Interview With John Grisham (Jul – Dec 1995)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
July – December, 1995

Sales of first six books: 55 million copies. Worldwide box-office take for the three movies already made from his novels: $572 million. First printing for his sixth novel, The Rainmaker, 2.8 million (an all-time record). John Grisham, lawyer-turned-megastar, is, according to Time magazine, ”as bankable as the biggest movie stars.”

But that isn’t what made Wineskins co-editor Mike Cope, a self-professed addict of Grisham novels, want to interview him. Rather, it is the author’s deeply-held Christian faith—a faith that shows in his attention to his family and friends and in his literary decisions.

In this exclusive interview for Wineskins, the author of A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, and The Rainmaker allows us to hear about the central part of his life that will likely not be reported by People magazine or “Entertainment Tonight”: his faith in Jesus Christ.

Cope: Readers of your books can’t help noticing the absence of gratuitous sex and filthy language. This is so unusual for best-selling novels today. How does your faith relate to this decision as an author?

Grisham: The Firm became a best-seller for several reasons, not the least of which was the absence of bad language and gratuitous sex. Parents read the book, enjoyed it, then realized it could be recommended to teenaged children and grandparents. The book was passed around, word of mouth was good, and it became very popular. When I started writing, I made the simple decision to keep it clean. The decision was based on my Christian faith and a certain lifestyle I’m trying to maintain, and I’ve never been tempted or pushed to write otherwise.

Cope: What do you think this says about the taste of the American public — whom many have assumed will only read racy novels and watch R-rated films?

Grisham: Most people care little for the R-rated fare continually shoved at them by our popular culture. Clean books and movies and albums, if well-done, can be exceptionally popular.

Cope: What are a couple of your favorite memories of growing up in the Southern Baptist Church? Especially — what had an impact on the formation of faith in your life?

Grisham: I grew up in several small Baptist churches throughout the South, and each church was an extension of the family. Much of our social lives centered around the church. Our friends were members. My school teachers were also my Sunday School teachers. There was a lot of warmth and love. Accepting Christ was a natural step for me as a young boy.

Cope: Have wealth and fame complicated your life?

Grisham: Yes, very much so, though we work hard at keeping life simple. We’re generally successful, I think. The money is new and we’re adjusting to it. Both my wife and I have middle-class backgrounds, and we’ve struggled with the overnight financial rewards of being a best-selling author. We give a lot of money to churches, missions, charities. The fame is a first-class pain and something I could live without.

Cope: How are you able to keep your life in balance? When the choice is a book signing or a child’s ball game, how do you solve the competing demands on your time?

Grisham: I go to the ball game. I’ve just completed a limited book tour for The Rainmaker — eight bookstores — and I planned it around my Little League schedule. Next year, I plan to publish Novel Number Seven on March 1 so there will be no conflict with baseball. Kids keep your feet on the ground. Regardless of success, fame, ego, whatever, kids have a way of reminding you that perhaps you’re not as cool as you think.

Cope: Writers are often viewed as an egotistical bunch. How do you combat the sinful human tendency toward pride?

Grisham: I struggle with it. And I constantly remind myself that this is only temporary. Five years ago I was struggling as a lawyer, and five years from now the books will not be selling as they are now. Virtually everything is temporary.

Cope: Your attention to your wife and children has been a positive model for others. How did this devotion to your family develop?

Grisham: It didn’t develop. My wife and I are both products of tight-knit, Southern Baptist families in which our parents were always there. It’s simply a way of life. We’ve never wanted to do anything but dote on our children.

Cope: Last year you went with a group on a mission trip to Brazil. What was the most powerful impression from the trip?

Grisham: It was my first visit to a developing country, though Brazil in many ways is thoroughly modern. It made me ashamed for all the material things I possess, and it showed me how little these things are worth. It also opened my eyes to the power of the gospel because for the first time I witnessed hundreds of people touched by it at the same time.

Cope: In The Chamber, you wrestled with the issue of capital punishment. How did your faith affect the writing?

Grisham: In writing the book, I was transformed from a pro-death penalty supporter to a person whose daily ambivalence on the issue is disconcerting. I find it difficult to believe that Jesus would have supported legal killings, yet at the same time I find myself angry and vindictive at the crimes.

Cope: In A Time to Kill, you refer briefly to a Church of Christ. Having lived in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, you’ve surely had some picture of who we are. What’s your “outsider’s take” on us?

Grisham: My father was raised in a Church of Christ, and I have many friends who are members. (One in particular is Dr. Gerald Turner, the former chancellor of Ole Miss and the new president of SMU.) We view you as kindred spirits who should break down and enjoy the benefits of pianos and organs.

It’s just too bad we can’t spend eternity together.

Cope: How do you want your fiction to be remembered?

Grisham: I honestly don’t know. This career is still new, still in its infancy, so it’s difficult to jump forward many years and speculate about how the books might be remembered.

Cope: What advice would you offer to younger readers of Wineskins who may be interested in entering the secular book market?

Grisham: Don’t quit your day job. Start writing strictly as a hobby, but be dedicated to it. Write slowly, and write about what you know and feel. And, be prepared for a lot of rejection.Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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