The master of the legal thriller takes a slow walk through an Arkansas childhood.
"THE HILL PEOPLE AND THE MEXICANS arrived on the same day. It was a Wednesday, early in September 1952. The Cardinals were five games behind the Dodgers with two weeks to go, and the season looked hopeless. The cotton, however, was waist high to my father, almost over my head, and he and my grandfather could be heard before supper whispering words that were seldom heard. It could be a `good crop.'"
So begins A Painted House, John Grisham's new genre-busting novel, serialized throughout the past year in The Oxford American and making its appearance this winter in book form. A radical substitute for the intricately plotted legal thrillers that have arrived like clockwork early each year since 1991, A Painted House is the unsentimental story of a single harvest season in the Arkansas Delta, as seen through the eyes of the seven-year-old son and grandson of cotton farmers. "This is a very important book to John," says Grisham's agent and former editor David Gernert, who says he wasn't surprised to see Grisham turn his attention to it. "When a story grabs John he writes it, and this was clearly the story that gripped him over the last year. Perhaps the biggest difference from his other books was in the process: Instead of writing a book in one chunk, he was writing over a long period of time, which meant that he got to take a deep breath and reread what he had written as he went along."
That excursion into the basic methodology of Creative Writing 101 may have been just what Grisham needed as he entered the second decade of an unparalleled literary career. Unlike writers who start small and build their pace, Grisham vaulted almost unimpeded onto the bestseller list with his second novel (his first, A Time to Kill, later became a bestseller as well) and has broken records with every book since. Although an undisputed master of plotting, Grisham has fielded criticism over the years that his characters are two-dimensional and sometimes unlikable. The pressure to redline his literary motor year after year has hardly given him time to explore the more leisurely avenues of writing; A Painted House is Grisham's effort to get off the highway and spend a little time doing some writerly shunpiking.
A celebrity who keeps determinedly away from the spotlight--he speaks more often to small town newspapers than to national networks and news organizations--Grisham has done little advance publicity for the book. Doubleday didn't make up its mind definitely to publish A Painted House in February--in the slot that has seen a Grisham thriller published every year for nine years--until last fall. As a result, the book didn't make it into Doubleday's catalog of winter publications, which booksellers use to plan advance orders.
The departure from his usual subject matter may represent a financial gamble for Grisham and his publisher--although his name on the cover is an almost-sure guarantee of healthy sales--but the gutsier gamble may be with his pride. Not only has forty-five-year-old Grisham taken a sabbatical from his tried-and-true formula, he has also entered the crowded field of growing-up-in-the-rural-South fiction, already well plowed by everyone from Harper Lee to, most recently, Tony Earley (Jim the Boy). Critics kept a respectful distance while the book was being serialized--and Oxford American readers voted with their pocketbooks, substantially pumping tip the magazine's sales.
Swerving from passages of great eloquence and tenderness to paragraphs of flat-footed prose, A Painted House reads like the first novel that in some ways it is. Surprisingly loosely plotted, it may disappoint readers who are looking for Grisham's usual Swiss-watch precision in storytelling; it works better as a series of vignettes and character sketches than as a linear story. Despite its flaws, however, the combination of an appealing story and the momentum of the Grisham name are expected to propel the book into a familiar spot--the bestseller lists that have been the comfortable home for all of Grisham's previous efforts.
The new book has some muted versions of familiar Grisham elements--a murder, a secret, a loss--but its heart lies miles away from the courtrooms and corner offices where so many of Grisham's dramas are played out. Heavy with heat and dust, filled with the feel of rough cotton bolls, the taste of fresh biscuits and the release of the evening's coolness on the porch after dinner, the book evokes a world that still lingers in the memory of many Southerners, including the Arkansas-born Grisham himself. "I think John wrote this book because he needed to write it," says Marc Smirnoff, founder and editor of The Oxford American. "I think he'd been living with it a long, long time."
Smirnoff first learned of the book's existence in August 1999 when Grisham handed him a package at writer Willie Morris' funeral in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Smirnoff and Grisham have been friends since 1992, when Smirnoff asked him to contribute a piece to the fledgling issue of the ambitious Oxford American--"The Southern Magazine of Good Writing"--which Smirnoff was launching with high enthusiasm and very little experience or capital. Grisham was impressed by Smirnoff's editing skills, and later that year, he asked Smirnoff to join his tight editorial circle: Along with Grisham's wife, Renee, and David Gernert, Smirnoff reads each new Grisham in draft form and offers his suggestions. "I usually get my manuscript round about Christmas time, so I wasn't sure what this was," says Smirnoff. "The first eighty pages that he gave me were unlike anything I'd ever seen from him. I thought he was just testing out something new--I called him and said, `John, I'm sure you're going to be criticized for this, but keep going.'"
