John Grisham, 2010
An innocent man is about to be executed. Only a guilty man can save him.
For every innocent man sent to prison, there is a guilty one left on the outside. He doesn’t understand how the police and prosecutors got the wrong man, and he certainly doesn’t care. He just can’t believe his good luck. Time passes and he realizes that the mistake will not be corrected: the authorities believe in their case and are determined to get a conviction. He may even watch the trial of the person wrongly accused of his crime. He is relieved when the verdict is guilty. He laughs when the police and prosecutors congratulate themselves. He is content to allow an innocent person to go to prison, to serve hard time, even to be executed.
Travis Boyette is such a man. In 1998, in the small East Texas city of Sloan, he abducted, raped, and strangled a popular high school cheerleader. He buried her body so that it would never be found, then watched in amazement as police and prosecutors arrested and convicted Donte Drumm, a local football star, and marched him off to death row.
Now nine years have passed. Travis has just been paroled in Kansas for a different crime; Donte is four days away from his execution. Travis suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. For the first time in his miserable life, he decides to do what’s right and confess.
But how can a guilty man convince lawyers, judges, and politicians that they’re about to execute an innocent man? (From the publisher.)
• Birth—February 8, 1955
• Where—Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA
• Education—B.S., Mississippi State; J.D., University of Mississippi
• Currently—lives in Oxford, Mississippi and Albermarle, Virginia
John Ray Grisham, Jr. is an American lawyer, politician, and author, best known for his popular legal thrillers. He has written more than 25 novels, a short story collection (Ford County), two works of nonfiction, and a children's series.
Grisham's first bestseller was The Firm. Released in 1991, it sold more than seven million copies. The book was later adapted into a feature film, of the same name starring Tom Cruise in 1993, and a TV series in 2012 which "continues the story of attorney Mitchell McDeere and his family 10 years after the events of the film and novel." Eight of his other novels have also been adapted into films: The Chamber, The Client, A Painted House, The Pelican Brief, Skipping Christmas, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, and his first novel, A Time to Kill. His books have been translated into 29 languages and published worldwide.
As of 2008, his books had sold over 250 million copies worldwide. Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing; the others are Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling.
Early life and education
Grisham, the second oldest of five siblings, was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Wanda Skidmore Grisham and John Grisham. His father was a construction worker and cotton farmer; his mother a homemaker. When Grisham was four years old, his family started traveling around the South, until they finally settled in Southaven in DeSoto County, Mississippi. As a child, Grisham wanted to be a baseball player. neither of his parents had advanced education, he was encouraged to read and prepare for college.
As a teenager, Grisham worked for a nursery watering bushes for $1.00 an hour. He was soon promoted to a fence crew for $1.50 an hour. At 16, Grisham took a job with a plumbing contractor. Through a contact of his father, he managed to find work on a highway asphalt crew in Mississippi at the age of 17.
It was during this time that an unfortunate incident made him think more seriously about college. A fight broke out among the crew with gunfire, and Grisham ran to the restroom for safety. He did not come out until after the police had "hauled away rednecks." He hitchhiked home and started thinking about college.
His next work was in retail, as a salesclerk in a department store men's underwear section, which he described as "humiliating." He decided to quit but stayed when he was offered a raise. He was given another raise after asking to be transferred to toys and then to appliances. A confrontation with a company spy posing as a customer convinced him to leave the store. By this time, Grisham was halfway through college.
He went to the Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi and later attended Delta State University in Cleveland. Grisham drifted so much during his time at the college that he changed colleges three times before completing a degree. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977, receiving a BS degree in accounting.
He later enrolled in the University of Mississippi School of Law planning to become a tax lawyer. But he was soon overcome by "the complexity and lunacy" of it. He decided to return to his hometown as a trial lawyer, but his interest shifted to general civil litigation. He graduated in 1983 with a JD degree.
Law and politics
Grisham practiced law for about a decade and also won election as a Democrat in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990 at an annual salary of $8,000. By his second term at the Mississippi state legislature, he was the vice-chairman of the Apportionment and Elections Committee and a member of several other committees.
With the success of his second book The Firm, published in 1991, Grisham gave up practicing law. He returned briefly in 1996 to fight for the family of a railroad worker who had been killed on the job. It was a commitment made to the family before leaving law to become a full-time writer. Grisham successfully argued his clients' case, earning them a jury award of $683,500—the biggest verdict of his career.
Grisham said that, sometime in the mid-1980s, he had been hanging around the court one day when he overheard a 12-year-old girl telling the jury how she been beaten and raped. Her story intrigued Grisham, so he began to watch the trial, noting how members of the jury wept during her testimony. It was then, Grisham later wrote in the New York Times, that a story was born. Musing over "what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants," Grisham took three years to complete his first book, A Time to Kill.
Finding a publisher was not easy. The book was rejected by 28 publishers before Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000-copy printing. It was published in June 1989. The day after Grisham completed A Time to Kill, he began work on his second novel, the story of an ambitious young attorney "lured to an apparently perfect law firm that was not what it appeared." The Firm remained on the the New York Times' bestseller list for 47 weeks and became the bestselling novel of 1991.
Beginning with A Painted House in 2001, the author broadened his focus from law to the more general rural South, but continued to write legal thrillers. He has also written sports fiction and comedy fiction.
In 2005, Grisham received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. The award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
In 2010, Grisham started writing legal thrillers for children 9-12 years old. The books featured Theodore Boone, a 13-year-old boy, who gives his classmates legal advice—everything from rescuing impounded dogs to helping their parents prevent their house from being repossessed. His daughter, Shea, inspired him to write the Boone series.
