the publisher makes X number of dollars."
It seems that with the success must come power and, in conclusion, PW asks Grisham to express his feelings about both. "As a bestselling author, I can understand the success," he says, "because I see the books in bookstores, I know they're selling and people enjoy them and I get the royalty checks.
"But power as a writer-if you mean power like in The Street Lawyer, power to raise the level of consciousness about a particular issue, sure, I understand that," Grisham says. "And power when it comes to Hollywood, I understand that. In the movie deals, I had the power to veto a director, power to veto casting, power to veto location. But I have a problem trying to understand what that power may mean in publishing. Tomorrow I may find some reason to flex my muscle and see what I can really do, if there's a reason to. But I really haven't done that."