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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.
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