{ My Dinner with Grisham }
Christopher Farrell
illustration by Sharon "Mama" Spell

john grisham - sharon 'mama' spellBy the one-hour mark, the movie's plot has departed so far from the book's that it's no longer irritating—it's comical. Characters are visiting places they've never been, and saying things they've never said to other people who they're never supposed to meet, all so Hollywood can distill a fairly unique story into a formulaic action-thriller. Our host uncorks another bottle of wine and re-fills our glasses, all the better to enjoy the experience. Finally, during the climactic scene in which our hero, played by Tom Cruise, does battle with Wilfred Brimley, the mob enforcer that The Firm has sent after him, our host breaks the awkward silence, filling the country club's private dining room with this simple observation: "Hey, even I could kick the crap out of Wilfred Brimley." It's at this moment that I realize that, regardless of what I may think of his books, John Grisham is a good guy.
   My law school holds an annual charity auction each fall. All the money that's collected is donated to the Public Interest Law Association. What PILA does is help pay the living expenses of law students who take summer jobs not with private law firms—which lavish you with large paychecks and free meals (not to mention seats at baseball games, weekend barbeques at partners' houses, and all the games you can play at ESPNZone) while you work on small matters for big clients—but rather with small nonprofits or other public-interest organizations that can't afford to pay you enough to make rent. These are groups like the D.C. Legal Aid Society and other organizations that provide legal services to those who cannot afford them. PILA's work helps to ensure that people aren't turned off from public service work because the cost of living is too high.
   Anyway, for the auction, professors, students, and other locals offer up a number of fun and bizarre items, some of which is fairly conventional auction fare: students offer one-week stays in their parents' beach houses, and one of the apartment complexes in town offers one month's free rent. (The victory here is always Pyrrhic because it seems to sell for close to what the actual rent price is, saving the winner maybe fifty bucks.) Some are a little more adventurous. The dean of the law school proffers an invitation to join him on a hike up Old Rag, one of the taller mountains in nearby Shenandoah National Park. For the right price, one of the criminal law professors will cook dinner for you and your parents over graduation weekend. And some items are delightfully geeky. This year, students could bid for the chance to join a professor in watching (1) the Special Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring followed by (2) a theatrical screening of The Two Towers.
   But probably the biggest prize every year is The John Grisham Dinner. As one of Charlottesville's more prominent residents, Grisham always donates the chance for a dozen students to have dinner with him and watch a movie. My friend Susan had been the high bidder this year, and she asked me if I'd like to be on the guest list. I felt a little bad accepting the invitation. I hadn't read any of Grisham's books, but I'd seen The Pelican Brief and part of The Firm, and I knew that I didn't particularly like them. I can't honestly say I'm a fan of his work, or even a casual reader. I was less interested in actually meeting John Grisham than I was in being able to say I'd met John Grisham. But because I'd never dined with a celebrity before, I felt like I couldn't really refuse.
   As we finalized the date for the movie, Susan sent the twelve of us a list of the movies (gleaned from the Internet Movie Database) from which we could choose:

