Features

PROFILE: Southern Baptist scribe

National | Bestselling novelist John Grisham doesn't flinch from portraying Christian conversions

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

in Waco, Texas - First place on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover books (The Brethren). First place on the paperback list (The Testament). His books have sold tens of millions of copies, leading Publishers Weekly to declare him "the bestselling novelist of the '90s." Five of his novels became box-office hits when turned into movies. John Grisham could be at the bow of a Titanic-like ship, yelling, "I'm the king of the world." But he's not. Instead, on a drizzly February morning, as the sound of heavy chimes wafted slowly over the neatly manicured lawns and white-pinnacled, red-brick buildings of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Mr. Grisham was on stage to discuss the role of religious faith in literature. Mr. Grisham was in Baylor's largest auditorium because of both his popularity and his willingness to include dramatic Christian conversions in some of his books, including The Street Lawyer, The Chamber, and The Testament. Immaculately dressed in a blue blazer, khaki pants, and brown loafers, the 45-year-old father of two charmed the 1,800 ticket holders with his gentle Southern drawl and disarming dry wit. "I don't spend a lot of time preparing speeches. I'd rather just tell stories, it's a whole lot more fun," he told the crowd, joking that he only agreed to speak so he could see their $10 million college baseball stadium. Mr. Grisham told the crowd about his Baptist roots: "Each time we moved, the first thing we did was join a local Baptist church," he said, recounting his family's steady migration from Jonesboro, Ark., to Southaven, Miss. "It seemed like we went to church eight days a week." Inspection of the town baseball field was also a regular ritual. "We could tell you what kind of town it was by the condition of the baseball fields," he said. Recalling pleasant evenings spent on the front porch with his grandfather listening to St. Louis Cardinal games on the radio, Mr. Grisham told the audience that "both my dad and grandfather were big-time yarn spinners. I've heard the same stories for 40 years now and they always have three or four different endings." Now he's the one spinning the yarns, at least some of the time. Mr. Grisham explained that he divides each year in half: He writes his bestsellers in the spring and coaches little-league baseball in the fall. Neighbors often observe him chalking a six-field baseball park he built for his children on his Charlottesville, Va., farm. "I know how to put down perfect chalk," he bragged. Life wasn't always so satisfying. In college, Mr. Grisham's childhood dreams of playing major-league baseball disappeared after a season on the bench. Instead, he resigned himself to accounting classes and law school, returning to Southaven to become a small-town criminal lawyer. There he found plenty of fodder for future bestsellers. But one scene in particular continues to haunt him-that of a 12-year-old girl testifying against a rapist in a De Soto County courtroom. "Looking back, I think that changed my life," he said. "It was the worst thing I have ever seen in court, and it was so dramatic and so compelling that I never got over it." The case inspired him to write A Time to Kill. For the next three years, the soon-to-be millionaire scratched out that first novel on legal notepads. "I was not thinking about making money or changing careers. It was a secret little hobby. I wrote it for myself," he said. But disappointment greeted him once again when his publisher printed only 5,000 copies. Mr. Grisham purchased 1,000. "I didn't have much money, but I had more than my publisher," he quipped. Despite the dismal sales, Mr. Grisham took another swing at novel writing and-through an unlikely set of circumstances-this time hit a home run. When agents read his second novel (The Firm), they suggested Mr. Grisham "spice it up" with sex scenes to make it "more commercial." He refused and a power struggle ensued, resulting in The Firm's banishment to the corner of a dusty New York office. Months later, someone (whose identity was never discovered) stole the manuscript and distributed it to Hollywood film producers. Mr. Grisham was busy giving apple juice and cookies to 3-year-old Sunday school students when his agent called, requesting permission to accept a $600,000 offer from Paramount. "My wife and I suffered through the next worship service," a long one, he said. Nine years, 11 novels, and six movies later, Mr. Grisham still struggles to merge his faith with fame. When a college student asked "how God fits in your writing," Mr. Grisham hem-hawed briefly before finally announcing, "I'm a Christian who writes popular fiction. I'm not writing Christian literature." Of his writing ability, Mr. Grisham said: "It was just something I never tried before. Once I tried it, it worked. I know that my writing style is simple, straightforward and all that, but what I really enjoy is-is maybe just a God-given ability to tell a story." Still, the author can't resist preaching occasionally. His novels contain a heavy dose of political lecturing against the death penalty, environmental hazards, and American greed. "I tend to preach about all the things I don't like and then Renee [his wife] takes it out," he confessed. In a recent USA Today article, the author described himself as a "moderate" Baptist. While Mr. Grisham's liberal-leaning lectures and occasional bad language may grate at some readers, he has succeeded in presenting the gospel to millions of readers in 29 different languages. "It was a difficult decision" to include the conversion scenes, Mr. Grisham told WORLD at a press conference held moments before his Baylor debut: "You have to do it in small doses. You can't go over the top. You can't hammer readers who buy novels to be entertained." The crowd at Baylor was certainly being entertained. They rewarded him with several bouts of boisterous laughter during the 75 minutes of anecdotes. But at one point the crowd turned completely silent. As he read an excerpt from The Chamber in which a death-row inmate named Sam accepts Christ, the author's words echoed through the room: "Do you believe Jesus Christ was the son of God; that he came to this earth, born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, was persecuted and died on the cross so that we might have eternal salvation? Do you believe this, Sam?" "Yes," he whispered. "And that he arose from the grave and ascended into heaven?" "Yes." "And that through him all of your sins are forgiven? All the terrible things that burden your heart are now forgiven. Do you believe this, Sam?" "Yes, yes."

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