Booknews: You Can Go Home Again
Bridget Kinsella -- 1/22/01
In his upcoming novel, John Grisham takes a risk and leaves the lawyers behind

Every year there's a Grisham. It's a staple that could be a fixture in the farmer's almanac: for the last decade, every February, Doubleday publishes the latest John Grisham. And every year, his fans wait for the one-day laydown to gobble up the new one from the master of legal thrillers. Come February 6, there will be a new Grisham, and just a quick glance at the cover shows that it is a very different Grisham indeed. This year Grisham invites his readers home. But will they accept?
A Painted House is set in the 1950s in rural Arkansas, the time and place where Grisham grew up. The narrator is a seven-year-old baseball-obsessed farm boy. The story is about picking cotton and there's not a lawyer in sight. But the boy's keen eye catches details and nuances that
An Arkansas farm
replaces the courtroom.
bring the complications of rural life--the clashes of the classes of farm families, the hill people and the migrant workers from Mexico--to light.
"Every now and then he'd tell me he had something percolating on the back burner," said David Gernert, Grisham's long-time editor and agent. "But when he said it was based on his childhood in rural Arkansas, then I knew it was very different. "

What's not different is Doubleday's confidence in Grisham, despite the risks. The first print run stands at 2.8 million copies, consistent with the author's last five books. But the publisher did something it hasn't done in a long time with John Grisham: it printed galleys.

"We thought the greatest way to sell it was with the book itself," explained Steve Rubin, president and publisher of Doubleday. The advance reading copies also contained a letter from the author, explaining, "this is not a legal thriller." In this one, Rubin continued, "John's dug deep into his roots."

Along with the subject and tone, there are other departures to note with A Painted House. Last year the Oxford American published the story in installments. "The writing process was different enough that it gave him a chance to write in a different way," observed Gernert. The Oxford American publishes bimonthly. "So time passed between each section," he added. "Usually John writes more linearly."

Also in this Article:
PW Asks John Grisham: What Happened to the Lawyers?

Hollywood took an interest in A Painted House right away, beginning with the first Oxford American excerpt. According to Gernert, Grisham is working with someone to adapt the book into a movie but "the deal is not done yet. We should be making an announcement shortly." It has been a few years since a Grisham novel was adapted for the screen and Gernert said the author will be "developing other projects as well."

But for now, the attention is on the book. At That Bookstore in Blytheville, owner Mary Gay Shipley told PW that a number of her customers have been waiting for the serialized story to come out in book form. But then again, Blytheville, Ark., is just down the road a piece from Black Oak, the town in A Painted House. "This is what it was like growing up in Eastern Arkansas when I grew up here," Shipley explained, adding that she grew up near Grisham, "but he's a little younger." Shipley was seven in 1952, just like the narrator in the book. "We told 'cotton stories,' and there are things in this book that he probably heard and told around the table growing up."

Booksellers PW spoke with said they were impressed that a writer of Grisham's reputation would take a risk and try something different. "Most authors don't do this," observed Nancy Rutland, owner of Bookworks in Albuquerque, N.Mex. She named some exceptions, including Tony Hillerman, who interrupted his Navajo mysteries to write Finding Moon, and David Baldacci, who took a break from thrillers this fall with the publication of Wish You Well (Warner), which, as a period novel set in the rural south, carries parallels to A Painted House. "The audience response was mixed, but some say that Finding Moon is Hillerman's greatest work," observed Rutland. As for the latest Baldacci, she said it sold well but not as well as his previous books. "We expect Grisham will sell better than Baldacci--he sells better anyway--and expect lower numbers in sales, not because it isn't a good book, but because the audience is smaller. If [Tom] Clancy wrote a book about living in Mississippi one summer, it would have a different audience, too," Rutland added.

Doubleday's Rubin hopes A Painted House dispels criticism that Grisham is a genre writer. "I've always believed that John writes a different book every time. This time he knocked me off my chair," Rubin told PW. "I think that if [the readers] loved his legal thrillers because he knows how to tell a great story, than they are in for the same experience. He is a master storyteller."

Grisham as storyteller is the angle Doubleday is using to publicize A Painted House. The publisher has always done extensive marketing and promotion for the author's work, but this time it has a different tone and his media appearances scheduled reflect this. On February 5, Grisham will make a rare public appearance at the New York Public Library. "He's been invited before, but this is the first time he agreed to go," said Suzanne Herz, Doubleday's publicity director. "This is a really different book for him, and that sends a very different message." Grisham will appear on the TodayShow the next morning, when the books land in the bookstores. Other media attention includes a cover story in the Life section of USA Today, a segment on NPR's All Things Considered and an interview with Larry King. The online promotions include Doubleclick, Epinions and Salon. Details for promotions on Yahoo and Book Sense are in the works. Also, Grisham will go on a 10-city tour, with a special emphasis in the South.

