A Conversation with Jim Grimsley

Special to Out in Print

from Gavin Atlas

Jim Grimsley was born in North Carolina and educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published short stories and essays in various quarterlies, including DoubleTake, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly, The New Virginia Review, The LA Times, and The New York Times Book Review. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for best first novel from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His other novels include Dream Boy, Kirith Kirin, and My Drowning. He has also published a collection of plays and a memoir, How I Shed My Skin. His body of work as a prose writer and playwright was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005. For twenty years, he taught writing at Emory University in Atlanta. His newest novel is The Dove in the Belly.

GA: Hi, Jim!  Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview!  To start, I loved The Dove in the Belly.  One thing that surprised me is it’s considered YA yet the characters are rising college seniors.  However, I know it’s considered normal for younger readers to “read up”.  So, are you finding that a number of your readers are high school age or younger?  What kind of feedback, if any, have you received from young people?

JG: The response that I’ve seen has been positive, sometimes overwhelmingly so, though it’s early days yet. It’s also hard to tell with online reviews whether the person writing is the age of the target audience, so I can’t really answer the question with much authority. But I shaped the book to be felt, so that readers who want to open themselves to the story can live inside it and feel it as if it happened, and my purpose in doing that was to make an experience that, especially for a young reader, would be hopeful and affirming in the end. I want young gay readers to be able to see themselves in this book, to see what their past might have been like if they had been born earlier, to understand this bit of history.

GA: I’m pretty sure I can answer this question since I’ve read the book, but for the uninitiated, could you explain your title?

JG: For me the title evokes the feeling of love, that warmth that resides in the belly, which is the seat of feelings. I always experience emotions in my core, whether they be love, fear, anxiety, whatever. The image of the dove as a bearer of peace, the similarity of “dove” to the word “love,” contribute to the image. The phrase is drawn from a Wallace Stevens poem about the illusory nature of appearances, and that, for me, echoed the fact that the differences between Ronny and Ben are mostly illusion, and that when they come together they form a core around which they can build their lives, at least for a while.

GA: I don’t want to give away too much, but there are two motherly figures whose lives affect the main characters significantly.  Was there anything specific that led to that choice?

JG: Most choices in writing, for me at least, begin as impulses and evolve as the story grows. In the case of Miss Dee, the boardinghouse owner, she is based directly on the owner of a boardinghouse I lived in for one summer during my Chapel Hill years. She’d lived a hard, long life, had fought to keep her home, and lived her days surrounded by college boys who helped her to stay financially afloat. We developed a small friendship and liked each other very much. Something about her presence touched me and stayed with me through the years, so that when I decided to set a novel in a boardinghouse parallel to hers, I had to put her in it because she was such a vivid part of the experience. The importance of Ben’s mother to the story grew out of the need to soften Ben’s rough edges, to show that the surface of him was not the whole story of him. And the loss of the two women is what ultimately transforms Ben and Ronny’s relationship into something that they both want to endure. The loss of Ben’s mother breaks them apart and the loss of Miss Dee brings them back together. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s mostly true.

GA: Conversely, the main character, Ronny, has a mother, Thelma, “with as many surnames as a soap opera heroine.”  She fascinates me though I’m not sure I’d want to know her in real life.  Do you have a background for her in your head explaining what made her the way she is?  Also, in what ways do you think her idiosyncrasies formed Ronny’s personality?

JG: Thelma has to be the kind of mother who would pack up and leave her son without a place to live; that was part of the first impulse of the novel and shaped who she became. Since he’s at college she figures he is able to take care of himself now, and she’s right, of course. Ronny might wish she was a bit more nurturing and such, but he knows her very well, as she knows him. She’s a complicated person, deeply loving as a mother but not the type of woman who put her own needs second to her child’s. I don’t think that means that she was neglectful; Ronny always had a roof over his head. The worst he has had to endure is her need for a man on which to focus her life. She was scarred by the fact that she married a man who turned out to be gay and had to rebuild herself. I thought of her as lovingly selfish and self-centered, but not in a cruel way. She knows that Ronny is strong and relies on him to take care of himself, and she probably has always done that. The fact that she loved her son but relied on his strength even as a child is what shaped him into the person he has become, quiet and determined, maybe a bit conniving, even, where his own happiness is concerned. He sees Ben and goes after him. I admired that about Ronny very much.

