A letter to readers from John Grisham about Sycamore Row.
When A Time to Kill was published in 1989 it sold a few copies around Memphis, Jackson, and a couple of other hot spots in Mississippi, but it was unnoticed by the rest of the world. As an eager rookie, I was dreaming of royalties, foreign rights, a movie deal, and perhaps a larger publishing contract. None of these things materialized, not in 1989 anyway. The book was ignored; my tiny publisher printed five thousand copies, and we couldn’t give them away. The Memphis newspaper trashed it and the Jackson paper refused to review it.
But it proved resilient. My second, third, and fourth books followed quickly, along with their movie adaptations, and somewhere in that frenzy A Time to Kill was discovered. One day in the summer of 1994 I caught myself gawking at the New York Times bestseller list—all four books were at the top, with A Time to Kill number one in mass market. By then, it had sold five million copies.
And the book has remained popular. Its own movie version was released in 1996, did well at the box office, and in all likelihood it’s somewhere on cable tonight. Today, after thirty books, A Time to Kill is still the bestselling book I’ve written. And it’s by far the favorite, at least according to those who get close enough to offer an opinion. Countless times I’ve heard, “Hey, I like your books, but the first one is the best.”
More often than not, this is followed up with a quick, “How about a sequel? Another story about Jake and Lucien and Harry Rex?” To which I usually respond, “I’m waiting on a story.”
And so I’ve waited. For over twenty years I’ve thought about Jake Brigance and the characters in his world, and the aftermath of the Hailey trial. I’ve wondered how Jake was doing in Clanton, a deeply divided town, with the Klan hot on his tail, his home destroyed by a firebomb, his friends carrying guns to protect him. How were Jake and Carla coping as they picked up the pieces and started over? Did the Hailey trial make him a star, a lawyer in demand? Or was he still struggling to pay the rent?
I’ve gone back briefly to Ford County in other books, but never one involving Jake. Harry Rex Vonner, one of my favorites, has made a few cameos here and there, but nothing of substance. Lucien Wilbanks has appeared occasionally, but only in passing.
When I finished my second book, The Firm, my plan was to return to Clanton for another story. Then, I would write another legal thriller. Back and forth, back and forth, I would carve out my turf on the literary landscape with two kinds of books—the legal thrillers and the Ford County novels. Surely, somewhere in there I could find my niche and sell some books. The sudden success of The Firm, though, changed things dramatically, and I felt the urgency to pursue the legal thrillers. And, after twenty of them, I still enjoy piecing together the plots and pursuing the issues.
But Jake has never been far from my creative thoughts. Two years ago, a novel began to take shape. Unlike A Time to Kill, a story inspired by real events, this one has no basis in truth. Now that Sycamore Row is finished, I’m not sure where the idea came from, at least not in fact. I suppose the inspiration comes from the characters because, in writing it, I often felt as though I was having dinner with old friends. It was a delight to catch up with them, to hear their voices again, and to remember how they were thirty years ago. I hope they haven’t changed much.
My wife, Renée, wasn’t too keen on a sequel and her reason was simple: When I began writing A Time to Kill in 1984, I was the hungry young lawyer looking for the big case. I was struggling at the office and wondering where the clients were. We were living the life of Jake and Carla in a small town in Mississippi, just getting by and trying to survive. Happy, ambitious, but not sure the law was our ticket to success. That was a long time ago, and Renée worried it would be difficult to recapture the authenticity of that writer’s voice. So much has changed. She was also worried about the possibility of a cool reception to a sequel. “They rarely work, you know?” She said more than once. “Fine,” I said, “we just won’t call it a sequel.”
And so we’re not. Renée read the first chapters of Sycamore Row and was soon on board. The story came together nicely and writing it became a pleasure. As always, it took about six months, not a long time in the writing business, but long enough. The last six weeks are usually tedious and tiring, and the deadline looms and I grow a little tired of my characters. Not so with Sycamore Row. Almost daily, I was tempted to, as we say, “chase a rabbit,” or, in other words, pursue some long- winded and colorful tale involving Harry Rex or Lucien or another character. I could have written a thousand pages, but at some point the story had to end.
So I saved some material for the next time out.
John Grisham Charlottesville, Virginia October 15, 2013
Be sure to check out our RHRC book club questions for Sycamore Row here!