Martin Clark, a circuit court judge in Virginia, knew he had become a successful author in 2000 "when The New York Times came to my house and took my picture in my backyard, with the bare spots and cur dogs."
Eighteen years of rejection letters had been trumped by one review in the Times that called Clark's novel The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living "arguably the funniest legal thriller ever written."
"I felt like driving to New York and shining Dwight Garner's shoes," he says, referring to the reviewer.
Clark's book was named a Times Notable Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award. Clark's second book, Plain Heathen Mischief (2004) appeared on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's best-seller lists before it was even published.
And now his third book, The Legal Limit (Knopf, $24.95), is drawing rave reviews. Publishers Weekly calls it Clark's "most substantial and thought-provoking work to date."
Mississippi, he says, is more than just another stop on his 30-city tour. Clark's favorite author, the late Larry Brown, lived in Oxford. He named one of his roosters after Brown, and that rooster serves as his alarm clark to begin writing each morning.
"I feel Oxford is sort of the Ground Zero of fiction writing," says Clark, who signed Tuesday at Oxford's Square Books and will appear Thursday at Greenwood's Turnrow Book Company. "And then you have Lemuria in Jackson. They're like twin pillars - two phenomenal independent bookstores."
Clark is unique not only for his writing, but what he and wife, Deana, decided to do with the money from Mobile Home Living. All of it has gone to the Presbyterian Church in the small town of Stuart,Va., where the couple lives.
"It is now more than six figures," Clark says. "We've been able to start a pre-daycare center and what we call the Quiet Need program. It's for people who have worked for 30 years, too proud to ask for help but might have undergone a financial setback due to health or other reasons. The feeling of helping others has been spectacular."
"In all my years, I've never heard of an author doing that," says John Evans, owner of Lemuria. "I would say it's a good indication that Martin has high ethical standards."
But as long as it took him to make it in the book-selling world, Clark doesn't hesitate when asked which is tougher - being a judge or a writer?
"A judge," he says, "because it counts. If I make a blunder in a book, who cares? But a blunder in the courtroom affects people. I never forget that."
And in his new book, Clark makes readers aware of the tightrope judges across the country walk every day - balancing the law and common sense.
"I'll give you an example," says Clark, 49. "In Virginia, a convicted felon cannot carry a gun. It calls for a mandatory two-year sentence if it's a nonviolent felony and five years if it's a violent felony. Sounds like a good rule.
"But this comes up three or four times a year. The last time I saw this, it involved a 67-year-old man who was deer hunting with a black powder rifle. Basically, a musket. The game wardens stop him, find out he's a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, and he winds up in my courtroom.
"You know what his felony had been? Moonshining - making liquor - when he was 20-something years old. Do you want me to follow the law and put him in the penitentiary for two years or do you want me to make an exception?"
Clark deemed him not a threat to society, charged him with disorderly conduct and fined him $100.
"But that's the sort of things judges face every day," he says. "And I hope when people read (The Legal Limit), they will understand that everything is always not black and white, right or wrong."
As for his writing, Clark says "it's hard to articulate" what kept him going after no agent or publisher showed much interest for nearly two decades.
"I just liked writing," he says. "Larry Brown went through the same thing. Some really bad golfers never give up, and it was sort of like that for me.
"I remember writing a story for a college class, and the professor mentioned a sentence I had written and said it had meaning. That did something to me."
And those 18 years weren't wasted. "I was in law school part of the time," he says. "I didn't write every day. And the stuff I did write wasn't ready to be published. I can see that now. But I was growing as a writer.
"What really got me going, though, was when a good friend called me up and said 'I got published!' At that point, I knew if he could do it, I could do it. I knew I had to buckle down."
That is when Clark realized he could not wait for the inspiration to write. "I think you have to do it every day," he says. "Other writers do it in big bursts, but I am not one of them. I get up at 5:30 (a.m.), get a cup of coffee, sit down at the computer and try to write at least one page.
"I take it one day at a time. I don't look ahead, but I do have certain milestones - 50 pages, 100 pages, 200 pages ... "
Clark edits as he goes "so it won't be such a chore at the end ... it's hard for me to leave behind a bad paragraph or sentence and say I'll go back and fix it later. I'm just not like that."
He is constantly compared to Grisham, because both possess law degrees and specialize in legal thrillers. One newspaper even called him the "drinking man's Grisham" - hinting that Clark's characters are a bit rougher than Grisham's.
"I don't mind the comparisons at all," Clark says. "I really admire John. In fact, I think A Time to Kill is one of the great American classics."
Clark's style? "I like to write books that have trap doors, high banks, a lot of velocity, twists and turns, bit plots," he says. "I like books that have a beginning, middle and end, and maybe a little payoff as you go, then a big payoff at the end.
"So much of what you read today, especially short stories, is a writer taking 15 pages describing the stepping stones going up to his aunt's house. The story just stops dead."
He has worked with the same agent and editor - Joe Regal and Gary Fisketjon, respectively - on all three books.
"Joe believed in me when nobody else did," Clark says. "And Gary is a great editor. He told me once 'Remember, you're not being paid by the word, but for the right word.' That has stuck with me."
Something else has not left him: "It takes a lot of luck and timing to succeed in this business," he says. "The (Los Angeles Times) gave Legal Limit a great review, one of the best I've ever had. But if that one person had not liked it ... it's a house of cards and everything has to hold."