When John Grisham’s daughter was a kindergartner, her teacher asked students in the class to share a little something about what their parents did for a living.
Grisham’s daughter stood up, and with tears in her eyes said, “My dad doesn’t do anything.”
“He doesn’t have a job,” she said. “He just writes.”
The author smiled and shook his head as he recounted that story to an audience of readers in downtown Wichita on Tuesday. Hundreds of copies of his most recent novel, “The Rooster Bar” – his 41st published work – were piled on tables at the back of the room.
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Grisham, the writer behind such best-selling legal thrillers as “The Firm,” “The Client” and “The Pelican Brief,” made his first appearance in Wichita, sharing a stage at Abode Venue with Wichita author Clare Vanderpool and Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe.
Their hour-long conversation ranged from stories about rejection letters to jokes about writing sex scenes.
Grisham, who grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas in a strict, Southern Baptist-influenced household, said he always sought to write suspenseful novels that didn’t rely on harsh language, violence or graphic sex.
After “The Firm” made best-seller lists, “People would write me letters and say, ‘I finished the book at 3 in the morning, and when I finished it I realized I could give it to my 15-year-old daughter and my 80-year-old mother,’” Grisham said.
“It was tastefully done,” he said, drawing enthusiastic applause from his Wichita audience. “There were lots of reasons ‘The Firm’ was a success. But we sold a ton of books because it was clean.”
Grisham joked that he struggled over describing a romantic liaison in one of his recent novels, “Camino Island.”
“I got them, finally, to the bedroom. I got them to the big moment,” Grisham said of his characters. “And I was staring at the screen, thinking: What am I supposed to do now? Am I supposed to describe body parts?”
The audience howled with laughter.
“So they woke up the next morning in bed together.”
During his appearance, Grisham asked nearly as many questions as he answered. His conversations with hometown authors during his book tour are recorded and later posted as podcasts on his website.
Vanderpool, the author of two award-winning novels for middle-grade readers, explained her lengthy research and writing process. That drew plenty of good-natured ribbing from Grisham, one of the industry’s most prolific writers.
“When I’m writing on deadline,” he started, then turned to Vanderpool. “Do you know what a deadline is?”
Grisham said his wife, Renee, was his first and best critic. Their daughter, a fourth-grade teacher in North Carolina, suggested Grisham try writing a suspense novel for children, which inspired his “Theodore Boone” series for middle-grade readers.
Although he is best known for his legal thrillers, Grisham’s works include sports novels, a non-fiction book and a holiday comedy, “Skipping Christmas,” which inspired the 2004 movie, “Christmas with the Kranks.”
“Once you write 12 books of one type, it’s human nature to think, ‘Can I write something else?’” he said.
Asked what he has been reading lately, Grisham commended Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Rules of Civility.” He said he tries to read about a book a week but doesn’t like writing reviews – particularly negative ones.
“I figure there are so many books out there you can promote,” he said. “Just leave the bad ones alone.”
He said Scott Turow’s 1986 novel, “Presumed Innocent,” inspired him to complete his first novel, so he tries to be kind and encouraging to up-and-coming authors.
“Always keep in mind (that) younger eyes are watching,” he said.