What Smirnoff didn't realize was that Grisham fully intended to keep going--in The Oxford American. Grisham had become the magazine's major investor in 1994 (and, after a good deal of persuasive conversation from Smirnoff, had allowed his name to go on the masthead as publisher) and since then had occasionally used the magazine as a forum for experimentation, publishing his first short story in its pages in 1995 and writing a controversial critique of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers in 1996. Blind sided by fame in 1991, when The Firm spent forty-seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Grisham has been almost fanatically self-protective, working hard to maintain a private life far from the tabloid--or even literary journal--spotlight; The Oxford American has proved to be just the right size for him to flex his experimental muscles occasionally without drawing too much attention.
"When John signed up to be co-owner, one of the things he mentioned was serialization," says Smirnoff. "But, to be honest, there was so much else going on at the time I didn't really remember the conversation until he brought it up again." For The Oxford American, which numbered about 20,000 subscribers and had a print run of 50,000 copies, the chance to publish an original John Grisham was a remarkable stroke of good fortune. "One thing it has given us is a broader readership," says Smirnoff. "We don't have the budget to do a lot of advertising, so everything that has come from this has basically been by word of mouth, but it has still tripled our circulation to 150,000. Once again John has helped to change things for us."
Grisham's change of direction has forced some alterations at Doubleday, too. The company is used to starting off the calendar year with millions of hardcover Grisham sales, which create a financial cushion against the books that might not do as well as expected later on. When Grisham started A Painted House, Doubleday had every reason to be confident it would still get the usual thriller when 2001 rolled around. As the serialization continued, however, it began to grow clear that the publisher would have to choose between A Painted House or no Grisham title.
"The simple truth," says Gernert, was that as Grisham was writing A Painted House, "he didn't know if he wanted to publish it as a book." Gernert adds that while Grisham is "capable" of producing two books in a year, the writer didn't know, early on, if he would. During the serialization process, Grisham was providing his installments close to The Oxford American's final deadlines; it didn't look like he would realistically have time to write two books, even if he wanted to. After leaving it out of the catalog, Doubleday scrambled to rev up its marketing engines. In late November, Doubleday Publisher Stephen Rubin told BOOK he was excited the first time he saw part of A Painted House. "The moment I read those pages, I knew I wanted to publish A Painted House," he said. Gernert says it wasn't clear to Doubleday that A Painted House would be the sole Grisham offering for early 2001, so it remains questionable if Rubin wanted to publish the book alone, or so soon. It probably doesn't matter; everybody at Doubleday has realized that a book by Grisham will likely sell no matter what, and the novelty of a new genre might just goose sales more.
Although drenched in reminiscence, A Painted House is not fictionalized autobiography. For starters, Grisham moved his story back ten years (he wasn't seven until 1962) so that he could introduce the Korean War, a war distant and irrelevant in the hardscrabble South. His narrator, Luke Chandler, is an only child living in a three-generation household where his parents and grandparents farm rented land; Grisham is the second of five children. Like Luke, however, Grisham spent the first seven years of his life on a farm, chopping cotton in the summer and--released along with all the other local children from school for the harvest season--carrying a nine-foot sack down dense rows of cotton in the autumn. In the early 1960s his father gave up farming and began moving his family around the Deep South to little towns with names like Delhi, Crenshaw and Parkin, following work at construction projects.
One unwavering constant in Grisham's childhood was his devotion to baseball in general and the St. Louis Cardinals in particular. "I grew up with baseball," Grisham told Charlottesville, Virginia's Albemarle magazine in 1997, "tons of baseball. When I was a kid, it was sandlot ball all day long during the summer, and then organized games at night. My brothers and I could instantly gauge the quality of life in any new town by looking at the little league ballpark."
In 1967 the Grishams settled in Southaven, Mississippi, just over the border from Memphis, Tennessee. Dreaming of a big league career when he graduated from high school, John enrolled in Northwest Junior College in nearby Senatobia and continued to play baseball; at the end of the year he transferred to Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, where former Red Sox pitcher Dave "Boo" Ferris was head baseball coach and athletic director. Grisham's baseball career at Delta State was short and ignominious, however: Just three weeks into the fall season he was cut from the team. "One day I stood at home plate and watched in horror as a fast ball came directly at my head at 90 m.p.h.," he wrote in 1991 in the Mississippi State Alumnus magazine. "It missed, but I was sick at my stomach. The next pitch was a bit slower but nonetheless headed straight for my ear. I immediately dived toward third base and did not see the ball as it dropped and curved beautifully across the plate. I could hear laughter as I rolled in the din and grass. I faked back spasms and crawled to the dugout. The next day, Boo Ferris, that perfect gentleman, called me into his office and confessed he didn't think I could hit a fast ball. And, since it had already been established I couldn't hit a curve, there wasn't much left."
