Town Crier News Staff
World famous author John Grisham provided insight and excitement about his first non-fiction book as he spoke to a sell out crowd at The Ritz Civic Center, in Blytheville, last Tuesday evening.
Grisham introduced his newest book, "The Innocent Man: A True Story," at a special event held at the The Ritz, beginning at 7 p.m. Mary Gaye Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, hosted the event as part of her establishment's 30 year birthday celebration month. Proceeds from the ticketed event raised $2,500 for "Books for Babies," an endowment supported by Mississippi County Community Foundation to purchase books for newborns in the Blytheville area.
Shipley welcomed Grisham back to Blytheville for the eighteenth time since his first book signing at TBIB 15 years ago.
"I feel like we have grown up with John since his first book "A Time To Kill" was written," Shipley said. "It is always so exciting having him back in Blytheville. This has become like having an old home feeling. He has made us part of his world book tour from the beginning.
"John makes it cool to read," she said. "He has also helped a large number of adults to learn to read for pleasure, some for the first time."
Grisham expressed his appreciation for Shipley, who believed in his work from the beginning, when he was yet unknown.
Grisham expressed his pleasure in coming back to visit Northeast Arkansas.
"Blytheville is a special place for me, as my grandfather Lawrence Skidmore had a piano store down the street from here when I was growing up. I though Main Street in downtown Blytheville was an exciting place to be.
"You all are lucky to have an independent book store (TBIB), where you can find the latest books out, and have someone who cares to encourage you to read," Grisham said.
"I spent my first eight years in Black Oak, and my book 'A Painted House,' tells about my life there," Grisham said. "We moved away in 1962. The first thing my mother had us do was to join the closest Baptist Church, and the second was to get a library card. It has helped me as a writer to have acquired the love of reading, and I appreciate anyone who encourages young people to read and enjoy books.
"I credit my father with the true sense of exaggeration and yarn spinning for fun. Both of these things have inspired me to write."
Grisham's parents, Johnny Sr. and Wanda Grisham, of Mountain View, were in the audience along with his aunt and uncle, Sammy and Ed Pate, of Monette.
He explained how reading an obituary in the New York Times in December 2004 about the death of Ron Williamson of Ada, Okla., inspired him to undertake an 18 month quest to write about his life, wrongful incarceration and near execution in "The Innocent Man."
"I was never tempted to write non-fiction, mostly because it is too much work," Grisham said. "Once I read that obituary, I knew it had all the elements of a great suspenseful story.
"Several things caught my interest. We are the same age, both grew up in small towns in the South, and both dreamed of being major league baseball players. One difference was that Ron had talent and I did not. He was compared to Mickey Mantle, the famous ball player."
Ron Williamson had been convicted in 1988 of the capital murder of Debra Sue Carter, a 21 year old victim who had been raped and murdered in her apartment six years earlier. He had been exonerated and released in April 1999, at one point coming to within five days of execution.
"The obituary stated that Ron was survived by two sisters," Grisham said. "Within the hour I had called and talked to them, expressing my desire to write about their brother's life.
"During the 18 months I traveled back and forth to do research, the sisters gave me access to their family records, old photographs, Ron's mental health records, and their collections of trial transcripts, depositions, appeals and memorabilia. It took me a long time to organize and review all the information.
"I worked hard to give a better understanding of how innocent people can be convicted, and a greater concern for the need to reimburse and rehabilitate innocent men after they have been released."
"Five years after Williamson got out of jail he died," Grisham said. "He drank himself to death. He had struggled with mental illness all of his life."
Liz Smith, Chamber of Commerce executive director, read inquiring questions from audience members, as Grisham explained in great detail being compelled to write the book about Williamson.
"Is there going to be a movie come out of this book?" Smith asked.
"This has generated a lot of interest, more than the last four or five of my books," Grisham said. "At this time, I just don't know. I reserve the rights to approve the screen writer and have the right to veto casting choices. It is a large process and we will just have to wait and see."
Grisham explained that sometimes he writes his legal thrillers just for pure entertainment, but other times he takes an issue, like the social injustice in Williamson's story, and wraps a novel around it - something to make people stop and think.
"If a movie comes out of it, it just comes," he said. "My concern is the book. Now I am ready to get back to writing fiction, and my wife and family will be glad for me to do that also. They think this non-fiction stuff is too hard and takes me away from home much more than they like. I just felt Williamson's story had to be told, once again...and I was compelled to do it."