Jim Grimsley Writes The Gay Love Story He Wanted As A Teen

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“It’s written for the YA market, but I hope older readers of all backgrounds will respond to the storytelling and recognize those heady feelings of first love,” Grimsley said in a phone interview from his home in Goldsboro, in North Carolina.

One of the functions of creating your own world in a novel is that you can save yourself. No spoilers, but suffice it to say “Dove” has a happy ending, for a change. With him, Grimsley wrote the kind of book that might have eased his difficult coming of age as a rural southern gay man.

“A book like this would have made life much easier when I was a teenager,” he says. “The Mary Renault books that I have read have been of great help to me. Then I read James Baldwin and was swept away by him. I looked up books like “City of Night” by John Rechy and “The City and the Pillar” by Gore Vidal in his twenties, and they were amazing. But all this came a little late. It was in high school that I needed to read about relationships between boys.

Her editor, Arthur Levine, echoes those sentiments. “As someone who grew up gay in the 1970s, I can’t express what it would have meant to me to have a book like this, a book with a gay protagonist who is so true, real and vulnerable. ; a plot that gives readers a transporting and exceptionally sexy romance; and an ending that offers genuine hope.

“Jim’s ‘Dream Boy’ has earned him a passionate following for providing some of these things,” Levine continues. “But 20 years later, his writing is even more emotionally open, and he’s risked optimism and clarity.”

Grimsley led the way with eye-catching rainbow flags throughout a prolific career in which he produced 13 books in various genres and 30 plays, with work collected in more than 20 anthologies – racking up Stonewall and Lambda literary awards along the way.

“His work holds a special place in Southern and queer literature,” says Jericho Brown, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. “All his books. Before meeting him, I read his books with the feeling that the knowledge they contained made me more free.

Grimsley was born in rural Grifton, North Carolina. His father, who worked in refrigeration and air conditioning, was a “violent alcoholic,” he says, and his mother owned and operated a cemetery. “For us in the South, he writes, the family is a field where madness grows like weeds”. Strange plants that provide fodder for art, he quickly realizes.

He was an imaginative boy, escaping into science fiction and fantasy, and trying to emulate those stories in his own notebooks. This was the generation that finally entered public schools, and Grimsley writes exquisitely and candidly about their burgeoning social awareness in her 2015 memoir, “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.” . As he reckoned with bold new black classmates, he became aware of his own “otherness” as gay.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he went to work for the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and began to find a voice.

“That’s where I really developed my love for the language,” he says. “It suddenly wasn’t childish fun anymore. It was like a call, a vocation. At Chapel Hill, I understood that literature could change the world.

He came out to his friends at 20, to his family at 25. Head buzzing with words and dreams, Grimsley moved to New Orleans, where he lived for a time “just to learn to be gay.” College friends, however, were moving to Atlanta and starting a vibrant theater scene. “It was about to take off,” he says, so he moved here in 1981 and started furiously writing plays for 7Stages Theatre.

“Grimsley has become an extraordinary playwright of astonishing scope, matching that of his novels – some satirical, some fantastical, all lyrical,” says impresario Elisabeth Lewis Corley, who has produced and starred in several. “I don’t think there’s an actor alive who wouldn’t jump at the chance to portray a Grimsley character. All of these plays were Grimsley’s signature – serious, tackling issues ranging from religious hypocrisy and from patriarchy and domestic violence to homophobia, gay porn and nuclear proliferation – and wickedly funny, brimming with life, powerful and fearless.

Grimsley took up residence in Corley’s living room to write his first novel, the semi-autobiographical “Winter Birds.” American publishers rejected it for about 10 years as “too dark”, until a German edition in 1992 caused a stir. When it was finally published in English two years later, it won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN/Hemingway Prize citation. The New Yorker praised her “steadfast, unsentimental love”. Grimsley was suddenly hailed as one of Atlanta’s – South’s literary celebrities.

“Jim’s stunning debut, ‘Winter Birds’, greatly influenced my own writing when I was working on my debut,” says novelist Tayari Jones, referring to her 2002 novel “Leaving Atlanta.” “For many years Jim has been particularly good at capturing the inner landscapes of young people.

“YA and the culture in general could benefit from more gay character imagery,” she says. “Gays should be the heroes and the villains and everything in between. They should be the main characters, not just sidekicks. Someone out there, a young gay man is going to pick up this book and feel the thrill recognition in this story. It’s huge. Also, it’s important for young readers — everything young readers – to understand the textured experiences happening all around them.

Grimsley is still collaborating with Corley, who just staged his play “Cascade” at the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “It takes us into the not-too-distant future where the climate crisis ahead of us is a full-fledged and continuing disaster, society is collapsing, resources are scarce and people are on the move,” she says.

Throughout his career, even with his creative and commercial success, Grimsley kept a day job. He held several clerical positions at Grady Hospital for about 20 years before Emory University brought him on staff to teach creative writing. But when the pandemic hit, Grimsley moved to Goldsboro to care for her 87-year-old mother.

“It kind of feels natural and right, for me to be here in this phase of my life,” he says. “I’m a small-town boy at heart.”

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