"The Mexicans followed Pappy off to the barn, which was 352 feet from the kitchen steps. Past the chicken coop, the water pump, the clothes line, and the toolshed, past a sugar maple that would turn bright red in October. My father had helped me measure the exact distance one clay last January. It seemed like a mile to me. From home plate to the left field wall in Sportsman's Park, where the Cardinals played, was 350 feet, and every time Stan Musial hit a home run I would sit on the steps the next day and marvel at the distance. In mid July he'd hit a ball four hundred feet against the Braves. Pappy said "He hit it over the barn, Luke."
Cove Creek Park sits a thousand miles and a lifetime away from A Painted House's Black Oak, Arkansas, and the hundreds of other sun-struck little towns up and down the Delta where boys and girls still play ball on ragged fields and dusty playgrounds. Snugged into a flat valley in the foothills of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, Cove Creek Park, with its six pristine baseball diamonds--their close-shaven infields mowed into damask silk stripes--its green-roofed clubhouse, its batting cages, playground and paved parking lot, rises like a mirage against a dense line of oaks, poplars and dogwoods. A pair of painted metal baseballs sit atop green metal stanchions near the gate; a sign reads, "No alcohol, No dogs, No profanity, No bicycles, No rollerblades." A smaller sign reads simply, "Watch Out for Foul Balls."
All of Grisham's sublimated baseball dreams have resurfaced in the sparkling fields of Cove Creek Park. The Grishams began coming to Charlottesville in the early 1990s after they bought an eighteenth-century farmhouse on 220 acres in southern Albemarle County. Although they were happily settled in Oxford, Mississippi, with strong ties to the community, the town was proving to be too small to shelter the Grishams from the relentless attention John's bestsellers were attracting. Tour buses had begun turning into the driveway (one story passed around Oxford--Mississippians are never ones to leave a good tale unembellished--had Grisham coming out one morning to find a couple getting married on his front lawn). Grisham had determinedly kept his small-town-lawyer style--khaki pants, button-down shirts and often a day or two's worth of stubble--but small-town life was simply getting too small.
Charlottesville, by contrast, is used to celebrities: The rolling hills and well-manicured horse farms around Thomas Jefferson's red brick college town, home to the University of Virginia, shelter millionaires and movie stars (among them are Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange). "It was wonderful to come here for a weekend, never leave the farm and just enjoy the beautiful area," Grisham told Albemarle. "The more we came here, the more we liked it. And the more we came, the more privacy we were losing in the small town where we lived. So we decided, let's go to Charlottesville for a year. Let's go and hide."
Settled in, Grisham began driving the back roads looking for a bit of flat land--something his hilly farm lacked--where his kids could put up a backstop to practice baseball and softball. A little experience with local youth sports made him realize that his own two children were not the only ones in the neighborhood looking for a place to play: There were few baseball fields in southern Albemarle County and none at all in poorer and more rural Nelson County next door. The original plan to build a simple backstop metamorphosed into Cove Creek Park, which was financed and built by Grisham. Nicer than many minor league ballparks, Cove Creek receives such heavy use that the 160-car parking lot is now supplemented with an overflow lot.
During baseball season Grisham spends as much time as he can at Cove Creek, chalking the baselines, pulling weeds and chatting with other parents (his own children, now nearly out of high school, have outgrown Cove Creek). It's a rare opportunity for him to shed the unasked-for "world's bestselling author" persona that has been thrust upon him by fame and an income from royalties and movie rights that Forbes magazine conservatively estimates at something over $40 million a year. His trajectory from the cotton fields to what is perhaps the world's most popular author has been so swift, so steep and so potentially destructive--he needs only to look at his fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley to know that--it is not surprising that a good part of his working life is dedicated to preserving some semblance of ordinary life.
"A bale of cotton was worth a hundred and seventy-five dollars, give or take, depending on the markets. A good crop could produce a bale an acre. We rented eighty acres. Most farm kids could do the math. In fact, the math was so easy you wondered why anyone would want to be a farmer. My mother made sure I understood the numbers. The two of us had already made a secret pact that I would never, under any circumstances, stay on the farm. I would finish all twelve grades and dream of college."
