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Art of darkness 

Jim Grimsley searches for the shadow -- and the light -- in his new novel

Give Jim Grimsley 10 minutes of your time and you'll completely forget everything you thought you knew about him. His warm and ebullient nature contradicts the cool minimalist voice of his writing. His essential vitality casts doubt on the fact that this is a man who should be dead, who's lived with hemophilia for 46 years and HIV almost half that time.

With a glowing, ruddy complexion, wiry auburn hair and a talent for throwing an off-color joke into every fourth sentence, Grimsley in person gives no hint of the dark and often brooding worlds he writes about -- from meditations on surviving poverty in rural North Carolina to prurient explorations of sado-masochism.

"I don't have to write against adversity anymore," Grimsley says, "I'm so well taken care of here." By here he means Emory University, where the acclaimed Southern author and playwright teaches creative writing.

Sitting in shadow in his second-story office in Callaway Memorial Hall that overlooks a sunny swatch of the Emory quad, Grimsley speaks with the poise and erudition of a seasoned professor. Never mind that he's only held this teaching position since 1999, that he spent almost two decades working a series of secretarial jobs at Grady Memorial Hospital, his writing relegated to a side pursuit.

But these days the writing -- in one form or another -- gets his full attention. This month his newest novel, Boulevard, will be published by Algonquin Books. The book, like the author, is a contradiction. It begins as fresh-faced Alabama boy Newell Kerth arrives in New Orleans, eager to dive into the city's steamy pool of sexual discovery, circa 1976. But Grimsley gradually shifts the book's focus, shedding light on a particular place in time when what he calls "The Party" was still raging, when the gay rights movement and the sexual revolution had not yet been sideswiped by the AIDS epidemic.

It's a setting the author knows intimately, having lived in New Orleans himself immediately after college. But he insists that Boulevard is not autobiographical, that he and Newell have little in common. Grimsley's intentions are greater than Newell's coming-of-age story; the protagonist travels a dimly lit alley into the underworld of New Orleans, with detours into S&M sex, schizophrenia and even slavery, but arrives at a none-too-subtle love letter to a gritty city, warts and all.

Though Boulevard may be dark, it has already been called his most hopeful work in recent memory. And therein lies the essential paradox of Jim Grimsley: finding the hope, the good, the essential redemption in even the darkest situations. It's a metaphor for most all of his literature, and for his life.

Almost everything Grimsley has written has been perceived as autobiographical. That's partly his own fault, he says. He drew openly from his own history when creating the character of Danny Crell, the protagonist of his first novel, Winter Birds, and its sequel, Comfort and Joy.

My Drowning came from the spooky stories his mother and aunt told about their childhoods, and Dream Boy returns to the author's adolescent landscape of longing and loss.

Grimsley grew up in abject poverty in the flat east country of rural North Carolina, his father an alcoholic who later committed suicide. His hemophilia fostered an early love of reading -- and writing.

"Being sick actually helped because it kept me still," he says. "With hemophilia, I had to be careful how I played so that I wouldn't get hurt."

That prescription for inactivity gave him plenty of time and opportunity to read science fiction and comic books, and write his first short stories.

In high school Grimsley started a couple of novels, but his writing didn't flourish until he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under the tutelage of writing coaches Doris Betts and Max Steele, Grimsley honed his fiction and started journaling. He also began Winter Birds.

Grimsley graduated with honors in 1978 and decided, randomly, to move to New Orleans, taking an apartment on Dumaine Street just down the block from some of his favorite bars. It was in one of those bars, on the dance floor of a late-night disco, that he got the idea for Boulevard. If you lingered at the disco long enough, he observed, all the bartenders from all over the French Quarter eventually came in at the end of their shifts. He began crafting the tale of Newell's arrival in the Crescent City, but the book would lie fallow for the next 20 years.

In 1980, Grimsley moved to Atlanta, first working temp jobs, then settling into a position at Grady.

The next year he met Del Hamilton, co-founder of 7 Stages Theatre.

"It's an old, old deep friendship," Grimsley says. "Del's caused more good accidents to happen for me than I can tell you about in one sitting."

Through Hamilton and his new group of theater friends, Grimsley became interested in playwriting. He even did some acting, and in 1984, 7 Stages premiered Grimsley's The Earthlings.

The year was a turning point for the author, because he also found out that he was HIV-positive. Hemophiliacs across the country were being delivered similar news at the time; injections to treat the disease contained tainted portions from the untested blood of thousands. Through blood samples Grimsley had sold to CDC researchers (at $15 a pop), doctors discovered that he'd actually been infected as far back as 1981.

The news jolted Grimsley, but it didn't derail him. Counseling helped, he says, but so did his essential outlook on life.

"Basically I already had the adjustment of having a near-fatal disease," he says. "It's big. It's very big. But ultimately, you've just got to live."

