Kelli Pryor
April 01, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

John Grisham is rounding the bases of the family ballfield in his wife’s white Saab 900. At second, he mentions that he’s planning to put down fake turf and maybe buy the neighboring land to expand the field. As he rolls into third, he motions toward the covered batting tunnel with its dual-arm pitching machine. Then he brakes on his way toward home plate, sketching blueprints in the air of an old-fashioned grandstand that will soon rise behind the backstop fence. ”The more I do,” he says, ”the more I want to do.”

Grisham lives by those words. In the summer of ’91, when the media started beating a path to his 67-acre farm outside Oxford, Miss., Grisham had just bush-hogged a grazing pasture into a makeshift ballfield where he could coach his son’s Little League team. Back then, his novel The Firm had been on best- seller lists only three months. In those days, Grisham was just an upstart lawyer from Faulkner country who had scribbled fiction during court recesses and got what looked like lucky.

Now look at him. In less than three years, Grisham has made the leap from publishing phenomenon to genuine pop-culture demigod. His books have been translated into 31 languages, with more than 60 million in print worldwide. He’s had four legal thrillers-A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client-on best-seller lists (hardcover and paperback) at the same time. In Forbes’ most recent survey, Grisham was 31st among the world’s wealthiest entertainers, with an estimated 1992-93 income of $25 million. His agent, Jay Garon, claims he could well be the most commercially successful author in history. (And who’s going to argue? According to Publishers Weekly, no official all-time ranking of authors-either by earnings or books in print-is kept.)

But who is this guy? Good question, because Grisham is one of the most buttoned-up celebrities still existing in our tell-all age. His encounters with the media are few, far between, and generally rather cagey. In this rare interview, however, he leans back, puts up his feet, and reveals his feelings about his writing, his frustrations, his love of family, and his distrust of Hollywood.

Think of Grisham as a human juggernaut-and one who shows no signs of slowing down. He’s just completed his fifth novel, The Chamber, due in bookstores in June. It’s the story of a white-supremacist lawyer on death row for killing two Jewish youths; he is represented by his grandson, though neither knows they’re related. The Chamber, says Grisham, is not as plot- driven as his other novels: ”It’s much more about the people. It will appeal to different kinds of readers. I have no doubts about it. I’m only worried about what to do next. I’m worried that I can’t top it.”

The Chamber is Grisham’s first book in a four-book contract with Doubleday. (Neither Grisham, his agent, nor Doubleday will reveal how much it is worth.) ”I’m very comfortable doing one book a year,” says the author. ”(Still) there’s a lot of self-doubt, even at this level. I could crank out anything, and it would sell. But I want the next to be better than the first five. That keeps me awake at night.”

The movie version of The Chamber will be directed by Ron Howard. In early March, he and his partner at Imagine Entertainment, producer Brian Grazer (see story on page 22), read an advance copy of the manuscript. Grazer says he hopes to start shooting in a year, but he won’t tip his hand on the casting: ”I don’t want to say. But for the grandfather, there’s really only a few major stars out there (who could play the role).”

Grisham’s track record in Hollywood is almost as formidable as his publishing prowess. The Firm, starring Tom Cruise, is a box office smash, grossing $261 million worldwide so far. The Pelican Brief, with Julia Roberts, has raked in $96 million in the U.S. alone. And The Client, which will feature Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, is scheduled for release on July 22.

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