August 2010

JC Hallman


An Interview with Tom Grimes

In introducing my interview with Tom Grimes about Mentor: A Memoir, his book about late Iowa Writers' Workshop director Frank Conroy, I could tell you all about how I knew Conroy too, and how Grimes and I were in some of the same classes, and that I've read just about everything Grimes has written, twice, and so on, but I'm resisting that. I'm resisting that even as I'm thinking about the Cyril Connolly quote that Nicholson Baker uses at the front of U and I, his memoir about John Updike: "It may be us they wish to meet but it's themselves they want to talk about."  

Mentor departs so dramatically from what I knew of Grimes and Conroy both that I read it as a stranger -- and that's sort of how I interviewed Grimes as well. We traded emails back and forth, dithered around with the order of questions a bit. Thus, this interview is an illusion of conversation that goes a bit deeper than conversation, just as memoir is an illusion of life that gets at truth more fully than a strict record of facts. 

And Mentor, I think, beyond its telling portrait of an elusive personality (one absolutely essential to understanding the state of creative writing these days), is interesting precisely for the light it sheds on the art of memoir. It seems to me that memoir has too often become about writers creating disguises for themselves -- we learn after a book has appeared that exaggerations, omissions, or outright inventions catapult it from what we're currently comfortable categorizing as nonfiction. The book puts on too many clothes. I long for books that strive toward a kind of nakedness, regardless of fidelity to "facts." I long for a whole library that reveals rather than preens. 

Frank Conroy's Stop-Time is perhaps the first volume to be included in such a collection. Tom Grimes's Mentor: A Memoir is its essential companion.

This portrait of Frank Conroy will probably surprise those who know only of Conroy’s reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-boiled workshop instructor. What accounts for the difference between Conroy's public image and the impression he left on those who worked closely with him? 

Several incarnations of Frank existed. The pool playing, hard-drinking, cigarette smoking was quintessential Frank. Jazz musician Frank protected and supported this Frank, as well as the literary Frank, for many years. Literary Frank was solitary. Teaching Frank focused solely on the text. He was devoted to teaching, and if, at times, he came across as heartless in class, that was a function of him wanting everyone in the class to learn something from the story being discussed. But his impersonal exterior dissolved if he worked closely with someone -- at least, it did in my case. With Jayne Anne Phillips, too, who was Frank’s first truly serious, and incredibly diligent, student. Whenever I spoke to Frank one on one about my novel, he was talking to me, not to the words on the page. So, Frank inhabited several personalities, although most were known, even to him, as Frank Conroy. He wrote a brief essay about this, called “Me and Conroy,” which begins, “He needs me more than I need him, but you’d never know it from the way he treats me. Contempt is perhaps too strong a word. It’s something icier, more distant, more perfectly disinterested. He uses me as if I could easily be replaced, which is certainly not true. Who else would put up with him the way I have?” Ultimately, you have the Frank who is a conflation of his public and private personae. Elsewhere in the essay he writes, “For my entire adult life he has simply popped up whenever it pleased him, used me, put me through a million changes and split without warning, leaving me exhausted and enervated. He takes me, and my love, totally for granted, and if I had any brains I’d tell him to fuck off. But of course it’s far too late for that. He is my fate, for better or worse.” 

The first paragraph of Mentor finds you working as a waiter at a Key West restaurant with a view of literary parties at Sam Lawrence’s house. You write, “Occasionally, I’d spot a cocktail party underway on his deck and wonder who was there sipping a scotch and if, someday, I might be one of them.You’ve sipped a fair amount of scotch since then, yet by the end of Mentor you haven’t escaped a sense of failure. What gives? Does a writer’s sense of what amounts to success change over time? As a function of what? 

When I finished writing the book, I didn’t know if it was any good. But as I got some distance from it, and heard from others about it, I began to think that the book was okay. Slowly, my sense of being a failure receded. I’m still kind of astonished by this. It’s like I’ve written the book that will allow me to die without feeling incomplete. Writing the book changed my understanding of success. I don’t need any outside validation; my pathological need for that is gone. 

This is probably common -- at least on some level -- right? I think even Conroy notes in an interview in the film The Stone Reader that many students come to Iowa -- or by implication, any MFA program -- looking for validation. What should a young writer do so as to avoid, for lack of a better phrase, validation-dependency? 