The HIV diagnosis didn't stop his writing. In 1986, Grimsley became 7 Stages' playwright in residence, and the next year premiered what remains one of his most famous stage works, Mr. Universe. During the next decade, Grimsley wrote and produced countless plays with Hamilton at 7 Stages and elsewhere.

During this time, Grimsley held onto his job at Grady, moving through a series of administrative positions. Fear of losing his insurance kept him working, but he also enjoyed his work at the hospital.

Meanwhile, Grimsley began shopping around Winter Birds but couldn't get a publisher to bite. His break came finally through Hamilton, who had cultivated a number of European contacts in the art world. Hamilton recommended that Grimsley show the book to a German publisher, Frank Heibert, which resulted in the novel's publication in Germany in 1992.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Heibert dogged Elisabeth Scharlatt of Algonquin Books, a North Carolina-based publishing house that had originally rejected Winter Birds. Eventually, Scharlatt gave in and agreed to read the book, which she now calls "a modern masterpiece."

She fell in love with the book and with Jim on the page, Scharlatt says, but she admits to being surprised when she finally met the author in person.

"The book is very serious and dark, so I expected someone serious and dark," she says. "But Jim is sly and witty and charming."

After its publication stateside in 1994, Winter Birds won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and met high critical acclaim. Four more novels followed: Dream Boy in 1995, My Drowning (which led to Grimsley being named Georgia Author of the Year in 1997) and Comfort and Joy, as well as a collection of Grimsley's plays.

Boulevard marks a transgression of sorts from Grimsley's previous literary novels. Though it certainly shows the author's Southern Gothic-influences, this foray into New Orleans nightlife takes the reader on a graphic and hedonistic ride. Grimsley unfolds Newell's gradual journey of sexual discovery through a richly described tour of the city's all-night discos, gay jack-shacks and dimly lit cruising zones. Eventually, the young protagonist gets in too deep. Not to spoil anything, but as in Dream Boy, Boulevard culminates in a chillingly violent climax, though this time set in a secret S&M sex dungeon.

Grimsley wrote much of Boulevard around the same time as his most recent play, In Berlin, which also digs into the black-and-blue subculture of leather sexplay.

"I thought at one point that Boulevard was going to have a larger S&M element than it did," he says. "But I couldn't get [Newell] to go there. Frankly, after my experience with In Berlin, I decided that less is more. That's one kind of sex that a lot of people are really just not comfortable with, and I'm pushing people's sexual buttons quite a bit in this book already. I didn't want to push them any harder."

Both Grimsley and his editor, Scharlatt, concede they worry that the book's more shocking elements may offend some readers. But the author has no regrets for venturing into largely uncharted waters. He has no desire to "write the same book over and over again," he says.

In fact, Grimsley takes palpable pleasure exploring this dark side of humanity.

"The notion of a brain being hardwired to accept pain as pleasure or as an erotic thrill just absolutely fascinates me in a kind of dreadful way," he says. "I can get my head around people needing to do that and I believe they do, after having seen people do the stuff I've seen them do, because you certainly wouldn't do it to yourself otherwise. But it's not something that I would want to go into," he says.

Scharlatt says she and Grimsley discussed at length the graphic material contained in Boulevard, but that she as an editor would never consider censoring a writer she holds in such high regard. Besides, to her mind Boulevard's basic message is one of hope.

"The image on the book jacket is of a dark street in New Orleans with a bright light in the middle of it. In a way this reflects something about the book. Because Jim has a way of looking at things so directly, he sees the darkness, but he also sees the light," she says.

Jim Grimsley is a creature of perseverance. Given his lifetime of health problems and career working in the midst of sickness, it's perhaps not surprising that he seems so oddly comfortable with such grim (pardon the pun) subject matter. The author's outlook on his own mortality appears decidedly peaceful -- in fact, he speaks of HIV and hemophilia as only minor nuisances of his life.

This attitude dates back to childhood, when doctors told him his hemophilia might be deadly in a few years. It didn't feel true then, he says, and it doesn't feel true now.

"I've never felt like I could gain anything by identifying myself as a sick person. I don't do AIDS support groups, I've never done any of that stuff. I'm a terrible AIDS crisis worker. I haven't helped a bit," he says.

The decision has been deliberate. As he sees it, he's doing his part for both diseases by not becoming a poster boy for either. His health usually remains just one problem in the back of his mind. Sure, he can take that attitude too far; he can skip medication dosages or doctor appointments and run the risk of getting sick again -- a bout of pneumonia put him out of commission for two months shortly after the publication of Dream Boy.

"But there are months when beyond taking my pills, I don't think about having AIDS at all. I think that's healthier than being obsessed with every twinge in my body," he says.

