March 8, 2000

Grisham reflects on death penalty,
faith's influence on novel writing

___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___WACO--Research for his best-selling book "The Chamber" changed John Grisham's opinion on the death penalty, he told a Baylor University audience the morning after Texas executed its ninth inmate this year.
___Grisham made a rare public speech to a capacity crowd in Baylor's Waco Hall Feb. 25
JOHN GRISHAM, best-selling author of books such as "A Time to Kill" and "The Chamber," speaks at Baylor University about the connection between art and soul. (Baylor University photo by Cliff Cheyne)
as part of an international conference on writing and spirituality called "Art & Soul." He spoke just hours after the execution of Betty Beets.
___In preparation for writing the novel, Grisham made frequent visits to death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. He got to know the guards, the inmates and the stories of some of the convicted killers' victims, he said.
___He even let guards strap him in the death chamber gurney to get a feel for it.
___During one of those death chamber visits--a night visit not normally allowed--just he and a lone guard stood inside the tiny, antiseptic room.
___"I read somewhere that you're a Christian," the guard said.
___"Yes, I am," replied Grisham, a lifelong Southern Baptist and active layman.
___"Do you think Jesus would approve of what we do here?" the guard asked.
___The answer Grisham gave, he said, was different than what he would have said before he started visiting death row. And it was different from what he had learned growing up in a Baptist church.
___"No," Grisham said. "I don't think that's what Jesus taught."
___Then the guard had another question, one Grisham said he never was asked before and never has been asked since.
___"Well, then," the guard said, "who do you believe in--Jesus or the state of Mississippi?"
___Grisham told the Baylor audience he now struggles with conflicted emotions on the death penalty. On one hand, he doesn't believe killing other humans is what Jesus taught, he said. "But at the same time, with every execution there's a sense that justice has been done, and I can't escape it."
___His comments drew sparse but hearty applause.
___The death row experience is just one of many ways faith influences his writing of novels and writing novels challenges his faith, Grisham said.
___He probably wouldn't even be a novelist if weren't for a concern for social justice, he explained.
___Early in his career as an attorney in Mississippi, he spent many hours hanging around the local courthouse and listening to trials, he said. One day he heard the testimony of a woman who had been raped, and the tragic story of what had happened as a result of that rape was so compelling he felt he must write it down.
___"I sat down late one night and wrote the first page of what would become 'A Time to Kill,'" he said. He never had written a book before and had no intentions of becoming a novelist.
___"I wanted so desperately to capture this story," he said. "But I didn't know if I'd finish it."
___After three years of late-night writing, he had a novel but couldn't find a publisher. He was rejected by about 15 publishers and the same number of literary agents, he said.
___When he finally found an agent willing to shop the book around, it took the agent a full year to secure a publisher. The initial press run was 5,000. And Grisham bought 1,000 of those himself.
___"I didn't have a lot of money, but I had more than my publisher," he quipped.
___Those first volumes, which originally sold for $18 and which Grisham hawked at small-town libraries in his quest to get rid of his 1,000 copies, now sell for $3,000 apiece, he noted.
___While waiting for "A Time to Kill" to get published, Grisham worked on writing his second book, "The Firm." After first reading the manuscript, his agent urged him to spice it up with more sex and profanity.
___"I'm not going to do that," Grisham responded.
___"Fine," the agent finally submitted. And then nothing happened for months. The agent, Grisham said, would not aggressively promote the book without the saucier content he thought was necessary.
___Then, unknown to Grisham, someone stole a copy of the manuscript and took it to Hollywood. That changed everything.
___Grisham recounted how he was called away from his duties as a Sunday School teacher to 3-year-olds one morning. He had just returned from the local grocery store where he had gone to pick up juice and crackers for the preschool department, when his wife told him he must call his agent immediately.
___A bidding war had begun over the movie rights to "The Firm," even though Grisham never had submitted it to a studio and the book had not been published. Grisham authorized his agent to take the highest bid, and then he went back to church.
___The worship service that day lasted forever, Grisham recalled. After a long sermon, observance of the Lord's Supper and three baby dedications, he arrived home at 12:30 and found the telephone ringing. It was his agent. The movie rights had been sold for $600,000.
___Though life forever changed from that moment forward, Grisham has maintained a somewhat normal lifestyle, volunteering as commissioner of his community's Little League and participating in mission trips to Central America.
___He was careful to distinguish himself as a Christian who happens to be a writer rather than a writer of Christian literature.
___Nevertheless, faith does influence his writing, although "you can't preach too much" in popular fiction, he admitted.
___Another book was influenced by his experiences visiting a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. When a woman and her three malnourished children came into the shelter one night, "I was overcome with compassion but also with guilt," he admitted.
___"Jesus taught us to care for the poor. ... I felt a great sense of shame for my own meager efforts. I prayed about it and said, 'God forgive me.'
___"That night, the story of 'The Street Lawyer' came together," Grisham said. Fueled by his passion to bring attention to the plight of the homeless, the book was written in 51 days.


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