Shipley said Grisham always returns to a few Southern booksellers who were good to him in the beginning of his career. When Grisham visited last year, Shipley said, she had a chance to talk with the author about this more personal work-in-progress. "At the time, he wasn't sure he wanted it to be in book form," she told PW. "Writing it is one thing, having it be his book of the year, that's the scary part."

It's been a while since Grisham found himself waiting for a verdict.

PW Asks John Grisham: What Happened to the Lawyers?

PW:A Painted House has no lawyers. What happened to the lawyers?

JG:Oh, they'll be back. This is a very momentary departure from the legal books.

PW:Why did you write this novel?

JG:It's an accumulation of old family stories, most of which are probably fiction anyway, that I've heard all my life. At some point a few years ago, the big stories came together, so I included
Grisham: "A very
momentary departure."
a lot of family history and scrambled it together with a big dose of fiction and came up with what I thought was a good story. And I think after you write a number of books in a certain genre, you have the urge to try to something different.
PW:Do you have any hopes that this novel might change how the critical establishment looks at your work?

JG:No, I gave up on those folks a long time ago. I think I've sold too many books to ever be taken seriously by those folks. But it certainly has not hurt anything. I'd be horrified now if I wrote a book the critics loved. My career'd probably be on the downslide.

PW:Then you may be in trouble now.

JG:[Laughter] The problem with literary criticism is that the critics are other writers. And they can be very mean. Can you imagine Bruce Springsteen reviewing Bob Seger's CD? And if you don't write "literature," whatever that is, then you're pretty much condemned. But I think the people who read popular fiction don't read a whole lot of reviews, or if they do, they pretty much ignore them.

PW:So how will people who read popular fiction respond to this book?

JG:I really don't know. I think they're going to like it because there's a real story there. It's not the stay-up-all-night-call-in-late-for-work kind of Grisham book, but the pages do move along. You got some diehards out there who thrive on the legal stuff by me and Turow and Baldacci and Steve Martini, and I don't know how they're going to react.

PW:There are some minor differences between the serialized novel and the published book, most notably that the epilogue has been lopped off.

JG:Yeah, well, we cut that out. I wasn't sure about it when we published it. I liked it at the time, Marc [Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American] really liked it; David [Gernert, Grisham's editor and agent] didn't, Steve [Rubin, Doubleday publisher] didn't, my wife didn't. It was kicked around at length. At the last minute, I said, "Let's not do it."

PW:You say the book is inspired by your own childhood. Did you actually pick cotton as a kid?

JG:Oh yes, for the first seven years of my life. The setting is very accurate. That house and that farm and that town are very, very similar to my grandparents' house and farm and the town of Black Oak, where I spent the first seven years of my life.

PW:You really succeeded in getting into the head of a seven-year-old for your narrator.

JG:I'll tell you, the biggest challenge was to keep him as a seven-year-old. I think at times the kid's a lot smarter than any seven-year-old would be. I kept stretching it, I kept asking myself how much would a kid know and remember and see.

PW:This is the sort of novel that, without your name on the cover, probably would be considered midlist and get a much smaller printing. Someone said to me, "You know, Grisham can put his name on a roll of paper towels and get it printed in two million copies. And for the amount of money he probably got for this, they could have fostered dozens of books by midlist novelists." What do you think of that?

JG:Well, you could say that about every book I write, or Clancy or King or Crichton or every one of us who gets a lot of money for our books. The truth is, and Stephen King made this comment years ago, if we turned the money down, they wouldn't use it to foster 20 novels, they'd use it to go after another big novel. But I don't hear stuff like that, so it d sn't bother me. I'm not in the publishing world. I'm on a farm in Virginia.

Let's wait and see if people enjoy the book. If it falls flat, then I got overpaid. If it sells a lot of copies, well, I'm trying to write high-quality popular fiction. Don't criticize me for writing popular fiction when a lot of people enjoy it. This may be different. If people are disappointed, and it's not going to sell like the other books, then, yup, I should have put my name on a roll of toilet paper, I guess.

PW:This book is different. Are you doing anything different to promote it?

JG:Not a thing. I'm going to New York on February the 5th, and I'll be on the Today Show February the 6th, and do a couple of interviews. I'm going to sign at a bookstore here in Charlottesville, as always, and do the same for bookstores around Memphis, as I've done for 10 years. And then it's time for baseball season.

PW:I'm curious about what you think of e-books, when you don't even use e-mail much.

JG:Very rarely. I work on a computer in my office, in a separate little building here on the farm, and there are no telephones there, and the computer is not online. But I've given some serious thought to trying something online. Something different. Not a short story and not a novel, but something in between. One mistake I think a lot of authors make is, they make it to the top and the books tend to get thicker, ponderous. They become bricks. I'm going in the other direction. I'm thinking about trying a story that's maybe 100 pages long. Something you could sell online and let people download and print it and read it.

PW:Will you do that through Doubleday?

JG:I don't know. We haven't gotten that far, I haven't got the thing written yet.