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Tales Out of Court

updated 03/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1992 01:00AM

JOHN GRISHAM HAS ALWAYS APPRECIATED a good story. In high school, he fell in love with the novels of John Steinbeck ("though my teacher was surprised I showed interest in anything academic," he says). In law school at Ole Miss, where he planned to study tax law and "make a lot of money," he found himself drawn to courtroom drama. "I'd sneak out of class to go watch good lawyers try cases," he says.

And then there was the story that changed his life. One day in 1984, three years after Grisham began practicing law in Southaven, Miss. (pop. 18,000), he dropped by the courthouse to observe a trial. "This 10-year-old girl was testifying against a man who had raped her and left her for dead," he says. "I never felt such emotion and human drama in my life. I became obsessed wondering what it would be like if the girl's father killed that rapist and was put on trial. I had to write it down."

His pen has hardly paused since. Grisham's first novel, a tale of paternal revenge called A Time to Kill, was published in 1989 and sold a mere 5,000 copies. But his second, The Firm, the story of a law-school grad recruited by a firm with mob connections, spent a spectacular 47 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list last year, with more than 500,000 copies in print. His new book, The Pelican Brief, about a female law student investigating the murders of two Supreme Court justices, has already been judged "an even stronger performance" than The Firm by Kirkus Reviews. Pelican and The Firm have both been sold to the movies, bringing Grisham, 37, plenty of that cash—an estimated $1.6 million—that he always longed for.

"I find myself taking long walks on my farm with my wife, Renee, wondering what in the world happened," says Grisham, who spent part of his windfall buying 20 acres in Oxford, Miss., and building a big Victorian-style home. "When The Firm first hit the Times best-seller list, all I wanted was for it to stay on one more week—it would be embarrassing if it fell right off. But I never dreamed of all this."

The son of a housewife and an itinerant construction worker, Grisham was born in Arkansas and spent much of his childhood traversing the South with his parents and four siblings. "We didn't have a lot of money, but we didn't know it," he says. "We were well fed and loved and scrubbed." He was an unremarkable student and an avid jock at high school in Southaven, where his family settled when he was 12. He showed no early interest in writing but says, "I've always been real confident, even in sports, where I had nothing to be confident about."

After completing law school, Grisham married Renée, with whom he'd grown up in Southaven, and took her back to their hometown, where he set up shop as a small-town litigator. In his first murder case, he says, "I defended a guy Who shot another guy in self-defense, but I had to explain why he shot him in the head six times at three-inch range. It was a pretty gruesome case, but I won."

His practice, which he eventually confined to more lucrative civil cases, began to thrive, though that often meant putting in 80-hour weeks. In 1983 Grisham was elected to the State Senate, where he hoped to increase spending for education, but quit before the end of his second term because "I realized it was impossible to make changes." The only way to write on his "kamikaze schedule," he realized, was to get up at 5 each morning. "People would drive by and see me working and think I was this workaholic lawyer, which was great for business," he says. With little hope of getting published. Grisham submitted his first book as a hobby. "It was fun to see what would come back in the mail," he says. A Time to Kill gathered 28 rejections before it was published by Wynwood Press. The Firm racked up a string of rejections too—until a bootleg copy landed in Hollywood and started a bidding frenzy. "After that, 18 publishers begged for the chance to publish it," Grisham says. "It was a hoot."

Grisham closed his practice in 1990 to write full-time. "People ask if I'll move to New York or Hollywood, and I say, 'No, we moved to Oxford,' " he says. He spends as much time as possible with Renée, 31, who is completing her bachelor's degree at Ole Miss, and with their son, Ty, 8, and daughter Shea, 6. Grisham likes "sitting on the porch watching cars go by," he says.

If that doesn't sound like a famous writer's life, it suits John Grisham just fine. "Ten years from now I plan to be sitting here, looking out over my land," he says. "I hope I'll be writing books, but if not, I'll be on my pond fishing with my kids. I feel like the luckiest guy I know."

KIM HUBBARD
DAVID HUTCHINGS in Oxford

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