Of course, after a lifetime of living with disease, one does learn to listen to their body. Grimsley says when his energy is low he knows now to nap, to slow down, to baby himself. "But it's also pretty tough, my body," he says. "It's been through a lot and it keeps coming back."

You sacrifice most of your social life when you're a writer, Grimsley says, and his own life seems to testify to this statement. The writing takes up most of his time, as well as teaching. After years of living in Little Five Points, Grimsley now shares a house in Decatur with four housemates -- including Del Hamilton and Faye Allen of 7 Stages.

"We're basically like an old hippie commune that worked," he says. "We started out as just kinda loose housemates, and it just stuck. It's sort of an extended family."

An anomaly in this commuter town, Grimsley doesn't own a car, relying instead on taxis and lifts from friends to get to and from campus. It works out fine, he insists; having a car is just a big hassle anyway, and one of his housemates loves to do the shopping.

Even with its reliance on cars, Grimsley calls Atlanta "about as livable as a city can possibly be," though he does find considerable fault in its shaky support of the arts community. He compares Atlanta to the Triangle region of North Carolina -- his second home of Chapel Hill, along with Raleigh and Durham. The Triangle is one big book town, he says, a place where literature and authors are celebrated more than in Atlanta.

"We don't have the kind of camaraderie here, we don't get the kind of coverage in the papers here that the writers there get. For some reason, the community here just hasn't gelled the way it has there. I think it's nothing Atlanta's done wrong, it's what that area has done right. Books are aggressively important in the Triangle," he says. "Art and intellectual achievement don't mean a lot here, unless they're coupled with lots and lots of money."

The city's spotty record with the arts has haunted Grimsley's playwriting as well. As playwright in residence at 7 Stages, he's thankful to have had the support of Hamilton over the years in producing cutting edge material. At the same time, he says he's "wasted a lot of good plays by premiering them in Atlanta," shows that might have had a better chance at other theaters.

"I mean, I wouldn't change it," he says of living here, "but I wouldn't do it again, if I knew what I know now."

These days Grimsley makes frequent trips to Chicago, putting the finishing touches on a new play called Fascination. It's another project with Eric Rosen and About Face Theatre, which translated Grimsley's Dream Boy into a handsome and haunting stage work in 1997. Grimsley is completing a two-year residency at the theater, now fleshing out a work that he's quick to point out was not his idea originally: America's fascination with serial murderers.

"The image of Hannibal Lecter as a Superman is so far from anything real, in terms of what a real serial killer is. It tells you what our fantasies about those people are. We fantasize them as some sort of almost super hero. I thought that was really twisted, and worth exploring," he says.

The play, which opens in Chicago in September, gives a serial killer a chance to try and explain his actions.

Not that mass murderers are all that the prolific author has on his plate right now. Grimsley doesn't believe in writer's block. Instead, he says a writer who is stuck simply doesn't have enough projects going on at once. With that in mind, he keeps several works in progress, which now includes a growing focus on fantasy and science fiction writing.

Last year Meisha Merlin Press published Kirith Kirin, Grimsley's first full-length fantasy novel, and several of his short stories have run in Asimov's, a science-fiction periodical. Grimsley realizes that such genre fiction may be dismissed as lowbrow and relegated to a certain literary ghetto, but he views the writing as just as significant as his other works.

"That's where I started writing. It's the most challenging kind of writing, probably. It's more challenging than literary writing because you have to take far less for granted in science fiction and fantasy," he says.

Though the new works may be set in the same universe as Kirith Kirin, don't expect a new fantasy series to emerge. Grimsley detests cliffhangers.

"I hate it when you get to the end and you realize, I'm not going to get this story resolved. I've finished this book and the story isn't finished."

The story isn't finished for Grimsley either. Early readers of Boulevard have already been asking what happens to Newell after the book closes. He has no plans for a sequel at this point, but he is intrigued by the enthusiasm.

In 1999 Grimsley donated his personal papers to Duke University's Southern Literature Collection. Since then, he says his own private journal writing has slowed down.

"It almost feels like it's finished," he says of the journal. "I only need to add a little to update. These days I don't know why I'm sitting down to write in the journal. It was easy when I wasn't published, because I was just writing. But now it's like, 'Am I trying to frame a self in this journal; who's going to survive me?' I have some suspicions about that side of things."

The journal writing may have slowed, but the fiction writing seems to come with greater ease than ever. Grimsley says now he doesn't even think about it, he just writes when the writing is there.

"The only goal I've ever had was to write one sentence a day," he says. "Because even on a busy day, I can manage a sentence. But if I write a sentence, I'm probably going to write more. Some switch hit in my brain a couple of years ago, and I can just sit t here and write for as long as I need to now. I don't have any trouble getting the stuff out ... "

He stops and knocks twice on his wooden desktop.

"... for as long as that works, I'm going to keep writing."

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