Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play, and a memoir. He edited The Workshop: Seven Decades from the Iowa Writers Workshop, the creative writing program from which he graduated. He now directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University. More at http://www.tomgrimes.org/.
UF Review: Your newest release, Mentor: A Memoir, is getting a lot of buzz lately. What made you want to write this book? How would you describe it?
Grimes: I never intended to write the book; it came about by complete accident. A lucky one. I was speaking to Lee Montgomery, an editor at Tin House magazine, which features essays by writers writing about other writers’ work. Knowing of my close relationship with Frank Conroy, she suggested that I write about his work – not him. But within a paragraph I unintentionally created a comparison between my father and Frank, and my beginnings as a writer. I sent Lee the first three pages. She said, “This is not what I meant, and not what we’ll publish, but I don’t think you should stop.” I was stunned when she said, “You might have a book.” So I wrote the essay about Frank’s work, which Tin House published, then kept going on the thing that, all along, I called “the Frank book.” I never considered the book a memoir; I thought I was writing about Frank. Gradually, I came to understand that I was writing about Frank and me, but only after I’d completed the book was I told by my wife Jody, my friend Charles D’Ambrosio, and Lee that I belonged in the story. What I’d thought was Frank’s story also turned out to be my story. I recall feeling that I couldn’t let go of what I’d begun, so I worked on the book relentlessly, four to six hours a day, for eight months. I was afraid to stop, to disconnect. So I didn’t and, luckily, I had a book when I finally did.
UF Review: If Frank Conroy had not been such an influence on you, would you have been able to write such a stunning portrait of your life or did you need his life, too?
Grimes: My recollection of Frank’s life became the lens through which I saw myself. His presence provided not only clarity but a pitilessness that I believe is critical for anyone who attempts to write a memoir. The instant a writer becomes self-indulgent, the book dies; the reader no longer cares. A great memoir, like Stop-Time, works precisely for this reason. Frank didn’t care about himself; he cared about a boy and, later, a young man named Frank. Likewise, I discovered that I had to do the same with regard to a stranger named Tom, who seems to have lived a life utterly detached from mine. Without that distance, the book would never have been written.
UF Review: Do you still write longhand? Do you still use a typewriter? What does your writing process look like?
Grimes: I wrote Mentor on a laptop. I think its impersonal nature helped me to write the book. Had I tried to write it in longhand I may have been too close to myself. A writer hears his or her voice differently, depending on which instrument he or she uses for a particular book: pencil, typewriter, computer, even dictation; the new voice recognition software is pretty good, and maybe, over time, more writers will begin to use it. The laptop allowed me to revise easily and, therefore, constantly. I chiseled every sentence and this intense focus on the words helped me maintain the detachment necessary to write the book.
UF Review: About writing, you say, “I had to find my way in; language wouldn’t open the door for me. Once I was inside, time dissolved. When I felt myself back in time, I knew I’d completed the day’s work.” Is this still true? For you, what is it about writing that lends itself to this process of escape, discovery and becoming found?
Grimes: Yes, it’s still true. Language – its sound and rhythm – leads me to a narrator’s voice, which leads me to the story that voice has to tell. I couldn’t write a story any other way. For me, it’s all about tuning into the perfect voice, the way a radio has to be tuned to a certain frequency in order to hear its music with perfect clarity.
UF Review: Also in Mentor, you describe finishing your second novel, Season’s End. The moment seemed to be such a release of so many different emotions, fear being the most prevalent, I think. On one hand, completing such a demanding project is a relief, but why is there this anxiety? What does it feel like to leave one project behind for another?
Grimes: I was astonished when I finished Season’s End. I didn’t expect to complete the book when I did. I thought I had another three hundred pages to write. When I realized that I only had to write another three hundred words — the book’s final paragraph, which I wrote in ten minutes — it was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean in a flash. I was disoriented. Suddenly I inhabited a world in which the pressure of the book’s creation was absent and I had to learn how to live with that absence. Once I began to revise, this sensation passed. But whenever I finish a novel I feel lonely. I don’t have those characters to live with any longer, and I drift through the world without any sense of direction until I begin to hear another voice, one I trust, which means there’s a book connected to it. Since I completed Mentor I haven’t felt lonely, though; I’ve felt utterly estranged from myself. I have no idea who lived my life up to this point. In a sense, I no longer have a past, and I have no idea what my future might be. I’m not writing and when I’m not writing I don’t know who I am. Yet, for the first time in thirty-five years, I don’t feel compelled to write. The idea of working each morning with the intensity I need in order to write exhausts me — which may be why I now sleep until one o’clock in the afternoon.
