John Grisham Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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John Grisham (GRIHSH-uhm), a so-called blockbuster novelist and himself a lawyer, writes fast-paced thrillers based in the legal profession. Most of his works have become enormously successful commercially, both as long-term best-sellers and as popular films.

Grisham was born in the South, where, because his father worked for a construction company, the family moved frequently to locations in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. His family, he has said, was made up of readers and storytellers, and he attributes his writing ability to both those qualities.

After earning a degree in accounting at Mississippi State University, Grisham attended the University of Mississippi School of Law and received his law degree in 1981. He practiced law in Southaven, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tennessee, for the next ten years. From 1984 to 1990 he also served in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Grisham’s legal career was successful if unspectacular, but he became increasingly cynical about the profession and, finding that he was more interested in literature than in legal cases, decided to write a novel. He wrote A Time to Kill in longhand over a period of three years by rising every morning at 5 a.m. The book was by no means an instant success (it originally sold only about five thousand copies), but Grisham believes that it may be his best book. The plot, which concerns the efforts of a small-town lawyer to defend a black Vietnam veteran accused of killing two men who had raped his ten-year-old daughter, shows certain organizational flaws but does clearly stake out territory with which the author is entirely familiar.

Grisham began his second novel, The Firm, as a purely commercial venture, and here he first began using the pattern (some have called it the “formula”) that has led to his extraordinary publishing success. The plot of this book—a vulnerable protagonist up against a hideous conspiracy of some sort—is repeated with intriguing variations in most of Grisham’s subsequent novels. According to Grisham, he wrote his third and fourth books, The Pelican Brief and The Client, in part to convince his wife Renée that he could construct strong female protagonists. Grisham’s protagonists are usually either novices in the legal profession or idealists struggling against the system. In either case they tend to confront—and win against—powers such as the Mafia, the U.S. government, and giant insurance companies. He has said that his fascination is with normal people suddenly thrown into life-threatening circumstances. Some critics find fault with plots built upon implausible situations, but others counter that this is part of the definition of popular fiction.

One of Grisham’s most intriguing—and in some ways one of his most flawed—novels is The Chamber, which contains editing lapses and incidents of unconscious racism but also presents a compelling argument against the death penalty. The book, while problematic, is remarkable in its presentation of the gritty reality of death row.

Although Grisham continues to use the legal world as the basis of most of his work and the plots remain fast paced, starting with The Chamber, he began to include some social commentary in his stories and his plots become more intricate. He deals with issues of homelessness in The Street Lawyer. He calls attention to the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest and its native inhabitants in The Testament. He leaves the courtroom altogether in Skipping Christmas, and the somewhat autobiographical A Painted House is a coming-of-age story. Although his fiction has become more serious and less predictable, it is no less compelling and readable.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Ray Grisham, Jr., the second of five children, was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and raised in the South. His father was a construction worker, and the family moved frequently during Grisham’s childhood. He lived in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi while he was growing up. Whenever his family moved to a...

(The entire section is 1,945 words.)