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 youve never heard of, with a total of 10 novels to his name and over 20 plays written since the mid-80s. 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, thats too unbelievable, that would never happen! Its just phenomenal. The last person I remember like that was George Wallace from the 60s -- the segregationist governor of Alabama. I mean, shes basically our George Wallace -- she just looks like a drag queen to me.
Its the pageant hair, isnt it?
Theres 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 thats not me. Im grateful that this book is here and Im really glad Im 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 dont know how I wouldve answered that question in relation to each of these stories by themselves. But in the aggregate, Im concerned with the notion of whether theres a God out there, whether theres something beyond this life and beyond this world. And I think that comes across in most of the stories to some degree. Id 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"?
Id always made these assumptions about that sort of December-May couple -- that the pretty ones being kept by the older one, that the pretty one probably doesnt 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 cant remember the name of the club in Chicago, but I had been there with a very lovely man and wed 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 youre not really going to talk to anybody, youre just going to hear the beat all night.
Youve written many plays and novels. But youre also a Lambda Award-winning science fiction author. What makes sci-fi so enticing?
Whats irresistible about fantasy and science fiction is that they give you total control of the world. Thats also whats irresistible about fiction in general -- you get to make the world up. So in science fiction, you get to make all of the world up. And in the novel that won the Lambda, [Kirith Kirin], Im writing about a world in which there never has been inequality between women and men, in which gender relationships of any sort are healthy and where they encourage adults and teenagers to have relationships with one another. If you try to write that in a real world context, youre going to get all the moralists coming after you. But when I construct a morally driven science fiction world with those pretexts, it works.
How do you go about researching your writing?
Right now, Im trying to figure out how to write a book about Facebook, so Im delving into Facebook really deeply. I actually got addicted to Facebook and then started to think about the book. Thats usually how research comes with me -- Im in the middle of a new obsession and I realize what Im really doing is trying to figure out how to write a story.
Thats a loaded topic. What interests you about Facebook?
Theres a layer of social interaction that its building into itself. Its turning things into games that really ought to be played as games, like making certain aspects of having a crush or being jealous, for instance, really easy. Its also a metaphor -- the notion of owning people is so much like what you actually want to do with some people. Theres also millions of ways that it makes it easier to stay in touch with people passively. I would never have thought this was good until I delved into it. Just by opening Facebook, I can find out how my Facebook friends are doing. In fact, Im now at the point where I want more of my outer-world friends to be on Facebook so I can stay in touch with them that way. Because in some ways, Im in better touch with my friends in Finland than I am with people who live down the street who are not on Facebook. And you cant explain that to them because my so-called real world friends dont buy this. They dont think that there is anything real going on in Facebook.
Who are you reading right now?
My favorite younger, gay writer is Aaron Hamburger. I think hes been one of the freshest, extraordinary voices to come out in the last five years. Im reading Scott Heims new book, which I adore. Thats probably who I would name at the moment. Im hoping for a new book from Dorothy Allison. Weve been friends since my first book came out.
I saw on your website that youre a fan of Top Chef. Are you excited for the new season?
My favorite thing to do is to wait until they run them all day, one at a time. If you catch the Bravo schedule sometime like four months from now, theyll run the whole series on one day and thats when I really try to catch it. I went to the beach last year and thats when I saw Top Chef for the first time. We also had Salman Rushdie at Emory around this time and, I didnt know it, but Padma was his wife.
Yeah! They got a divorced, though. I guess, after gaining Top Chef fame and fortune, she was ready to move on to bigger and better things.
Read the short story "The Virtual Maiden" from Grimsley's collection Jesus Is Sending This Message To You here.