Neither of Grisham's parents had any higher education, but the public library ranked right behind the Baptist church and the ball field in any new town the family settled into. Nonetheless when the time came for college Grisham had almost no interest--aside from the baseball team--in pursuing an academic career. When the baseball dream died he found himself adrift; he floated on to Mississippi State University, following a couple of friends who were planning to study forestry.
Grisham enrolled in an economics class with the vague plan of becoming an accountant. It was there that he saw for the first time a debate over ideas erupt--two recent Vietnam vets pitted against a hawkish professor--and found himself startled, amazed and then intrigued that learning could be as exciting as baseball. "At that moment," he wrote in Mississippi State Alumnus, "in my first class at State, I became a student--not a radical, but a kid who suddenly wanted to grow up and learn. I wanted to be able to attack professors and tie them in knots with my deft arguments and piercing analyses."
Grisham buckled down and started to think about law school. Just for fun he tried his hand at writing fiction, turning out a story about characters in small town Mississippi (some of those characters would later resurface in A Time to Kill, his first novel). He had started dating Renee Jones, a girl he had known back in Southaven. In 1977 he graduated from State with a B.S. in accounting; the next year he entered law school at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Grisham quickly switched from tax law to criminal law and embarked on another novel, this one about a terrorist incident on a college campus. Like the first one, it remained unfinished, but he also began studying the publishing world, convinced that sooner or later he could come up with something publishable. He and Renee, now married, moved back to Southaven after he graduated in 1981, and Grisham established a practice in criminal defense and personal injury litigation--his first client was a man who claimed self-defense after shooting his wife's lover in the head.
Although Grisham found the law fascinating, the work, at least as practiced by most young small-town attorneys, turned out to be a stultifying combination of hustle, routine, sliding-scale ethics and only the rarest flashes of excitement. In 1983--the same year his son was born--Grisham won a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives and began part-time commuting to Jackson, but even lawmaking could not entirely hold his restless interest. Then one day, while visiting a DeSoto County courtroom, he sat in on the trial of a man accused of raping a twelve-year-old girl; he began to wonder how a jury would react to a father who took justice into his own hands, and a story started to shape itself in his mind.
The rest has become publishing legend. Grisham set up a computer between the washer and the dryer in the laundry room of his two-bedroom home, working every morning from five to seven and scribbling down notes at odd moments during the day; A Time to Kill, the story of a black father who kills two white men to avenge the rape and death of his daughter and the trial that follows, was completed in 1987, and with all the dogged patience of a John Grisham hero, Grisham set out getting his book published. He and his secretary compiled two lists of thirty names each--one list for editors, the other for agents--and started mailing out the book. When his neat packages of query letter, summary and sample chapters would come back, Grisham's secretary would simply cross off a name and send it out again.
Grisham accumulated twenty-eight rejection slips before three agents called, all in the same week in April. He decided to go with Jay Garon, a legendary bulldog of the profession; even so, it took another year to find a publisher for the book. Finally, an editor at Wynwood Press, a small subsidiary of the company that publishes Guideposts, took an interest in the manuscript; in 1989 Wynwood published A Time to Kill in an edition of 5,000 copies and paid Grisham a $15,000 advance.
Grisham bought a thousand copies of the book himself and began hawking them to independent bookstores out of the trunk of his car (he remains loyal to those early supporters, often doing book signings in small, out-of-the-way bookshops). In the meantime, on the advice of his agent, he had started a second novel. He was still practicing law, serving in the legislature, and now had two children, but the second book--which was to become The Firm--captured his imagination as whole-heartedly as the first one had done. Garon took the manuscript straight to Paramount Pictures, which bought the movie rights for $600,000 even before the book rights had been sold. Shortly afterward, Doubleday picked up the book.
From then on, and with each subsequent book, the numbers would be staggering: 60 million copies of John Grisham books in print, translations into thirty-one languages; six films with total box office receipts well in excess of $600 million. The Firm alone sold 550,000 hardback copies and 7 million paperback copies; A Time to Kill, brought out in a new edition, sold 5.5 million paperback copies. Already restless with his law practice, Grisham happily gave up law in favor of full-time writing. He has argued only one case since: In 1996, five years after he closed his practice, he returned to a Mississippi courtroom to represent a former client, the widow of a railroad brakeman killed when he was pinned between two cars. Grisham--who waived his fee--won a settlement of $683,500, the largest of his career.