  • The Rainmaker
  • The Client
  • A Time to Kill
  • The Chamber
  • The Pelican Brief
  • The Firm
  • The Runaway Jury (unfortunately this particular film was currently in post-production, so there was no way we could actually see this)
  • Mickey (according to IMDB, if I liked it, I should also check out Blast from the Past (1999))
The whole list struck me as just a little bit odd. I wasn't expecting something highbrow on par with Citizen Kane, nor did I imagine we'd be watching a modern-day classic like Dude, Where's My Car?, but I was fairly certain that a bunch of aspiring lawyers wouldn't want to watch a movie about a young lawyer from [insert prestigious law school here] who gets into proverbial water over his/her head and must use his/her formidable mental talents, and the help of [insert family member/old flame here] to escape with his/her life (although I have to admit I was just a little curious about Mickey (IMDB also noted that it starred Harry Connick, Jr., and decided I wasn't too enthusiastic about it)).
   A series of questions was percolating at the back of my mind: Did Grisham put this list together, or was it part of the deal with the auction? Would he want to see any of these movies? Were we all about to commit a serious dinner-with-author faux pas? I asked Susan about the list of films, and she told me that it was part of the package deal: according to the item list at the auction, The John Grisham Dinner consisted of (1) a meal and (2) a John Grisham Movie. On the one hand, this eliminated my concern about a celebrity-dinner gaffe, but on the other, it made me very suspicious about the man we were about to meet. What would motivate someone to do this? Was it ego? Or was he simply assuming that someone who would pay money for dinner with a famous author would insist on watching a filmed adaptation of one of his works? I decided that at the very least, the evening would be amusingly surreal.
   After the votes were tallied, Susan announced that The Firm was the winner. She and Grisham's secretary set up the details for The John Grisham Dinner, which Grisham wanted to have at the Farmington Country Club. Farmington is kind of notorious around the law school as the place where some of the more pretentious southern firms do their recruiting. It's pretty elegant: perfectly trimmed lawns, long private driveway, big white clubhouse. The kind of place where you expect old men in white suits gather for cigars around mint juleps on the sun porch and call all the wait staff "boy" while they stare at their pocket-watches on gold fobs and talk about their wives' gardens. I decided it was actually kind of a fitting place to watch a movie about a sketchy law firm that swallows up its new recruits into a world of intrigue, murder, and the mafia. I also thought it spoke volumes about Mr. Grisham himself—rather than inviting us into his home, we'd have our dinner on neutral ground, where he could stay safely aloof from us.
   I'd only been there one other time, for a recruiting reception hosted by one of the big Richmond firms, and I remembered getting much the same vibe from their hiring partner. (I'm wary of people who, when they talk about their job, you can actually hear the capital letters, as if they're subliminally telegraphing their importance: "As the Hiring Partner, I can assure you that you'll find that Our Firm has a very collegial atmosphere.") That last time, we all had to wear coats and ties. So I was puzzled when I heard about the dress code for The John Grisham Dinner. His office made it very clear (I received no less than three e-mails about this) that he wanted everything to be casual, despite the setting, so he wanted us all to wear jeans. This also raised my suspicions: first we can't go to his house, then we have to meet him at some country club, then he insists we wear jeans to make the evening more relaxed. The whole thing reeked of artificiality.
   I show up at Farmington the night of The John Grisham Dinner (jeans and all), and after this exchange with the lady at the front desk:

I'm, um, here for the dinner with John Grisham.

Oh. That's downstairs in the [Something or other] Room.
(awkward, embarrassed pause...then)
Tell him I love his books!

I meet up with everyone else already gathered in the private basement room. Right away I notice two things:

  1. Everyone else in the room is obviously a big Grisham fan, books under their arms and all.
  2. Grisham is wearing khakis and a sport coat.
I feel like he's pulled a fast one on us. Please, all of you, wear jeans to the country club, but if you don't mind, I'll dress up a little. After introductions and handshakes ("Nice to meet you. Call me John."), we all sit down to eat at the U-shaped table that Farmington set up for us. While our dress code may have been compelled-casual, the food certainly wasn't. As with most pricey dining experiences, there appeared to be an inverse relationship between cost and portion size. The entrée consisted of a three-by-three-inch cube of filet mignon, and a similarly proportioned cube of salmon, all served over six potato slices and four carrot sticks.
   The first thing that strikes me over dinner is that Grisham's a genuinely nice guy. He's got a son at the University of Virginia, a daughter who's looking at other colleges, and he's really into baseball. In fact, Mickey, the Harry Connick, Jr. movie, is all about baseball; Grisham is currently shopping it around for a distributor. "It's about a boy who lies about his age to get to play in the Little League World Series," he explains. "The organizers let us shoot on the actual fields, all on location. It was all shot and ready to go, and then the whole Danny Almonte thing happened. We thought it was a little too true-to-life, so we sat on it for a while."
   We all talk about writing and the world of publishing. One of the attendees explains, "I love your books because I always know that one will be coming out in February. It's like clockwork."
   Grisham agrees: "I always try to put a new book out in February. One good reason is that there's nothing else coming out that time of year. It's after Christmas and well before the summer rush. I might change it a little if I know someone like Steve [King] or Tom Clancy is putting something out that month, too, but usually I shoot for February." And while I'd always assumed that best-selling authors generally worked on a less-than-regular schedule, completing their novels whenever they feel like it, his writing process is pretty regimented: "I start writing a few pages a day over the summer. Once my kids go back to school, I hole myself up and write more. I try to have a first draft ready by Thanksgiving." He's the first writer I ever knew who had such an eye toward the business end, the marketing and promotion aspects of the industry. I wonder if a lot of his early success was due to the fact that he released his novels at times when they would be relatively free from bigger competition on the shelves, or on bookstores' inventory orders. If so, it seemed like a smart move.
   I find out that he used to serve in the Mississippi legislature, and that he wrote his first book in longhand on a legal pad, which his secretary then typed out. He tells us about the little bookshops in Memphis where he originally peddled his self-published first novel. He only signs his new books there, and in one shop here in Charlottesville. He happily discusses the inspiration behind his different characters and stories, and gives hints as to what he may be writing about next. When it comes to his own work, his favorite books are two of the most unlikely. "We just made a TV movie out of A Painted House, which is a story I really enjoyed" he announces, then adds with a smirk, "Not a single lawyer in that one. And Skipping Christmas just began as a collection of ideas I'd had of what people might do in lieu of the holiday itself, and what might happen. I gave a copy of the draft to my wife, and left the house. I came back later that night and she was in tears she had been laughing so hard. I knew I had to do something with that one."
   After a while, the conversation turns to the perils of celebrity, especially the die-hard fans who start to cross the line dividing harmless devotee and Hinkley-esque psychopath. Ironically, some of his more fanatical fans actually file lawsuits against him for any number of reasons. He really enjoyed the anonymity he found in Charlottesville when he and his family first moved here: "I could put on my baseball cap and go to the Kroger, and no one would recognize me." But over time, he laments, his fame began to catch up with him, and even Charlottesville he began to feel the trappings of his success. "I remember once, while I was out grocery shopping, a woman who kind of favored Kathy Bates rushed right up to my face, told me she was my biggest fan and asked for an autograph. I have to admit that for a moment there, all I could think of was Misery." [It is sentences like this one, peppered throughout the meal, that make one realize that Grisham is indeed from the Deep South. He delivers the remark without any inkling that those at the table unfamiliar with Mississippi slang wouldn't realize that "favored" is synonymous with "resembled."]
   After dinner, Grisham sets up the movie. I expected the club would have some sort of projector system or private screening room, but instead they wheel in a little seventeen-inch TV/VCR combo. Grisham produces the videocassette from a familiar-looking blue-and-yellow Blockbuster case. "I had to rent this," he says a little sheepishly. "Haven't seen it in ten years." He pops the tape in the player, one of the waiters dims the lights, and together the thirteen of us squint across the big table to see the tiny screen.
   In the weeks before the dinner, I'd given myself the homework assignment of reading Grisham's novel (my mom's beat-up soft-cover copy), and while it was mostly plot-driven, and while I didn't particularly care for the way he developed some of the characters, it was an enjoyable and suspenseful page-turner. So I was actually looking forward to seeing the film. At least, I tell myself, I'll be able to compare it to the book and sound intelligent.
   (For those who haven't had the chance to compare the two, let me say right here that Grisham's book and Sydney Pollack's film are both about a young lawyer named Mitch McDeere who joins a small but intensely workaholic Memphis law firm. Mitch works really hard, probably too hard, and over time he finds out that the firm is tied up with the Mafia. The FBI tries to entice him to give them confidential firm documents so that they can indict the firm and get to the crime family. That's about where the similarities end. The film, like countless Hollywood productions before it, substantially changes the characters' motivations, the locations, and the plot itself.)
   Surprisingly, Grisham takes the filmmakers' liberal revisions in stride. When we watch Tom Cruise's wife travel to the Caymans to seduce Gene Hackman, Susan's fiancé declares, "I don't remember that being in the book." Grisham mutters, "Me, neither." And he laughs with the rest of us when David Strathairn shows up, cast as Tom Cruise's brother, but looking old enough to be his father. He punctuates much of the last half hour with dry one-liners and wisecracks, and after a while the rest of us loosen up and do the same. As the closing credits roll, I half-expect Grisham to say something poignant about how Hollywood took his novel and ruined it, but instead, he explains that he genuinely enjoyed watching it. "I really like the last half of the movie," he says with a grin. "I had no idea how it was going to end. Kept me on the edge of my seat."
   After the film is over and the lights come back up, Grisham shakes all of our hands again and says it was a real pleasure to have dinner with us. And on my way out to my car, I realize that I actually enjoyed having dinner with him, too. I still didn't want to rush out and buy another one of his legal thrillers, but I did appreciate him and his work a little more. For all his fame, money, and stronghold on the bestseller list, Grisham definitely wasn't someone who speaks in capital letters, and in the end, I realized, I wear khakis every once in a while, too.

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