''The Firm'' and the farm
John Grisham is on the mound. Around him Little Leaguers run the bases and drop pop flies. Grisham swivels to watch them, then sweeps his gaze back to home plate. He winds up, tosses. An 8-year-old slaps the ball toward second.
”Good hit!” Grisham yells. Then he blows a big pink bubble and lets it POP.
Grisham, 36, has been on top of the best-seller lists for 20 weeks with his novel The Firm. But down home in Oxford, Miss., he’s on top of the world — and never more so than when he’s pitching ball in the field he bought with his grand-slam $1.6 million reported book earnings. ”Having a best-seller is so much fun,” Grisham says with a drawl that is as smooth as root beer. ”I don’t think anybody’s having any more fun than I am.”
Seven years ago, Grisham was not having much fun. He was working 60 hours a week in his one-man criminal-defense law practice in Southaven, Miss., and putting in three months a year as a Democratic member of the Mississippi state legislature. Then he decided to write a book. Six days a week, he got to his office at 5 a.m. to work on a courtroom drama called A Time to Kill. When it was finished, his secretary began shipping it off to 30 publishers and 30 agents. The 16th agent, Jay Garon, took it and sold it to Wynwood Press, a small New York publisher, for $15,000. Only 5,000 copies were printed.
By then, Grisham was deep into the nasty intrigues surrounding Mitchell McDeere, the hero of The Firm. A young and ambitious tax attorney, McDeere discovers his Memphis firm is the Cosa Nostra of tax law. He manages to escape and enrich himself at the same time by playing his mobster bosses off against the FBI. Asked about the cheerfulness with which McDeere abandons legality and his legal career, Grisham replies that he can appreciate it. ”Virtually every lawyer I know would rather be doing something else — but can’t leave the money.”
Like his wily hero, Grisham found his own profitable escape from the law. During downtime at the courthouse, he’d slip into empty jury rooms and scribble a page or two on the yellow legal pad he carried in his briefcase. After the manuscript was finished and mailed to Garon, something happened that could have come straight from the book: A bootleg copy was snagged by a Hollywood scout, setting off a bidding war among movie studios.
The first Sunday of 1990, Grisham’s wife, Renée, was running late for church when Garon called from New York. ”I don’t even remember getting dressed that morning,” says Renée, who is the image of Delta Burke in her beauty-pageant days. ”John had gone ahead to church because he had to stop to buy apple juice for the children he teaches. And I just ran in and said, ‘John, you have to go home now and call New York. Some people in Hollywood want to buy The Firm.”’
By the time the benediction was said at the Carriage Hills Baptist Church that morning, The Firm had been sold to Paramount for $600,000. ”I asked my agent how he got that kind of money for it,” Grisham says, ”and he just said, ‘I’m a helluva agent.’ And I just said, ‘Amen, amen.”’
Grisham is a Southern gentleman who commands the even tones and practiced handshake of a politician. Just before Memorial Day weekend, he parks his Jeep Cherokee on the shady town square in Oxford and orders an iced tea and gumbo at a porch restaurant overlooking the white courthouse made famous by Faulkner. He is greeted by a businessman up from Jackson who has just read his book and loved it. Grisham chats about Mississippi State baseball with the ponytailed waitress.
When the conversation finally sidles around to the changes Hollywood has made in his life, Grisham takes a swig of iced tea and makes a vow: ”The money’s nice. But I’m not gonna get burned but twice by Hollywood.” So far, he’s really only been singed; he minds very much that Paramount refused to let him write the script for The Firm. ”I hate television, and I’ve never been a movie fan. In the past year, I’ve tried to see more, rent more — so I can turn it off if I hate it. I’ve always been one to walk out of movies.” And what’s his idea of a good movie? ”Field of Dreams,” he says. ”That’s a great movie.”
Later that day, after he has gone home and added socks to his casual attire, Grisham arrives at his favorite bookstore, Square Books. He spends so many hours here — hanging out with one of the other writers in town-that in March when Renée got word that The Firm had climbed onto the New York Times best-seller list, she knew to phone him at the store. ”He turned several different colors,” says Square Books’ owner, Richard Howorth, who was shooting & the breeze with Grisham when the call came. Lately Grisham’s daily visits have been more purposeful. He studies the best-seller lists as if they’re baseball stats for an opposing team. ”We’re watching them,” Grisham says, pointing to Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich’s The Crown of Columbus. ”This week they’re at No. 15, but we know they’re moving up to No. 10 next week.”
Grisham has come to the store this afternoon to celebrate the publication of fellow Oxfordian Barry Hannah’s new book, Never Die. Hannah looks up from his leaky pen and says wryly: ”Hey, John, when you gonna send some of that gold my way? Are you gonna just bury it all out there on that farm?”
Oh, yes, the farm. As you wind your way up the drive to the butter yellow Victorian farmhouse that crowns his 67 acres, it becomes clear that Grisham is not burying his gold. He’s nesting with it. When he opens the front door, the smell of new wafts out from the polished antique oak floors and the gleaming banisters. The kitchen is painted the blue of Moroccan skies. There’s a bathroom with a freshly glazed claw-footed tub and a reproduction of an antique pull-chain toilet. Sitting behind his spanking-new oak desk, Grisham leans back and props his feet next to his computer. ”We wanted to build the home that the kids will come to someday with their kids. (The Grishams have a boy, Ty, 8, and a girl, Shea, 5.) We plan on living here forever,” he says. He insists that other than moving to the Oxford farm, the Grishams have made no changes in their lives. ”We really tend to keep it low-key because of the kids. We don’t want to change their little lives.”
After Grisham shrugged off his law career, he climbed onto a tractor rigged with a bushhog mower. ”Ten days ago,” he boasts, ”the grass was knee-high. I had to cut it five times. The first day I was out here, Renée came walking down the hill, shaking her head. She just said, ‘Field of Dreams?”’
He nods. Field of dreams come true.