John Grisham talks about his latest legal thriller and -- in an exclusive -- rates all 17 of his previous best-sellers and the movies they inspired

By Tina Jordan
Updated February 06, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
John Grisham
Credit: John Grisham Photograph by Grant Delin

John Grisham’s office, a stunning loft space overlooking downtown Charlottesville, Va., is a long, lean expanse of wood floors studded with curvy red and plum sofas and an imposing conference table. Despite the wood and glass and steel it’s a warm space, decorated with both the expected (movie posters, early reviews) and the unexpected (one of his old Mississippi law firm business cards, encased in a small frame). Grisham, 49, strides in five minutes late, apologetic. He’s driven in from his farm, a 204-acre spread south of the city he shares with wife Renée and daughter Shea (son Ty is away at college). Nursing an Italian coffee, he ponders a list of his 17 best-sellers. ”By the time I’m finished with one book I’m always thinking about the next one,” he says, laughing, ”so I can’t remember a lot of detail. But I’ll wing it.”

He doesn’t have to wing it, of course. Here are his thoughts on all 17 books — and the seven movies that have been made from them.

Grisham was a small-town lawyer and state legislator in Mississippi when he picked up pen and pad and started A Time to Kill (1989).

”I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote that book. It’s the only book out of 17 that I wrote without a deadline and without the knowledge that it was going to get published, so I really took my time with it. Still, I go back and look at it occasionally and see a lot of rookie mistakes…Too many long sentences and too much flowery prose.. Now, 20 years later, I’m really tired of the Ku Klux Klan stuff. When you write about the South it’s got to be about race and I wish I hadn’t devoted so much of the book to the Klan because they don’t deserve it. That’s one thing I’d change..”

The movie ”I had script approval, casting approval, location approval, so I got way too involved. When all was said and done I was happy with it, happy we were able to find a kid like Matthew McConnaughey. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a good one.”

After spending three years laboring over a ”Time to Kill” — and not having much to show for it — Grisham admits that ”The Firm” (1991) was ”a naked stab at commercial fiction.”

”If it hadn’t worked the second time, I probably would’ve stopped for awhile. I like [‘The Firm’] a lot because I’ ve always liked the character of Mitch McDeere, and the hook, and the ending — in spite of what Hollywood did to it.” (Grisham ended with the main couple stealing Mob money and going on a permanent Caribbean vacation, while director Sydney Pollack, claiming he was sick of ”yuppie endings,” sent Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn back to their Boston roots, poorer but wiser.

The movie ”I had nothing to do with it. I went to the set twice. Stephen King is a buddy and he told me a long time ago, ‘They’re just movies. They cannot change a word of what you’ve written. It’s somebody else’s interpretation. Take the money and run.’ …I thought [Cruise] did a good job. He played the innocent young associate very well.”