March 5, 2001
A quiet courage
By Michael Terrazas firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Grimsley has a quiet voice, one that rises only to the level required to make itself heard. Sitting in his Callaway Center office on a brisk but sunny morning in late January, Grimsleys soft Southern lilt lifts itself just above the hum of the warm air blowing through the buildings vents, belying much of the subject matter being discussed.
I am reading a lot about Jeffrey Dahmer, says Grimsley, senior
writer in residence in the creative writing department. He shares this
fact because he is working on a play called Fascination that examines
the American fixation on serial killers.
Why is Hannibal Lecter a cultural hero? Grimsley says. The
usual angle on the serial killer is: Hes such a monsterhow
do we catch him? You see it a thousand times on television now, every
week, but [Im trying] to look at why this kind of monster strikes
us so deeply. In spite of what you see, there arent 50,000 serial
killers in the world, so where does this myth come from?
Grimsley also speaks softly when describing his upcoming novel, Boulevard,
about the world of sex dungeons in New Orleans. The subjectwhich
also spawned Grimsleys play In Berlinintrigues him because
of the physical investment dungeon denizens make in pursuit of sexual
pleasure. S&M, bondage, leather sex, call it what you
will, but, as Grimsley says, People who have that kind of sex undergo
significant [physical] trauma and have a good deal of recovery time.
These activities are an avenue closed to Grimsley, who is a hemophiliac,
and he readily admits this physiological prohibition is probably responsible
for his own fascination with the subject. In fact, physical conditions
play a larger role in the life of Jim Grimsley than in the typical Emory
Grimsleyauthor of six novels and 15 plays, finalist for the PEN/Hemingway
Award for First Fiction, 1998 Georgia Author of the Yearhas worked
for the University for more than 20 years, only the last two of which
on the full-time faculty. When Grimsley moved to Atlanta in 1980, he began
working temporary jobs and, on his third assignment, landed in Grady Hospital.
And they needed help so badly that I just stayed, Grimsley
says. I liked the job, liked the benefits. It was one of those jobs
where you get regular holidays and regular vacations, and I was good enough
at this kind of stuff that I got promoted to various administrative positions.
He also continued to write. A 1978 honors graduate in writing from the
University of North Carolina, Grimsley was well aware of where his talents
lay. By the early 1990s, hed published about 20 short stories but
was having trouble finding a publisher for his first novel, Winter
Birds, and it was only after a German house published the book to
great acclaim in 1992 that, back stateside, Algonquin Books offered Grimsley
The problem Grimsley encountered is not unique to him; it confronts anyone seeking to publish what has been labeled gay fiction. Over the course of his career, Grimsley alternately has been stamped a gay writer and a Southern writer, to the point where he realizes it is beyond his control. But does it make him mad?
The answer to that is very complicated and depends on the time
of day, he says. For the most part, labels dont have
a thing to do with the writing. The writing is just what it is. Im
working on a book; Im not too concerned with whats in it,
except for its quality.
As it happens, I am gay, Grimsley says, and a lot of
things Im concerned about have to do with the presence of that sexuality
in this culture, and thats going to be in most of what I write.
That is also going to limit the usefulness of what I write,
in terms of its being literature in the general culture. It
is going to be dismissed in a certain light. Thats frustrating,
but its reality. I dont waste a lot of time being angry about
Little wonder. By the publication of his second novel, 1995s Dream
Boy, Grimsley had achieved enough success to support himself financially
strictly through his writing, but he continued working his 9-to-5 job
at Grady. He kept working because of the jobs benefits, because
he would have been unable to get health insurance elsewhere, because Grimsley
He relates this with a quiet, matter-of-fact inflection and a straight-ahead stare, as if it were a flu bug and not a disease that could kill him. It is an admission expected to elicit neither surprise nor pity.
Growing up homosexual in the Deep South, Grimsley faced high hurdles
in life long before anyone had ever heard of AIDS, and this is just one
more. Or is it?
The effect it has on me is to make me more indifferent to my writing,
which is sad, he says. I think, Its just writing,
and I may not be alive for very much longer, so do I really want to sit
here and keep typing or do I want to go walk in the yard?
To his credit, more often than not Grimsley keeps typing. And he even
says this has sharpened his concentration and honed his skillin
a craft where revision is everythingto make every word count the
By any standard, Grimsley is a most prolific writer, producing not only
the aforementioned fiction and plays but also a lesser-known novel in
a genre he has loved all his life: fantasy. His Kirith Kirin was
published last year by Meisha Merlin Publishing. If you are a reader
of fantasy, you would like it, he says. If not, stay away
Finally, there are his duties as a professor of creative writing. Teaching
was nothing new to Grimsley when he joined the creative writing faculty
in 1999; hed been an adjunct member in 1995, taught creative writing
at Georgia State and spent more than a decade conducting playwriting workshops.
But, for a man who knows what it is like to cling tenaciously to a task,
working with young writers has been both revelation and inspiration.
I didnt think [teaching] would help [with my own work], but
it does, he says. The stimulation from the students is worth
a lot. For one, I am 45, and for me its been an age where I begin
to think back, and these kids remind me of my own idealism at 21 or 22,
of the things I would have written as a 22-year-old that maybe I am shying
They give me some of my old courage back, Grimsley says quietly, and he smiles.