I WASN’T always a lawyer or a novelist, and I’ve had my share of hard, dead-end jobs. I earned my first steady paycheck watering rose bushes at a nursery for a dollar an hour. I was in my early teens, but the man who owned the nursery saw potential, and he promoted me to his fence crew. For $1.50 an hour, I labored like a grown man as we laid mile after mile of chain-link fence. There was no future in this, and I shall never mention it again in writing.
Then, during the summer of my 16th year, I found a job with a plumbing contractor. I crawled under houses, into the cramped darkness, with a shovel, to somehow find the buried pipes, to dig until I found the problem, then crawl back out and report what I had found. I vowed to get a desk job. I’ve never drawn inspiration from that miserable work, and I shall never mention it again in writing, either.
But a desk wasn’t in my immediate future. My father worked with heavy construction equipment, and through a friend of a friend of his, I got a job the next summer on a highway asphalt crew. This was July, when Mississippi is like a sauna. Add another 100 degrees for the fresh asphalt. I got a break when the operator of a Caterpillar bulldozer was fired; shown the finer points of handling this rather large machine, I contemplated a future in the cab, tons of growling machinery at my command, with the power to plow over anything. Then the operator was back, sober, repentant. I returned to the asphalt crew.
I was 17 years old that summer, and I learned a lot, most of which cannot be repeated in polite company. One Friday night I accompanied my new friends on the asphalt crew to a honky-tonk to celebrate the end of a hard week. When a fight broke out and I heard gunfire, I ran to the restroom, locked the door and crawled out a window. I stayed in the woods for an hour while the police hauled away rednecks. As I hitchhiked home, I realized I was not cut out for construction and got serious about college.
My career sputtered along until retail caught my attention; it was indoors, clean and air-conditioned. I applied for a job at a Sears store in a mall. The only opening was in men’s underwear. It was humiliating. I tried to quit, but I was given a raise. Evidently, the position was difficult to fill. I asked to be transferred to toys, then to appliances. My bosses said no and gave me another raise.
I became abrupt with customers. Sears has the nicest customers in the world, but I didn’t care. I was rude and surly and I was occasionally watched by spies hired by the company to pose as shoppers. One asked to try on a pair of boxers. I said no, that it was obvious they were much too small for his rather ample rear end. I handed him an extra-large pair. I got written up. I asked for lawn care. They said no, but this time they didn’t offer me a raise. I finally quit.
Halfway through college, and still drifting, I decided to become a high-powered tax lawyer. The plan was sailing along until I took my first course in tax law. I was stunned by its complexity and lunacy, and I barely passed the course.
Around the same time, I was involved in mock-trial classes. I enjoyed the courtroom. A new plan was hatched. I would return to my hometown, hang out my shingle and become a hotshot trial lawyer. Tax law was discarded overnight.
This was 1981; at the time there was no public-defender system in my county. I volunteered for all the indigent work I could get. It was the fastest way to trial, and I learned quickly.
When my law office started to struggle for lack of well-paying work — indigent cases are far from lucrative — I decided to go into yet another low-paying career: in 1983, I was elected to a House seat in the Mississippi State Legislature. The salary was $8,000, which was more than I made during my first year as a lawyer. Each year from January through March I was at the State Capitol in Jackson, wasting serious time, but also listening to great storytellers. I took a lot of notes, not knowing why but feeling that, someday, those tales would come in handy.
Like most small-town lawyers, I dreamed of the big case, and in 1984 it finally arrived. But this time, the case wasn’t mine. As usual, I was loitering around the courtroom, pretending to be busy. But what I was really doing was watching a trial involving a young girl who had been beaten and raped. Her testimony was gut-wrenching, graphic, heartbreaking and riveting. Every juror was crying. I remember staring at the defendant and wishing I had a gun. And like that, a story was born.
Writing was not a childhood dream of mine. I do not recall longing to write as a student. I wasn’t sure how to start. Over the following weeks I refined my plot outline and fleshed out my characters. One night I wrote “Chapter One” at the top of the first page of a legal pad; the novel, “A Time to Kill,” was finished three years later.
The book didn’t sell, and I stuck with my day job, defending criminals, preparing wills and deeds and contracts. Still, something about writing made me spend large hours of my free time at my desk.
I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. It was more difficult than laying asphalt, and at times more frustrating than selling underwear. But it paid off. Eventually, I was able to leave the law and quit politics. Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.
By JOHN GRISHAM
Published: September 5, 2010
John Grisham is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Confession” and a contributor to the forthcoming collection “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit.”
See online: Boxers, Briefs and Books