I am always surprised by what I find in New York. Whether it is something odd, like a cross-dressing man with a full beard hiking up his dress to urinate on a subway stairwell (true story), or walking in the Barnes and Noble to take some notes out of a Literary Agents book and finding Charlie Rose interviewing John Grisham.
You don’t get these surprises anywhere else. And the good or the bad, there’s value in each of them. Do you know what else has value? Anything written by John Grisham. The guy has sold 240 million books! Most writers would be happy with a 245 dollar paycheck. This guy has sold 400-page books 245 million times. Before this turns into an algebra equation I’ll just say it, that equals a shit load of money.
It was very interesting to hear Grisham acknowledge the critics who say that he doesn’t write characters very well. Paraphrasing, he said, “That’s not what I do. I write suspense. I write books in the hope that you’ll pick it up, read it all day and all night and then call into work sick the next day just to stay home and keep reading…if you want to read 15 pages about a character I’m not the guy.”
If it’s a theme I’ve found in successful people across the spectrum, they don’t cater to critics. They don’t change what they know they do well. For Grisham, it’s his Ginsu-sharp sense of story. He distills down each of his books into a two sentence hook to share with his wife. If she says it’s a story he sticks with it. For The Firm – A young, up and coming lawyer gets his dream job at a big firm only to find out that it’s run by the mafia. Now that’s a hell of a hook.
His story of how A Time to Kill came about was just as gripping. Terrible rape case in his town and he knew the family. He is in court on their side when the judge throws everyone out of the room to talk with the plaintiff, defendent, and their lawyers. Grisham said it was like nothing he had every seen before or has seen since, so he knew there was something to it but wasn’t a writer at that point. When they were done, he went out to his car but left a notebook behind. He went back into the courtroom and found that the defendent, the rapist, was still sitting there, handcuffed to the chair. No one else was in the room. When he walked past the guy there eyes met, and, in that moment, he knew that if he were the girl’s father there was no way in hell he couldn’t have killed the guy right there. That moment stuck with him and eventually turned into the “fiction” book we have today.