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March 5, 2001

A quiet courage

By Michael Terrazas

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, Grimsley’s soft Southern lilt lifts itself just above the hum of the warm air blowing through the building’s 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: He’s such a monster—how do we catch him? You see it a thousand times on television now, every week, but [I’m trying] to look at why this kind of monster strikes us so deeply. In spite of what you see, there aren’t 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 subject—which also spawned Grimsley’s play In Berlin—intrigues 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 faculty member.

Grimsley—author of six novels and 15 plays, finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, 1998 Georgia Author of the Year—has 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, he’d 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 a contract.

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 don’t have a thing to do with the writing. The writing is just what it is. I’m working on a book; I’m not too concerned with what’s in it, except for its quality.

“As it happens, I am gay,” Grimsley says, “and a lot of things I’m concerned about have to do with the presence of that sexuality in this culture, and that’s 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. That’s frustrating, but it’s reality. I don’t waste a lot of time being angry about it.”

Little wonder. By the publication of his second novel, 1995’s 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 job’s benefits, because he would have been unable to get health insurance elsewhere, because Grimsley is HIV-positive.

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, ‘It’s 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 skill—in a craft where revision is everything—to make every word count the first time.

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 from it.”

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; he’d 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 away from.

“They give me some of my old courage back,” Grimsley says quietly, and he smiles.


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