It was kind of like sitting in your living room with your friends, if your friends happened to be two of the best-selling authors of all time.
On Tuesday evening, John Grisham, the master of the legal thriller, and Stephen King, the master of horror, shared the stage at the Neel Performing Arts Center at State College of Florida in Bradenton. For about 75 minutes, they entertained a capacity audience with memories of their 20-year friendship, stories about how they got their first big break and shared amused complaints about annoying things their fans say.
For King, it's the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" "It's infuriating," he said. "I can tell them where I got ideas for certain books, but they seem to think there's, like, some central idea market. So I used to tell them I get them in Utica."
For Grisham, it's the comment, "I've haven't read your books, but I love your movies."
Grisham said he has an easier time telling people where he gets his ideas.
"I get my ideas from the newspaper," he said.
Grisham said he culls newspapers for stories about court cases, and uses elements of actual trials to start weaving his fictional stories.
The event was called "Bookends: An Evening With Two Literary Giants." Both of the authors volunteered their time to raise money for the Manatee Library Foundation. The foundation's goal was to raise $175,000 for literacy programs.
"We have smashed -- smashed! -- our goal for this evening," foundation president Jane Plitt said in remarks before Grisham and King took the stage. At that point, the event had brought in at least $203,000, and more would come in later in the night through sales of books and a silent auction of two rare King books that he had autographed.
King and Grisham, both dressed in dark jackets and jeans, sat at center stage holding microphones, surrounded by foliage. The announced format had King interviewing Grisham, but that format quickly evolved into a relaxed conversation.
Grisham recounted that when he first made it onto the New York Times best seller list, he got a note from King.
"Welcome to the big time," the note said. That was his first contact with King, and they have been friends ever since.
King told the story about how he got $2,500 for his first published novel, "Carrie." It was really his fourth or fifth book, but the others were rejected.
He was thrilled with the $2,500, and some months later he got a call that said the paperback rights had been sold for $600,000.
The movie version had made the book a best-seller, King said, and saved his career.
"If it hadn't been for that, who knows what would have happened?" he said.
King recalled that shortly before he and his wife married, neither of them had any money. Her father complained that he would be supporting King for the rest of his life.
"I think of that every time I buy him a car," King said.
Grisham said that when his first novel, "A Time to Kill," was published, he bought 1,000 of the first 5,000 copies himself. He planned a massive celebration at his local library in Oxford, Miss., to sell all those books. He still had 882 after the event was over, and spent the next several months selling them at similar events in libraries all over Mississippi.
The tone of the entire evening was amiable, lighthearted and humorous, until the end. It turned serious when King returned to his prepared list of questions for the first time since the opening minutes of the presentation. He mentioned Grisham's non-fiction book, "An Innocent Man," which concerned a man who had been wrongly convicted, and asked Grisham if he supported the death penalty. "I'm very much opposed to it, and have been for 20 years," Grisham said to scattered applause.
Grisham said he had visited death row in a Mississippi prison to research his book "The Chamber." A prison chaplain asked Grisham if he thought Christ could condone executions. Grisham said no, and the chaplain said "I don't think so either." Grisham called that "a conversion experience."
"Even if you love the death penalty, you cannot support the current system," he said. "It's so arbitrary and unfairly used.'
More than 400 death row inmates have been proven innocent through DNA, he said "so mistakes have been made."
"If it's wrong to kill," Grisham said in conclusion, "how can you kill in the name of the state?"
The Neel Auditorium crowd of more than 800 gave King and Grisham a standing ovation.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.