John Grisham Returns to Mississippi in “A Time for Mercy”

            “A Time for Mercy” takes us back to Clanton, Mississippi where Jake Brigance, the hero of John Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” practices law. Though more than three decades have passed since Grisham introduced us to Brigance it’s been only five years Clanton-time and the attorney is facing hard times. And so, among the last thing he wants to do is take on a deeply unpopular case involving the death of a local deputy by a 16-year-old boy.

John Grisham

            But Brigance doesn’t have a choice, he’s been appointed by the judge to represent Drew Gamble who killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend after watching him almost kill her. Despite the circumstances, this is Clanton, Mississippi and the killing of a lawman, no matter how heinous his actions, brings about a cry for revenge. The town wants Drew Gamble to die in the gas chamber no matter that the murder victim deserved it or that the defendant is a sweet and timid kid who was trying to protect his mother and sister. It also was a time when kids could be sentenced to death.

            When Grisham wrote his first novel, he was somewhat like Jake—living in a small town, struggling as a lawyer, and hoping for a breakout case that would make his reputation.

            So what’s it like being back in Clanton, I asked.

“A big part of me never leaves Clanton,” he said. “That’s where I’m from, my little corner of the world. I know it well because I grew up there and practiced law there.  I know its history, people, culture, religion, food, routines, conflicts, past.  It is always exciting to find a story that will work in Clanton.”

            While we might be surprised at what Jake has been up to in those five years, surprises aren’t the way Grisham puts pen to paper. Characters don’t take on a life of their own as he writes, he alone is in charge of their destiny.

            “I plot the stories mentally for a long time, then outline them extensively before I write a word, so the surprises are rare,” said Grisham who has had 28 consecutive number one fiction best sellers several of which have been made into movies and adding to that sweet pot, he’s sold over 300 million books.  “Clanton has changed very little from 1985–the trial of Carl Lee Hailey in ‘A Time to Kill’ and ‘Sycamore Row’” set in 1987, and now “A Time For Mercy” in 1990.   Big changes are just around the corner with the digital age but looking back 1990 seems rather nostalgic.”

Now that we’ve come to expect all of Grisham’s books to be best sellers, it’s interesting to learn that “A Time to Kill” didn’t do well at all when it was released. Of the 5000 hardcover copies published, Grisham is quoted as saying they couldn’t give them away. That is until his next book, “The Firm” was published and then made into a film with rising star Tom Cruise.

            As with many of his intricately plotted, Grisham often is inspired by real life cases and so it is with this book which already is the number one novel on the Amazon Charts Most Sold Fiction list.

“About ten years ago I heard a noted lawyer talk about one of his most difficult criminal cases,” Grisham said. “His client was a 16 year old boy who’d pulled the trigger. The kid had been severely traumatized with a chaotic life.  His prosecution of his case was complicated and created many vexing issues.””

Complicated story themes are like a type of catnip for Grisham, who somehow juggles thorny, thought-provoking issues and successfully weaves them into the narrative without slowing down the action.

“It’s often difficult but also intriguing,” he said about achieving that fine line. “A heavy issue can weigh down a thriller when the pages are supposed to turn.  Too heavy on the politics and some readers are alienated.  Success is determined by careful preparation, a chapter by chapter outline that often takes longer than writing the book.”

When I asked, as my final question, is there’s anything else he’d like readers to know, Grisham replied, “I never miss an opportunity to thank the many people who have enjoyed my books over the years and kept me in business. I’m still having fun. I hope you are too. I’ll keep writing if you keep reading.

 I think he can count on that.

Note: It was just announced that It was just announced that Matthew McConaughey who attorney Jake Brigance in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, a film based on John Grisham’s novel of the same will be reprising his role in HBO’s A Time for Mercy.\

Note this article appeared previously in the Northwest Indiana Times.

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