Not So Grim
By Mike Berlin
Gay novelist Jim Grimsley is a North Carolina native who initially garnered attention from the literary world in 1994 when he won the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction with his semi-autobiographical novel Winter Birds. Since then, Grimsley, who teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, has been keeping busy producing a steady stream of plays, short stories, and literary- and science-fiction novels that have twice earned him the title of Georgia Author of the Year and made him a Lambda Literary Award winner and two-time finalist.
But Grimsley is so much more than your run-of-the-mill gay, Southern Gothic, sci-fi writer. He may just be the best gay author you've never heard of, with a total of 10 novels to his name and over 20 plays written since the mid-80's. His new collection of short stories, Jesus Is Sending You This Message, is a lively and mesmerizing offering that showcases as many genres, themes, and writing styles as Grimsley has in him.
Recently, Grimsley chatted with us about his writing, the fictional possibilities of Facebook, and the perfect way to watch the upcoming season of Top Chef.
OUT: Before we go into your writing, I wondered: as a writer, could you have imagined a character as strange and fascinating as Sarah Palin?
If you wrote a book with her in it, nobody would believe it. Everybody would say, 'Oh no, that's too unbelievable, that would never happen!' It's just phenomenal. The last person I remember like that was George Wallace from the 60's -- the segregationist governor of Alabama. I mean, she's basically our George Wallace -- she just looks like a drag queen to me.
It's the pageant hair, isn't it?
There's something about those facial bones, too.
Agreed! So Jesus Is Sending You This Message is your first collection of short stories. Do you find short stories more difficult to write than novels?
Well I wrote these over the course of 20-odd years. So yes, I do find it harder to write short stories. For me, the most natural length is the novel length, about 200 or 250 pages. There are people who do it very naturally -- they do it much faster -- and my hat is off to them. But that's not me. I'm grateful that this book is here and I'm really glad I'm not planning to do another book of stories.
Aside from the title, how much does spirituality and religion affect the stories in your collection?
I don't know how I would've answered that question in relation to each of these stories by themselves. But in the aggregate, I'm concerned with the notion of whether there's a God out there, whether there's something beyond this life and beyond this world. And I think that comes across in most of the stories to some degree. I'd never describe myself as a churchgoer or a church-oriented Christian. I never really liked going to God in churches. God came to me more in the woods than he did in the church. What you get in the church is who to vote for and how much money they need for the building fund.
What prodded you to explore the sugar daddy-rentboy relationship central to "The Virtual Maiden"?
I'd always made these assumptions about that sort of December-May couple -- that the pretty one's being kept by the older one, that the pretty one probably doesn't love the older one, that the older one is totally obsessed with the pretty one. I thought, OK, this gives me a way to cut against those stereotypes and talk about the relationship of the older man and younger man as being a very real one, even if it is one that is negotiated rather than romantic.
In that story, there are also some colorful scenes involving a gay club where the younger man works. Did you have a specific place in mind when you were writing it?
I drew on a memory of having been to one very recently, in Chicago, actually. Gay clubs all look like gay clubs, though. I pictured a very neon-lit, bare brick wall. I can't remember the name of the club in Chicago, but I had been there with a very lovely man and we'd been flirting with the bartender. And that whole feeling came back. And so I could sort of place myself against the wall, watching and seeing all the motion. What strikes me about a gay club is that feeling of constant motion. And I guess that comes from the driving music -- the fact that you're not really going to talk to anybody, you're just going to hear the beat all night.