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A Local Thriller

It's easy to forget that John Grisham is a celebrity. Dressed in blue jeans and a sports jacket, his chin grazed with a five o'clock shadow, he seems like any other guy with a Southern accent.

"Grab a seat. There's plenty of room," he insists from behind a great stack of novels, even though it is decidedly cramped in the back office of the New Dominion Bookstore on the Downtown Mall.

Ushered into the office by a bookstore employee, Louise, Grisham takes a seat. It was here that he gave a book signing on Friday to publicize his latest novel, "A Painted House."

Grisham's down-to-earth personality is apparent in his casual air. Though he obviously values his privacy, he says that Bizou and the Bel Air Market are his favorite lunch spots in Charlottesville.

He says he is likely to be found in the Ivy Road shop on any given afternoon enjoying a sandwich or a cup of coffee. As he complains about the crowds at Harris Teeter, it becomes clear that fame has not gone to this author's head.

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  • Official John Grisham Web Site

    But make no mistake - his piercing blue eyes give away that this man is truly something out of the ordinary. Lines formed well before 11 a.m. to meet the author at the noon signing of his 12th novel.

    The novel, set in Arkansas, is loosely based on his own childhood but is also a turn from his typical legal suspense story.

    "Anytime you write a certain type of book, you sort of get categorized and start wondering if you can successfully write something else," Grisham said.

    Although the conflicts and events of the novel are completely fictional, many of the stories have been in his family for years, he reports.

    "I wanted to write the book while my parents were still here. They gave me a lot of help, and I dedicated the book to them," he said.

    Despite this departure from his usual writing genre, Grisham promises that he will be back to the juicy legal thrillers next year. He says he gets a great deal of his ideas and inspiration from current events.

    "It's hard to look into the newspaper or turn on CNN without getting motivated by such great stories," he said.

    As for what's next, the author isn't quite sure. "Mad Cow Disease could be fun - if people start dying," he joked.

    Besides current events, Grisham draws on his experience as a former lawyer for many of his books. The Mississippi State University graduate practiced law until 1989, when he published his first book.

    "'A Time to Kill' was the first thing I ever wrote and then 'The Firm' in 1990. I sold the publishing rights for more than I ever made as a lawyer, so I was like, 'I'm outta here,'" Grisham said with a laugh.

    Now that Grisham has become a trained professional, there seems to be a method to his mad flurry of novel production.

    "I don't write anything till I have the whole story outlined extensively. Twenty-five pages later, you either have a story or you don't," he said.

    He says he always begins with the main characters, but he never plans how the plot will twist.

    Moving North

    Grisham seems to embrace chance. The Mississippi native first popped up in Virginia when he came to Charlottesville on an arbitrary visit. His wife and two children, Ty and Shea, had never been to the area before.

    "We looked at a couple of old houses almost as a lark but ended up buying a really great old one," he said in his distinct Southern accent.

    The family first used the house as a weekend getaway from time to time. But in August 1994, the family came up to hide from the public eye for about a year and just couldn't tear itself away.

    "At first it was wonderful just not knowing anyone, but then we got involved in the community, and now it's home," he said.

    Grisham loves living in a college town. He and his family previously lived in Oxford, Miss., the site of his alma mater and the hometown of William Faulkner. For Grisham, living in Charlottesville is a little different.

    "There's times when you say 'Oh my God, the students are back.' You can't drive, and Harris Teeter's packed, but you kind of miss them in the summer," he said. "Being around all those kids keeps you young."

    The author says he probably will use Charlottesville as the setting for a novel some day.

    "It's almost irresistible to use," he said. "It will be kind of amusing to poke fun at people."

    Now the author has even more incentive to stay in the fall. His eldest son, Ty, will be attending the University on a baseball scholarship.

    "I'm thrilled," he said, confessing to be a baseball junkie. "For four years, I'll be able to watch 35 games a year and sneak over to practice."

    Grisham, who grew up watching the St. Louis Cardinals, says he always has been involved in Ty's baseball career and now is an assistant coach with Ty's high school team at St. Anne's Belfield School.

    "Seeing him head off to the University will be a big thrill for me," John Grisham said.

    When it comes to his children, Grisham says he and his wife always tried to keep his writing career low key.

    "Things were pretty quiet before everything happened. We've always been like that about the kids. We may have changed our lifestyle and we may have changed locations, but we haven't changed as people," he said. "We'll look back and say it was fun, but we kept our feet on the ground."

    Grisham says his next project will be to film a little league baseball movie in Charlottesville in the spring. The movie, which is an independent film, will be directed by Hugh Wilson. But Grisham says he has complete control over casting.

    Grisham plans to continue with his writing and will return to law scandal and possibly a baseball novel sometime in the future.

    Even after his 12th novel, the author says he still gets inspired all the time by the people around him.

    Said Grisham, laughing: "The best inspiration, though, is to sign a four-year book contract and take the money in advance"


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