With his newest book, Grisham is looking for a different kind of win--money is likely one of his least concerns. It's hard to imagine that a leisurely small-scale book like A Painted House could find the same kind of audience as John Grisham's thrillers. On the one hand, it's hard to imagine why it should be expected to; on the other, it is by John Grisham. At any rate, the book's potential commercial success doesn't seem to have driven Grisham's decision to write it. "I think this book has been building up and building up in John," says Smirnoff. "Sometimes you can come up with all these excuses why not to do something but you know you've got to do it sooner or later. Maybe choosing the serial form meant that he had to be forced by deadlines to do something a little risky."
Grisham himself has always been determinedly modest about his literary attainments. "I'm a commercial writer who lives in the South," he wrote a couple of years ago in a wry piece in The Oxford American called "The Faulkner Thing." "I try to write commercial fiction of a high quality--no attempt at literature here--just good books that people enjoy reading. The libraries are already filled with great literature. There's no room for me."
But perhaps there is. In writing A Painted House Grisham may be restating a question that Patrick Lanigan, protagonist of The Partner, asks himself. "Why can't a man have more than one life?" he says. "Where was it written that you couldn't start over? And over?"
Bowled over by serials
Michael Lund, a professor of English at Longwood College in Virginia, has become a one-man champion of the serial form. In 1993 he published a history of serialization called America's Continuing Story: An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900; in his spare time he writes to newspapers and magazines (including The Oxford American), suggesting that they give serialized fiction a try. Book talked with Lund shortly after his own first novel, Growing Up on Route 66, was published. It galls him a bit to see his book between covers: His manuscript is twenty chapters long, each chapter no more than five pages, perfectly designed for serialization. But so far, alas, no takers.
Does the serial form have any advantage for writers?
Most people think it's a disadvantage--writers traditionally started the serial without knowing how it was going to end, and often struggled to meet monthly deadlines. I think, though, that there's another way to look at it--and I think in fact more writers did look at it this way in the last century--that the deadline inspires writers to write. How could people like Trollope, George Eliot, Dickens and Thomas Hardy write novel after novel? I think the serial format helped to encourage that sort of productivity.
For the reader there's certainly a sense of anticipation at the end of each installment.
I teach fiction that way--I don't assign a whole book to be read, I spread it out through the whole semester and it changes the experience of reading in a lot of significant ways. A lot of us think of reading as a solitary activity--just you and this volume oft in some private place. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you read with other people who are all getting the parts at the same time you talk about it and speculate about it, and reading becomes communal.
If you live with a set of fictional characters for a year, say, as we did with A Painted House, they kind of get into your life and even get mixed up with events in your own life in a way that a book that you read over the weekend just doesn't do. Publishers of magazines and books are missing that opportunity to create that communal excitement.
I'm sure there are chat rooms and discussion groups where people have that energetic excitement, but I'm not sure the publishing industry really sees the possibility or the potential in this.
What could be the advantages to a publisher?
The publishing industry is very fluid right now because technology is making the printing of books so much easier, and the Web is making marketing so much easier and so much cheaper that you don't have to put everything into that one bestseller that pays for your whole line. I think it would be possible to publish more things in parts that would pick up an audience as they go.
Obviously writers like John Grisham are going to have an audience no matter what they do. Do you know of lower-profile writers who are exploring serialization?
I don't think many writers think yet about serialization as something more than a gimmick--by and large they tend to do it once and then stop. One writer who kept it up a long time is Eric Kraft. He began his career publishing in little quarterly parts that stood alone but were all building on a long story around a character named Peter Leroy. He wanted to keep serializing, but his publisher was small and regional and just couldn't make it work, so he had to go to a major publisher--Crown--who published his work in volumes. That's just the way the books get marketed and reviewed--I even found that his ninety-six-page books would often be put on the shelves as children's books just because of their shape.
If you were to pick up a novel, could you tell that it had been written serially? Is there a structure to writing a serial novel?
I think there is, but it's not the stereotype of the cliffhanger ending. You can look at A Painted House: It's got very vivid characters and a fixed locale, and it's also got a single narrator whose consciousness organizes all events. Because the serial was published bimonthly, Grisham had to do a lot of things to keep the focus so that when readers could back into it quickly. I think he did that very well. If you are publishing daily in a newspaper or in a weekly, then you can do more things, you can make more shifts.
Liz Seymour ("John Grisham Gets Serious," page 34) wrote "Kaye Gibbons: Making It Up As She Goes Along" for BOOK'S May/June 1999 issue. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and Travel and Leisure. She has two daughters and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband, a high school English teacher and blues singer.…