John Grisham (1955–)
John Grisham is an internationally known bestselling author of legal thrillers and of one fictionalized account of his childhood in Arkansas, A Painted House. Many of his books have been made into popular Hollywood movies.
John Grisham was born in Jonesboro (Craighead County) on February 8, 1955, to John Grisham and Wanda Skidmore Grisham. At the time, his parents were helping the extended family on the cotton farm near Black Oak (Craighead County). When Grisham was four years old, the family began following his father’s construction jobs, including spending three years in Parkin (Cross County), before eventually settling in Southaven, Mississippi, though he and his four siblings came to the Black Oak farm to spend the summers with their grandparents. While much of his life has been spent outside of Arkansas, he has strong ties to northeast Arkansas. Grisham’s grandfather owned Skidmore Piano Store in Blytheville (Mississippi County), and many of his relatives live in northeast Arkansas today.
Grisham loved playing baseball and followed the St. Louis Cardinals, often listening to the games on the radio with the family when the farm chores were done. He attended Northwest Junior College in Senatobia, Mississippi, and Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, to play college baseball. At Mississippi State University, he became a serious student, graduating with a BS in accounting in 1977. Grisham enrolled in law school at the University of Mississippi to become a tax lawyer, but his interest shifted to criminal law. Shortly after graduation from law school, Grisham married Renee Jones on May 8, 1981. They have two children, Ty and Shea, and live in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Oxford, Mississippi.
Grisham was admitted to the state bar in Mississippi in 1981 and practiced in Southaven until 1990. He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from January 1984 until September 1990.
While serving in the Mississippi House, he observed a trial in the De Soto County Courthouse that changed his life. He heard the testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim. He began exploring what would have happened if the girl’s father had killed her assailants. With the trial for the storyline and Steinbeck’s clear, clean writing style as a model, Grisham wrote his first novel, A Time to Kill. Most of the writing was done before going to the office and during courtroom recesses. Wynwood Press published A Time to Kill in 1988. It was a small printing, 5,000 copies, and received little attention beyond the mid-South.
Grisham began writing his second novel, The Firm, the film rights to which were purchased by Paramount Pictures in 1990, before it was even published. Doubleday published The Firm in February of 1991, and it moved to the No. 12 spot on the New York Times bestseller list by March 17.
The Firm was the beginning of Grisham’s journey to become the all-time bestselling novelist in the United States. Since The Firm, Grisham has written a novel a year and each has been a longtime feature on the bestseller lists. There are more than 60 million John Grisham books in print worldwide. They have been translated into twenty-nine languages. Doubleday and its parent company, Bartlesmann, carefully orchestrate a logistical plan to make millions of copies of the new book available worldwide on the same day. Many of his books have been made into successful movies, including A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Street Lawyer, and Skipping Christmas.
In spite of Grisham’s success and fame, he has remained loyal to his roots, early friends, and supporters. His bestseller, A Painted House, published in book form in 2001, is a fictionalized account of his early days on a cotton farm. Hallmark turned the novel into one of its made-for-television movies, filming in and around Lepanto (Poinsett County); the farmhouse from the set is on display there. The April 14, 2003, world premiere of the movie at Arkansas State University’s Fowler Center included a dinner that raised $170,000 in endowment funds for the Heritage Studies PhD program. In 2001, the Arkansas Library Association presented Grisham and A Painted House the Arkansiana Award, recognizing authors and books that represent a significant contribution to Arkansas heritage and culture.
In 1994, Grisham rescued the Oxford American, a financially struggling magazine devoted to covering all things Southern, through a significant investment of money. He also published A Painted House serially in that magazine in 2000, then based in Oxford, Mississippi. Although Grisham is no longer associated with it, Oxford American lives on and is published in partnership with the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway (Faulkner County).
In 2006, Grisham published his first non-fiction work, The Innocent Man: Murder and Justice in a Small Town. The book centers upon the murder trial of Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz of Oklahoma, a trial which resulted in death sentences for them both until DNA evidence cleared their names after eleven years on death row.
He and his wife also established the Rebuild the Coast Fund, raising $8.8 million for storm victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2009, Grisham published his first short-story collection, Ford County. In 2010, Grisham published his first book for younger readers, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer; five others in the series have since been published. Grisham continues to average about one published novel each year.
For additional information:
Best, Nancy, ed. Readings on John Grisham. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003.
Erisman, Fred. “John Grisham’s Ford County: Yoknapatawpha County Updated.” Journal of American Culture 43 (June 2020): 145–155.
Hughes, Libby. The John Grisham Story: From Baseball to Bestsellers. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Inc., 2004.
Ishizuka, Kathy. John Grisham: Best-Selling Author. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2003.
Sabin, Warwick. “John Grisham: Author.” Arkansas Times, December 14, 2006. Online at https://arktimes.com/general/top-stories/2006/12/14/john-grisham-author (accessed July 5, 2019).
Weaver, Robyn. John Grisham. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1999.
Mary Gay Shipley
That Bookstore in Blytheville
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