UF Review: You’ve written many books — A Stone of the Heart, City of God, Will@— and even a play, Spec. While all these works certainly have their differences, is anything the same? In some way, do they speak to each other?
Grimes: There’s definitely a through line, but it isn’t intentional. Every book seems to answer questions posed by the previous book. My books are separate, my sensibility isn’t.
UF Review: Mentor is a book filled with relationships; you write of relationship to self, to spouse, to teacher, and even to other books. For example, you often reference Hemingway, Roth, Garcia Marquez, and of course Conroy’s work, as well as your own. As a writer, how does reading influence all areas of your other relationships? Does it? How does reading help your writing?
Grimes: My reading and writing are inseparable. Books are the best teachers. So the better the books, the better the writer — usually.
UF Review: What are you currently reading? How is it?
Grimes: My reading is all over the place and I think this reflects my lack of direction. Recently, I’ve read about the Civil War, which I’ve never done. Then I reread White Noise, which I haven’t done in twenty years. I also reread Anna Karenina and Nabokov’s lecture about the novel; he cheated, ninety percent of it is direct quotation from the book. I’ve read Annie Proulx’s memoir, Birdcloud. Now I’m rereading DeLillo’s Underworld. But I also stay up until five in the morning reading nothing but articles about the year’s best dividend paying stocks, an endeavor that quickly becomes a maze because every article has links to other ten other articles, which I then read. Once I’ve read those I find another ten links, et cetera. I have no idea what to write but I can tell you what Coca-Cola’s current earnings per share is this quarter and whether or not McDonald’s forty percent expansion in China will boost the company’s profit margin. I’m addicted to this stuff. I guess I’m looking for a narrative; by nature, that’s what my mind does, and sifting through financial data replicates the narrative impulse. The trick is to turn the babble of voices into a single and singular voice. If I can do this, maybe I’ll begin to write again.
UF Review: Someone (though I forget who) once said that it’s good to have books you can read again and again, and every time you turn to them they make you jealous. Is there anything on your bookshelf that makes you wish you had written it, anything that you can read and then be inspired to write?
Grimes: I didn’t think that I’d be able to reread White Noise and Underworld, both of which I wish I’d written. I’d already read them so closely that I couldn’t get past the first page whenever I tried to. But finally I got past page one and because my memory is so bad at this point it’s (almost) like I never read either book. Also, I may be rereading Underworld as a challenge; a work that may make my literary heart start ticking again.
UF Review: You’re now a teacher, the director of the MFA program at Texas State University. Has Frank left his mark on your teaching philosophy and style? Do you echo any of his techniques? Do you do anything different?
Grimes: Like Frank, I concentrate on the language line by line. If a writer’s sentences are imprecise, you lose the reader. If a sentence’s rhythm is off, what’s written doesn’t sound true, and you lose the reader. If a word alters the narrator’s voice, what’s written sounds false, and you lose the reader. You write from the bottom up, from sentences to story, not from the top down. But I also describe how every good story possesses an internal clock, a certain period of time during which all events must take place. If a story lacks a clock, which can be a day or a century, it doesn’t matter, the story is likely to be digressive, shapeless, and insufficiently dramatic, and then you lose the reader. I also allow a student to ask questions in workshop, once the rest of us have finished talking about his or her story. It’s the student’s work, so he or she should become part of the conversation at some point. Finally, I workshop novels, not just short stories. Everyone in the class has to read whatever’s been written so far. This way they’re speaking with a sense of context, which is fruitful for everyone, especially the student who’s working on a novel.
UF Review: If you were to give someone one piece of advice on writing, what would you say? How about if you were to give advice to someone trying to “make it” as a writer? What would you say?
Grimes: Write. Don’t worry about “making it.” The literary life is irrational. I know a writer whose book was turned down by more than a dozen publishers. Then a small press published it, sold the book rights to nine countries, and a large New York house that had originally turned down the book published it in paperback. In 2010, novels by tiny independent presses won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I never expected to write Mentor, yet I did and people are reading it, particularly writers who are curious about another writer’s life. I wrote a book about feeling like a failure and the book becomes a success. It makes no sense. So write whatever you want or, better still, needrest is out of your hands.
UF Review: Now, if you could ask Frank a question, what would you ask?
Grimes: Did it take you eighteen years to write another book after Stop-Time because, as a memoir, it left you utterly baffled and empty once you’d finished it, and am I in for the same thing?
UF Review: What are you currently working on?
UF Review: Where would you like to go as a writer?
Tom Grimes: I wish I knew. With luck, someday soon, I will.