BRADENTON — When bestselling and beloved authors John Grisham and Stephen King sat down together on stage Tuesday night to talk about the writing life, King kicked it off by asking Grisham, "What is the question you get asked the most, so I don't ask it?"
They agreed on the question dreaded by successful authors everywhere: "Where do you get your ideas?"
"I tell them I go to the author idea website," Grisham cracked.
"Utica," King countered. "I tell people I go to the used ideas store in Utica."
It was clear the authors were enjoying themselves, relaxed in front of a sold-out crowd at the Neel Performing Arts Hall at the State College of Florida. The event was a fundraiser for the Manatee County Library Foundation — one that, as foundation head Jane Plitt delightedly announced in her introduction, "smashed our goal" by raising more than $200,000 for literacy programs.
King raised more than $100,000 with a solo event last year and topped that this year by inviting Grisham — who made the trip from Virginia two weeks after having hip surgery. King, who has a winter home on Casey Key off Sarasota, thanked him and said that libraries and the arts are "something I feel Rick Scott and the state of Florida should also be underwriting."
King, 68, and Grisham, 60, have a long friendship. Grisham recounted that after his first novel, A Time to Kill, made the New York Times bestseller list, he got a note from King, already a hugely popular author: "Welcome to the big time."
Later, Grisham said, King invited him to attend the National Book Awards as his guest. King said he bought a table at the "snooty" literary awards and invited nine other bestselling commercial authors: "We're going to go stink up the place."
A few years afterward, the National Book Foundation gave King himself an award for "distinguished contributions to American letters."
"They didn't give it to me for a book, though," King noted. "I felt it was kind of like Miss America — I was the one who got Miss Congeniality."
The authors talked about how their early fame was propelled by the same editor, Bill Thompson at Doubleday, who bought both A Time to Kill and King's Carrie. Both men's careers really took off, though, because of the movies that were made from their books.
King got an advance of $2,500 for Carrie. But then Brian DePalma directed the movie version — and paperback rights sold for $400,000. King, who was working two jobs and living in a trailer in Maine with his wife and two kids at the time, said that when he got that call, "I went right down on my ass on the floor."
Grisham's A Time to Kill sold fairly well, but there was no interest in his second book, The Firm, until a bootlegged copy of the manuscript passed around in Hollywood sparked a bidding war for its film rights — before it was even in print.
Successful movies made from their books can be a mixed blessing, King said: "I get people all the time telling me, 'Oh, you're Stephen King. I love your movies.' I've written some books, too."
Grisham has had the same experience. "They say to me, 'I haven't read your books but I love your movies.' You know what I say? Thank you."
The two share something else, Grisham said. "We're both married to extraordinary women." When he was a boy, he said, his wife, Renee, was "the little girl next door. Then I came back from college and she had grown up."
King met his wife, Tabitha, when they were students at the University of Maine. He recalled that when they married, he already wanted to be a writer but hadn't yet sold any books. Tabitha's youngest sister reported overhearing their father say of his prospective son-in-law, "I'm going to be supporting that four-eyed son of a b---- for the rest of my life."
King grinned. "I used to think of that every time I bought him a car."
Talking about changes in the publishing world, Grisham said he thought there would always be a demand for printed books, which he prefers, and asked King whether he reads on paper or on a screen. "I'm kind of bisexual," King said.
King teased Grisham about whether he'd ever write a horror novel: "Some people say writing about lawyers is horrifying."
Grisham didn't seem to mind. "I get a lot of letters from prisons. There are a fair number of lawyers in prison, and they all have great stories."
The talk lasted more than an hour, ending on a more serious note as Grisham talked about his work as a member of the board of directors of the Innocence Project, which campaigns to free unjustly convicted people on the basis of DNA evidence, and about his opposition to the death penalty. "We've had 125 DNA exonerations of people who were on Death Row," he said. "About 400 total, but 125 who were actually on Death Row."
The project has not yet found a case that proved through DNA evidence that an innocent person had been executed, Grisham said. "But what's going to happen when we wake up one day and have the clincher?"