By Doyne Phillips, Managing Editor for Southern Writers Magazine
John Grisham was once again visiting That Bookstore on Main Street here in Blytheville, Arkansas. Grisham had been here before with his first effort A Time to Kill. It hadn’t caught on but it was still exciting that a writer with local ties was back in our little town and was returning with his second novel The Firm.
That Bookstore owned by Mary Gay Shipley was in a familiar area to Grisham. His grandfather had a music store on Main Street when he was a kid. Grisham was born in Jonesboro a few miles away. Grisham’s family was from the Northeast Arkansas area. Familiarity is a big seller in marketing your book and with the poor showing of his first book Grisham was expecting bigger and better things. Mary Gay had an opportunity to get an early reading and encouraged Grisham in his endeavors with his second venture out. Within weeks the book would be on the best seller list and Grisham’s career as a writer would be launched.
Many books and much success later Grisham was invited to speak at the May 2000 Commencement of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. My daughter, Melanie was graduating with one of her many degrees (proud poppa) so I was in attendance. Grisham did two important things that night. The first was to attempt to break the record of the shortest Commencement speech in the history of the school and the second was to announce his new novel that would soon be out.
Grisham went on to explain his novel was based on their family life in Black Oak and Cockle Burr Creek area of Northeast Arkansas. This area lies between Jonesboro and Blytheville and was well known to locals. Grisham had brought with him his parents, Johnny and Wanda Grisham, and his uncle and aunt. He introduced them during his speech. It made this occasion feel like we were all among family and friends.
In 2003 the novel Grisham spoke of, A Painted House, was made into a movie. Grisham insisted its World Premiere and all events associated with it be held at ASU. The proceeds were to go to the new ASU doctoral program for heritage studies. The Hallmark Hall of Fame made for television movie aired less than two weeks later.
Some of the reasons Grisham is a legend in these parts is of course his great talent, his worldwide fame and the attention and colorful detail he has brought to our area here in the Mid-South. Grisham’s love of these places familiar to us keeps him in our hearts and minds when we frequent them. Grisham has occasionally returned, as he did to ASU, to bring home and share the benefits of his fortune and fame. You can’t help but have a soft spot in your heart for a native son that loves his roots.