Art of darkness 

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

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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."

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