I’m not sure that the need for validation, at some point, particularly early in a writer’s career, will ever be avoided, and that’s not a bad thing. I believe that writers want validation from their peers, as well, although the teacher, especially if he or she is a famous writer, will always carry far more weight. Oddly, since I’ve finished writing the memoir, I’ve noticed, as I never did before, how many people, in a variety of professions, speak of having a mentor. So, yes, the need is, at some level, universal, which is why, I’m coming to learn, the book speaks to a variety of people; also because the book is about failure, or the feeling that one is a failure, which is a universal fear as well. As for the mentor-student relationship in an MFA program, I think it’s fine and natural for a student to look for a mentor in a teacher, but I think it’s a disservice to every student for a teacher, who is in a position of power, to abuse that power by suggesting that he or she will mentor a student. Frank never set out to become my mentor, and I never really thought of him as one. Our relationship went much deeper, in that we came to love one another. In an essay entitled “My Teacher,” Frank wrote about his relationship with his first and only writing teacher. “It was good that as an adult I had carefully examined the dynamics of my own youthful projections onto [my teacher],” he wrote, “because that allowed me to deal better with the phenomenon when, now and then, a student would temporarily project onto me. For some young writers, it is no more than a necessary stage and should be handled with respect, tact, and as much measured generosity as can be managed, and, of course, common sense.” And I agree. 

Late in Mentor, you describe the writing process you used to produce the eulogy you delivered at Conroy’s 2005 memorial service. It took sixty hours to produce a thousand words, and your Workshop classmate Charles D’Ambrosio advised you to “Go the Whitman route -- what is true for you will also be true for the rest of us.” Was writing the book just as torturous? Did D’Ambrosio’s advice hold up throughout? 

I wrote the book blindly, and with such detachment that writing the book wasn’t emotionally torturous. But writing every sentence was. I wanted the prose to be incredibly lean, yet flexible, rather than chiseled, by which I mean inert. I also wanted to compress time in order to tell a story that spans sixteen years. This had the added benefit of keeping me away from self-indulgence. Also, I thought I was writing exclusively about Frank. When I read the finished first draft I thought, why am I in here? If I hadn’t begun the book by chance, I think it would have been a more flat-footed, pedestrian book. Fortunately, I had no plan to write it until Lee Montgomery at Tin House Books suggested that I write about Frank’s work. Immediately, I found myself writing about Frank and me. I set out to write five thousand words. Instead, I wrote seventy-five thousand. So, for me, the pressure I felt with regard to writing a eulogy for Frank did exist, but when the first draft was finished, Charlie read it and said, “The story’s yours. Frank’s now simply a part of it.” Yet if Frank hadn’t been my subject, I never could have written about myself. Consequently, I never felt as if I was wrestling with my own emotions. I was a disinterested stranger. It’s odd: I had to vanish in order to appear. 

This is a memoir about your friendship with the guy who wrote what’s probably the most consequential American memoir of the last fifty years, if not more. It’s a tough act to follow. How did that influence your process? Did you consciously emulate Stop-Time in any way, or at any particular moment? Did you actively try to distance yourself from it? 

I didn’t try to emulate Stop-Time, but during the composition of my book I’d often reread it, and I began to find mysterious similarities between Frank’s life and mine and the way we each wrote about them. At one point, I composed a section by typing sentences from Stop-Time and sentences from my first novel, which was autobiographical. I was stunned by how emotionally and structurally alike they were. But the entire section was cut. Writing it was necessary; keeping it was not. And Lee, wisely, steered me away from any tendency to equate Mentor and Stop-Time. 

What’s the one detail of Conroy’s presence you had in mind -- the detail that reveals what it was like to sit next to him at the bar -- that for whatever reason didn’t make its way into Mentor? 

We were at the Foxhead bar, where workshop students hung out and Frank shot pool. I was drunk and I said something goofy, just stupidly funny. I was playing pool, poorly, with a doubles partner, who was a very good pool player. After I missed yet another shot, my frustrated partner said to me, “You could at least sink one fucking shot!” I answered, “I’m screwing with their heads. Look at them. They’re terrified. They don’t know what to expect. Any second, they’ll crumble.” Frank just looked at me and laughed. He liked the fact that I never took myself seriously, outside of my work, which, in a way, is a trait we shared.  

The book's imagery characterizes you as very much still a kid when you get to Iowa (at thirty-two, with a book under contract) and you note not only the youth of some of your classmates, you remark on workshop students getting younger and younger as the book proceeds. As the director of a very highly-regarded creative writing program, is this a worrisome trend in the MFA world? You seem to allow that you needed a program to help you finish a book, but does that mean MFA programs should be reserved for older students already embarked on significant projects? 

Psychologically, I was a kid when I arrived at Iowa, despite my age. Most MFA students, I believe, share this trait in that we’re all novice writers. In a way, we kind of share our childhood. Several students were my roughly age: Abraham Verghese, Bill Lashner. But, overall, the median age seemed to be about twenty-eight. That has dropped by two or three years. I once mentioned this once to Frank and he said, the creative writing degree is more widely accepted now, so you have students entering graduate school earlier, sometimes right after getting their B.A. I’m not worried about the trend. What I see is overly careful work. The late Roberto Bolaño said that he preferred Melville’s Moby-Dick to Bartleby, the Scrivener because he would rather see a writer reaching for something ungraspable and sublime, rather than something easily shaped and fathomed. He liked the flaws often found in novels that chase the ineffable. I’d like to see more students chasing it, too. I tell students that they don’t have to turn in, for workshop, anything finished, as long as what they’re working on is chasing something (Frank often used this term) larger than what he or she can capture in a realistic short story, which is mostly what you see in workshop. I believe that Bolaño meant, you’ll never write anything great unless you’re willing to fail by attempting to. 