Marriage and family
Grisham married Renee Jones in 1981, and the couple have two grown children together, Shea and Ty. The family spends their time in their Victorian home on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, and their other home near Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Innocence Project
Grisham is a member of the Board of Directors of The Innocence Project, which campaigns to free unjustly convicted people on the basis of DNA evidence. The Innocence Project argues that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Grisham has testified before Congress on behalf of the Project and appeared on Dateline on NBC, Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, and other programs. He also wrote for the New York Times in 2013 about an unjustly held prisoner at Guantanamo.
In 2007, former legal officials from Oklahoma filed a civil suit for libel against Grisham and two other authors. They claimed that Grisham and the others critical of Peterson and his prosecution of murder cases conspired to commit libel and generate publicity for themselves by portraying the plaintiffs in a false light and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Grisham was named due to his publication of the non-fiction book, The Innocent Man. He examined the faults in the investigation and trial of defendants in the murder of a cocktail waitress in Ada, Oklahoma, and the exoneration by DNA evidence more than 12 years later of wrongfully convicted defendants Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. The judge dismissed the libel case after a year, saying, "The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor."
The Mississippi State University Libraries maintains the John Grisham Room, an archive containing materials related to his writings and to his tenure as Mississippi State Representative.
Grisham has a lifelong passion for baseball demonstrated partly by his support of Little League activities in both Oxford, Mississippi, and Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote the original screenplay for and produced the 2004 baseball movie Mickey, starring Harry Connick, Jr. He remains a fan of Mississippi State University's baseball team and wrote about his ties to the university and the Left Field Lounge in the introduction for the book Dudy Noble Field: A Celebration of MSU Baseball.
In an October 2006 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, Grisham stated that he usually takes only six months to write a book and that his favorite author is John le Carre. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/6/2013.)
[T]he kind of grab-a-reader-by-the-shoulders suspense story that demands to be inhaled as quickly as possible. But it's also a superb work of social criticism in the literary troublemaker tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.... For more than a decade, in his novels...and on editorial pages, Grisham has ruminated over the efficacy and morality of the death penalty. The Confession bangs the gavel and issues a clear verdict. As an advocacy thriller, it will rile some readers, shake up conventional pieties and, no doubt, change some minds. Whatever your politics, don't read this book if you just want to kick back in your recliner and relax.
Maureen Corrigan - Washiangton Post
Grisham's recent slump continues with another subpar effort whose plot and characters, none of whom are painted in shades of gray, aren't able to support an earnest protest against the death penalty. In 2007, almost on the eve of the execution of Donte Drumm, an African-American college football star, for the 1998 murder of a white cheerleader whose body was never found, Travis Boyette, a creepy multiple sex offender, confesses that he's guilty of the crime to Kansas minister Keith Schroeder. With Drumm's legal options dwindling fast and with the threat of civil unrest in his Texas hometown if the execution proceeds, Schroeder battles to convince Boyette to go public with the truth—and to persuade the condemned man's attorney that Boyette's story needs to be taken seriously. While the action progresses with a certain grim realism, Schroeder's superficial responses to the issues raised undercut the impact. As with The Appeal, the author's passionate views on serious flaws in the justice system don't translate well into fiction.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Confession:
1. How is your reading of this novel affected by the knowledge that much in the book is based on actual events, not just in Texas but in other states as well?
2. What evidence is used to charge and convict Donte Drumm of Nicole Yarber's murder?
3. Enumerate the flaws in the justice system that Grisham's book illuminates, starting with the police officers and their technique of attaining Drumm's confession.
4. What other parts of the system come under Grisham's criticism?
5. What are the pressures that come to bear on the legal system when a murder takes place—pressures that might force an indictment and conviction unfairly?
6. Do you find the sections dealing with Drumm's years on death row believable? Talk about this revealing passage:
You count the days and watch the years go by. You tell yourself, and you believe it, that you'd rather just die. You'd rather stare death boldly in the face and say you're ready because whatever is waiting on the other side has to be better than growing old in a six-by-ten cage with no one to talk to. You consider yourself half-dead at best. Please take the other half....
But Drumm's thoughts end with "no one really wants to die," even if his life is so miserably confined. Talk about the will to live despite life's circumstances.
7. What role does race play in this story?
8. Was this book suspenseful? Was the ending—with all the twists & turns along the way—surprising or predictable? Did you have an idea of how it would end? (Okay, be honest: did you skip ahead to read the ending?)
9. At one point, Schroeder wonders whether he would believe in the death penalty if Boyette rather than Drumm were scheduled for execution. What do you think?
10. Grisham has received criticism that his characters are one-dimensional—either all good or all bad, depending on which side of the death penalty issue they fall on. Do you agree? Or do you feel his characters are fully drawn? What about Keith Schroeder?
11. Grisham has also been criticized for straying from his signature suspense fiction to push his views on the death penalty. Do you agree with those critics? Should Grisham, as a writer of fiction, stay away from hot button political issues? Or should he to use his popularity as a fiction writer to speak out? Does your answer to that question align with your attitude toward the death penalty?
12. Have you learned anything new about the working of the legal system in this country? Do you see it in a different light because of Grisham's book?
13. What are your views regarding the death penalty? Has your perspective been changed by reading this book? Do you see Grisham's book as a fair—or unfair—portrayal of the legal system and death penalty issue?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.
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