(3 of 3)
The deal was done, but Grisham's troubles had just begun. Williamson's story just wasn't shaped like a Grisham novel. Structure and pacing were exactly what Ron Williamson couldn't do. He spent years frittering away time, drifting in and out of institutions, going through endless trials and appeals, and rotting in jail. And he didn't always act like a hero. He wasn't relatable. "That was the hardest part," Grisham says. "I mean, when you're writing a novel, you want people to love your hero on Page One! With Ron--I mean, he's a cocky athlete, a spoiled child, hell-raiser, boozer, you name it."
Plus the ending is all wrong. Williamson was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999, but 12 years behind bars had broken his mind and body, and he died five years later of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51.
He didn't fit the Theme, but Williamson was exactly what Grisham needed as a writer, for exactly that reason. His thrillers are gleaming, perfectly calibrated machines, but books don't look right unless they have a few rough, unfinished patches. They cease to resemble reality, which is nothing if not rough around the edges. The Innocent Man may not handle like The Street Lawyer. It may never be a movie starring Tom Cruise. But it is undeniably real.
And that's important to Grisham. He's a humble man. He has fierce political convictions--he's currently raising money for Democratic Senate candidate James Webb--but he shuns the limelight. He keeps his wife and two children out of the media. "They hear some crap every now and then," he says. "But I told them years ago, I said, Look, you can't change your name, and I'm not going to stop writing books. The good outweighs the bad. So shut up. Learn to deal with it."
But when it comes to his books, there's a desire in him to mean something. He talks seriously about John Steinbeck and John le Carré--The Little Drummer Girl "has had more of an influence on me than any other work of suspense"--and Truman Capote. Grisham read In Cold Blood twice last year. "It's a beautiful book; it's mesmerizing; it's a classic. But there are times when I would read something that Capote wrote, and I'd say"--he makes a face. "Just, you know, I wouldn't say it that way."
Grisham is going back to fiction, but don't be surprised if you see a more ambitious Grisham novel on those airport bookstore racks. "Everything I'm thinking about writing now is about politics or social issues wrapped around a novel," he says. "It's fun to write a book like The Broker, which has no redeeming social value. But I'd much rather tackle a social issue." In that respect John Grisham--like Ron Williamson--has never stopped dreaming of the big leagues. •