At times, Mentor quotes snippets from your own work -- scenes from plays -- as better depictions of certain moments in your life than had you rewritten these scenes as nonfiction. Similarly, you borrow quotations from Hemingway to tell a scene in your life that is similar to a Jake Barnes scene. It’s a kind of meta-technique to assist you with what you acknowledge at another point in the book: “Every ‘true’ memoir must be incomplete.” What do you think Conroy would have made of these techniques? 

I can’t say exactly what Frank would have said, of course, but I think he would have understood and appreciated my attempt to slightly alter the form, even if I failed to do it successfully. Stop-Time resonates for readers because of its formal qualities -- the temporal leaps forward, the seemingly random course of events, the prologue and epilogue, which contain the story, yet make it mysterious as well. Readers are entranced equally by this and by Frank’s excavation of his past. Form and content fuse perfectly. So, my formal tinkering would have pleased Frank, no matter what he thought of the end result. 

The book on occasion seems to express some suspicion of the memoir as a form: Conroy produces just one, then opts for novels because “that’s where the juice is,” and you come to the form only accidentally. Yet memoir seems to enable you to acknowledge some things that until now you’ve been ashamed to admit… even to [your]self.” It seems as though there are some kinds of truth that may elude a novelist more accustomed to a novel’s mask. Did the memoir form surprise you? 

Yes, the form surprised me. I incorporated passages from Frank’s work into the book, as well as e-mail from his son and agent. They layered the book; they didn’t diffuse it. The opposite occurred. The book deepened. What I inserted seemed to fill in gaps that otherwise would have existed. As for the novelist’s mask, the memoir form strips it away, of course, and it has to be replaced by something. To me, that’s the author’s honesty and pitiless self-examination. Get to the root of yourself, and you likely get to a root that’s universal. For me, that root was my sense of failure. But, by coming to terms with it, I also had to recognize the intensity of my ambition. Failure I understood; ambition, I didn’t. Instead, I came to understand it while writing the memoir. Recollection yielded revelation. I didn’t go in pursuit of it; hence my surprise and my sense of humility.  

You suggest a link between hearing the voices of your characters and a personal experience of what seems like pretty clinical paranoia -- as you tell it, the former seems to precede the latter. What’s your take on the link between creativity and mental illness? Which is the cause, which is the effect? Is it possible to say which way the river flows? 

Once I began to take Prozac, I lost my ability to make metaphors. My thinking became literal; I couldn’t make connections between seemingly disconnected phenomena. The voices grew silent. Now that I’m on three psych meds -- two mood stabilizers and an antidepressant -- sustaining a fictional mask is more difficult for me. Over the course of several years, I had to invent an entirely new style, or voice, that was in synch with my new brainwaves. Nonfiction, particularly the personal essay and, of course, the memoir, seem much more suited to my psyche’s newfound “stability.” My moods no longer swing drastically. Now, I know who I’ll be the next day. For a long time, I didn’t. Once the internal voices were silenced, my voice was all I had left. Applying it to nonfiction suddenly clicked for me. I understood how I needed to write. My previous style is history. 

This is curious -- is this why there's no mention in Mentor of you short, satiric (and highly regarded) novel, a fictional memoir of a kid on Prozac? 

I skipped over purely for temporal reasons. The reader didn’t need to know about that book, which Frank read only after it was published. I would have had to insert more of myself into the story, and I felt that to do so, at that point, would have skewed the memoir’s rhythm. I wanted to stay with Frank and me. So, I left out how difficult it was for me to write for several years, and how often I contemplated suicide during that period; it’s another story. A writer is obligated to serve the reader, and by adding that portion of my life would have done the reader, and the memoir, a disservice. In retrospect, however, I find it interesting that I went from a fictional memoir -- written when I decided I no longer needed Prozac; bad idea -- to a nonfiction memoir composed long after I’d begun a second stage of taking psychoactive medication. My psychiatrist bumped my diagnosis up from a depressive to a manic-depressive, the way an airline bumps up a passenger with a lot of frequent flyer miles from coach to first class. But, as I say, that’s another story.  

Mentor features a psychiatrist who tells you “’Without a novel to write, you have no idea who you are.’” Did writing Mentor fill that gap for you in the same way? 

It did, but not in the same way. It was quite the opposite. The book has given me such a clear understanding of who I am that, in a way, I no longer feel the need to write another novel – at the moment, anyway. The memoir buried my past, but it hasn’t yet opened a door to my future. I now know who I am (I think); I just don’t know who I’ll become.