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When John Grisham writes, Hollywood buys in

Best-selling novelist of ”A Time to Kill,” ”The Runaway Jury,” and ”The Chamber” sits down and talks with EW

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John Grisham is late. He was expected in Doubleday’s 18th-floor offices overlooking Times Square a good hour ago. But is anyone going to say anything to him? Hell, no. They’re lucky he’s agreed to show up at all. In six short years, Grisham, 41, a former trial lawyer from Mississippi, has become one of the world’s top-selling authors — a virtual one-man book and movie-idea factory — with both Manhattan publishers and Hollywood studio execs at his feet. His seventh legal thriller, The Runaway Jury, about jury tampering during a tobacco lawsuit, just hit the stores and, of course, the top of the best-seller lists. (Grisham has yet to sell the movie rights.) The movie version of his first book, A Time to Kill, over which he had casting, script, and director approval, opens in July and stars Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and newcomer Matthew McConaughey. And the film of The Chamber will be out in October.

Nevertheless, when Grisham finally shows up, he is as eager to please as a first-time writer. Sitting down exhausted after a marathon book signing in midtown Manhattan, Grisham cheerfully talks about his resemblance (or lack thereof) to Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, sex scenes in movies, and why he has a ”healthy fear” of Hollywood.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Given how much the tobacco industry has been in the news, The Runaway Jury seems awfully prescient. Did you write it for personal reasons?
Grisham: Fortunately, I’ve never lost anybody to lung cancer. There was a similar trial in a rural county in Mississippi about eight years ago. It turned into a circus because an old man died of lung cancer and he had smoked one of those early, unfiltered types of cigarettes for 35 years and sued the manufacturer. There were outrageous tales of jury tampering. [An investigation cleared the tobacco company.]

EW: Which of the movie versions of your books did you like the best?
JG: The Client and The Pelican Brief were the most faithful adaptations. Joel Schumacher and Alan Pakula didn’t try to make radical changes. Schumacher did a good job — The Client was fun to watch. It was not high art; it was a good commercial film.

EW: Were you happy with the stars? Are they who you wanted for the parts?
JG: I thought [The Client‘s] Susan Sarandon was wonderful…. Pelican Brief is the only book I’ve written with a star in mind. Darby Shaw is a 24-year-old student with long red hair and long legs — and good-looking. That kind of narrows it down to Julia Roberts pretty quickly.

EW: Do you have a crush on Julia Roberts?
JG: [Pausing] Not really, but I just kept thinking this would be her film.

EW: Did you lobby for her to get the part?
JG: Absolutely not. After the book was published, she wrote me a letter and said, ”I loved the book and I’d like to be in the movie.” But I had no control over casting back then.

EW: How did you like the finished product? The movie didn’t get good reviews, and people seemed to wish there had been sex in it.