Volume 75
Number 3

"We Teach Possibilities"

Ghost Stories

In Hog Heaven











Over the years, Grimsley has relentlessly hammered out a reputation as
a prolific dramatist
and novelist with
a powerful voice
and an authentic
vision of a stark, unforgiving South.



The Ability to Imagine

Go to: Joseph Skibell Profile
Ha Jin wins National Book Award

Growing up poor in rural North Carolina, Jim Grimsley decided
he would become a famous writer and never relinquished that vision


JIM GRIMSLEY STANDS in the elevator of Grady Memorial Hospital’s Old Building in downtown Atlanta. He presses the button for the third floor, but someone holds the door open, and the passengers wait for a young man approaching with his nurse and a portable I.V. drip.

The young man, weak but capable, works to navigate the wheels of the I.V. over the gap in the floor at the elevator door. The other passengers keep their eyes cast down, except for Grimsley, who is not unaccustomed to affliction.

At the third floor, he walks to his office in the radiology department. On this, his second- to-last day of his “old job” as a secretary, his crisply starched cream shirt, neat bow tie, and brown-and-white saddle shoes set him apart from other employees in drab hospital uniforms. Making his way down the long hallway, Grimsley acknowledges that the hospital’s sheer size can be intimidating.

“Imagine if you came here needing something,” he says.

The ability to imagine is a gift Grimsley has nurtured his whole life. As a boy growing up poor in rural North Carolina, he decided he would become a famous writer and never relinquished that vision. This fall, after spending nineteen years in a clerical position at Grady Hospital, he comes to Emory as the senior resident fellow in the Creative Writing Program.

Grimsley’s appointment might be viewed as unconventional; he does not hold an advanced degree, and he has not trod the traditional academic path. But over the years, he has relentlessly hammered out a reputation as a prolific dramatist and novelist with a powerful voice and an authentic vision of a stark, unforgiving South.

Sitting in his office, Grimsley looks ahead with an excitement that borders on giddiness. His eyes seem buoyant at the corners, and some of his facial features take on a boyish charm—his ears protrude from his close-cropped hair, the freckles on his smooth forehead cluster together and seem to multiply with every laugh.

Lynna Williams, director of the Creative Writing Program, says that Grimsley’s acceptance of the position, together with the appointment of writer and dramatist Joseph Skibell, feels “like winning the lottery” for the English department. For Grimsley, the opportunity to teach at Emory is “a dream come true.”

Grimsley has been translating his dreams into experience for years. As a boy, his hemophilia confined him to bed for long stretches of time. Like Danny, the hemophiliac main character in his debut novel, Winter Birds, he traveled to his favorite places in his imagination. The novel is narrated in second person and could be read as Grimsley talking to his younger self.

While Danny lies bleeding in a hospital bed, the narrator says:

[Y]ou dreamed of clouds. You dreamed you were no longer a child, you were something other, something you assigned no name but only imagined: light-boned, colored like ivory, skimming the clouds on broad white-feathered wings that flashed in the clear air.

During nearly two decades as a secretary at Grady Hospital, Grimsley struggled to receive recognition as a writer. Though his novels remained unpublished, he continued writing, sustained by the response to his work as a dramatist. In 1988, he won the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Best New American Playwright Award for Mr. Universe, which premiered at Atlanta’s 7Stages theater, where Grimsley still serves as the playwright-in-residence. In the ten years between 1983 and 1993, Grimsley saw fourteen of his plays produced. His novel Winter Birds was eventually discovered at a German book festival, published in that country in April 1992, and then picked up in the United States in late 1994—ten years after he had finished it.

Since then, Grimsley has won his share of awards. Winter Birds received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN/Hemingway Award citation. His second novel, Dream Boy, was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction and won the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Book Award for Literature. In 1998, his most recent novel, My Drowning, earned him the Georgia Author of the Year award for Fiction. His fourth novel, Comfort and Joy, has already been published in Dutch, French, and German, and the English-language edition arrives in the United States this fall. Now, writers and critics across the country are talking about Grimsley.

“Jim, I think it is safe to say, is one of the very best Southern novelists of his generation,” says Ha Jin, a member of the creative writing faculty who recently received a Guggenheim fellowship. “His books achieve an elegance and intensity of language that is very different from most prose writers. He pursues the lyrical quality of prose. That’s very poetic and also very risky.”

“I have rarely read anything as powerful,” says Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina. “I wanted to steal it and pretend it was mine, or go on tour reading it aloud so people could hear how getting it right makes you both hurt and happy, makes you cry out loud and sing praises simply that we are human.”

Grimsley’s own humanity, says Williams, makes his writing special. “I think there’s vision in Grimsley’s novels, both how the world is and how we might want it to be, and there’s humanity in certain small things that other writers might overlook. He can portray the life of poor people, especially poor people in the South, in a way that is not condescending, and I think that’s extremely rare in contemporary American fiction. He writes about suffering and pain in language that serves the story first—the result can literally make you hold your breath.”

Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend how Grimsley, who often draws on a reservoir of experience and emotion that includes not only poverty, but abuse by an alcoholic father, manipulates his subject matter with such subtlety. For him, he says, it is a matter of aesthetic. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s the kind of writing I love, because it’s real. You don’t get all of life, you get the kind of emotion from a single moment. . . .

“To do a thing subtly is always more powerful—always—than to really do it full out. To stop just short of doing it, so that the finishing of the gesture is in your hand, the reader.”

How will he react as more and more of those readers agree with the opinions of his colleagues, that he is, in fact, “one of the most important Southern writers of his generation?”

“It’s scary to hear that. I can’t let it in, really. I want to be one of the best writers that ever was, in my head. And I don’t mean to say that I think I am, but I think that’s what you shoot for. You shoot for being the best thing that you can be. And you hope that the best thing you can be is as good as there ever was.”



©1999 Emory University