GA: Your story takes place in the 70s, and I saw an author note revealing how important setting and period accuracy was to you.  If it’s okay to ask, how close to autobiographical is this work?  Did you know anyone like your jock character, Ben?  

JG: That’s a fraught question; one of my limitations as a writer is that, in a realistic novel (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy) I need to write something that is very close to my own life, something that I know inside out. So there are many elements of autobiographicality, to make up a word, in this books, and it’s certainly what I wish had happened to me in college. But I am far more solitary as a person than Ronny is. I think Ronny is like his mother and needs a relationship. That’s not really me; I’m a lifelong singleton.

GA: Frankly, I have a sense there are many colleges and many parts of the country where a relationship between a clearly gay “nerd” like Ronny and a jock identifying as straight like Ben would be as complicated and frustrating today as it was in the 70s.  But what is your feeling about that? 

JG: I think it’s interesting that people say Ben identifies as straight; in the book it’s Ronny who identifies him that way. Ben himself refuses to say who or what he is. And Ben has had a sexual encounter with a boy before. So I think he understands that there is something in his sexuality that’s not fixed. When he understands what Ronny wants from him, he goes where his attractions take him, without much angst about it. He’s concerned not to be found out in terms of his relationship with Ronny, of course, but that’s understandable, and Ronny is the same way. I think it’s clear that being a gay or bisexual football player would be very complicated today. We’re only just at a point where a gay NFL athlete can be public, and there haven’t been more than a handful who have done so.

GA: Just so you know, my parents went to Duke, and as you are a UNC Tarheel, my understanding is that makes us lifelong enemies.  First, I extend a hug peace offering.  Second, how much of UNC’s culture and environment made you who you are?  How do you feel about the school’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community then and today?

JG: I return your hug. I almost went to Duke myself; I had a scholarship there but had always dreamed of being at Chapel Hill. My years at Chapel Hill were electric; I finally understood that brains had a value, that writing could be a means of doing something more than amusing myself. I had a stable, peaceful life for the first time. There’s no way to measure what the university gave me. I will always be grateful for that. During my years there the Carolina Gay Association was formed and came into being; this was at a time when I had come out to only a handful of people, and I was astonished at the notion that there was a parallel world of people like me. But I never thought much about what the school thought of me being gay and didn’t ask for any particular nurture from that. So I don’t really have an opinion to express about your latter question.

GA: I’m not sure this is fair to ask, but when thinking about all your works, are there any characters or stories you love the most?  Or that you think about the most?

JG: At the moment, this book is the one I love the most and these are the characters that matter to me. I like to think about Ben and Ronny and how long they might be together. I love all my books, but I can’t deny that Winter Birds and Dream Boy are the most special to me. They came first, and when I was publishing those books everything seemed possible.

GA: You’ve been interviewed many times.  Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked?  And if so, could you answer it? 

JG: No one has ever asked me about my favorite color, which is green.

GA: And >>poof<< here’s your genie question:   If you had one wish with the caveats that you’re not allowed to ask for unlimited wishes or world peace, what might you wish for? 

JG: You and your tricky legalistic restrictions! The wish that’s deepest in my heart at the moment is that I continue to love writing as much as I always have. Sometimes these days I feel as if I could let it go. Aging is as harsh as Bette Davis said. But even when I have doubts about myself or my viability or my writing, I still find myself coming back to the page and trying to make something happen there. So let’s just say that my wish is that I publish another book, and then we’ll see what else there is.

GA: Is there anything you’re hoping to work on or accomplish next?   Any travel or other goals you’re looking forward to?

JG: I want to return to my fantasy world and finish that. By this I mean the world of the Hormling novels and Kirith Kirin. I have another substantial volume in that universe but there’s a lot more work to do.

GA: Thank you so much, Jim!

More information about Jim Grimsley and his books can be found at JimGrimsley.net

Author Photo by Kay Hinton

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