Q&A: Tom Grimes on ‘Mentor’ memoir, 3-act structure & language as bedrock

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’s brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

I might say the same for memoirists in regard to Mentor: A Memoir. This celebrated new book is the story of Tom Grimes’s life and work as a novelist and his relationship with the legendary Frank Conroy (1936–2005), whose books include the classic memoir Stop-Time and the novel Body & Soul, about a young musician. Grimes was thirty two in 1989 and working as a waiter in Key West when Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, admitted him based on a promising except of a novel in progress.

Both men were on the upswing. Grimes had been writing seriously for a decade and finally had published a few stories; at Iowa, he’d take his prose and his storytelling to a new level. After Stop-Time, in 1967, Conroy had gone almost twenty years before publishing another book, his story collection Midair, but that September an excerpt of Body & Soul appeared in GQ and at the same time one of his essays was included in Best American Essays 1989.

As a teacher, Conroy focused on the “text” and with writing at the sentence level—his mantra was “meaning, sense, clarity,” Grimes writes—and he imparted this nugget: “The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.”

Conroy plucked Grimes from obscurity because he believed in Grimes’s fiction, and from the start befriended him. In Mentor Grimes shows his initial fear and uncertainty in receiving such a gift, as well as his need to make of the complex Conroy a surrogate father. Both men had experienced unhappy childhoods—Conroy’s was chaotic and nearly tragic—and they bonded. And Conroy wasn’t only a famous writer and teacher, he was the quintessence of cool, a blithe spirit who “lacked the gene for dejection”; a heavy smoker and drinker, a professional jazz pianist, he was a natural but reluctant writer, a man whose inner self felt at risk in writing and who suffered before the “sinister urgency” of the blank page. “In his eyes,” Grimes writes, “I didn’t feel like a flaw in the scheme of things.”

Now an established author himself—his publications include five novels—Grimes writes in Mentor, “But something all along was missing—me. And this book redresses that absence. For twenty years, I believed Frank filled that absence. But he didn’t; my idolization of him did; moreover, my fictionalizing of him did. Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir. In the end, my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me. By writing about Frank, I could no longer turn away from myself, which is what I’ve done all my life. Now, I’m gazing at myself.”

Grimes, director of the MFA program at Texas State University, answered some questions for NARRATIVE:

The first thing I noticed about your memoir is how smoothly the narrative flows between scenes and exposition. Is that something that you have a particular talent for, or is it a skill you’ve developed from writing many novels? Do you construct such movement in rewriting, or is it a matter of working it out as you go, by feel?

“It’s a matter of working with what, after writing for twenty years, now comes to me by feel, rather than by

Tom Grimes

thinking. I wanted to compress the book to keep the reader curious about what comes next. Events don’t always appear in chronological order and I worked hard to make every transition smooth and crystal clear. I didn’t want to break a reader’s concentration. I moved sections around while editing so that the story’s sixteen years seem to pass quickly. After countless revisions, I believe I accomplished that.”

The protagonist, the character “you,” emerges right away as a testy, anxious guy; later, he suffers from depression and severe paranoia. Yet I found his brutal honesty about himself winning, and admired his courage in revealing his innermost doubts. Some memoir writers can’t—or won’t—show themselves in an unflattering light; and readers crave honesty but also seemingly want to identify with the protagonist in a memoir. Do you have any advice about achieving this balance?

“At first, I reacted angrily after meeting Frank Conroy. My anxiety and depression were always there; I simply drank to mask their effects. My paranoia came out of nowhere.  For nine months, my delusions terrified me. But I was able to describe myself in an unflattering light because I became a stranger to myself. And I stumbled upon something universal. A lot of people consider themselves failures but are afraid to admit it. Also, a relationship with a mentor seems to be a somewhat universal experience, too. So my advice to other writers is to write because you’re discovering things, not simply recalling the past.”

In Mentor you say you wrote twenty hours a week for ten years as an apprentice learning your craft. That’s over 10,000 hours—before the Iowa Writers Workshop. Do you remember your breakthroughs, or does the skill-acquisition ladder blur after so many years? As a teacher yourself, what are the first, fundamental skills you try to teach creative writing students?

“At twenty-four, I began to write every day. I found my ‘voice’ by accident one night when I was twenty-six and on my 29th birthday I completed my first novel, A Stone of the Heart. Its three hundred pages needed a lot of editing. Over time, I cut the novel to one hundred-fifty-pages, then was shocked when a publisher bought it. At Iowa I learned that language is the bedrock of every story. Now, I line edit my MFA students’ work. I’ll copy a passage, edit it, and hand out the revision. They’re always stunned by how much better a piece is once all the unnecessary language is stripped away. Also, students begin a story long before the first dramatic action occurs. Generally, the first three to five pages of a student’s story can be jettisoned. The other flaw is that they don’t follow it through to the ‘third act.’ No matter how short, every story has three acts. I make them list what happens in a story without judging it editorially. They find that they’ve spent a great deal of time on superfluous events. I make them read the first paragraph of published stories to see how quickly the action begins and I make them read every paragraph’s first line to see if they can follow the story simply from that. Usually, they can.  Clarity and revision. That’s where I tell them to start.”

It seems from reading Mentor that you learned about yourself in writing it. You indicated that, after all your fiction, you finally put yourself in your work. Was this as therapeutic as it sounds? Did you learn anything new about writing in creating Mentor?

“I never considered writing the memoir therapeutic; it was about my friendship with Frank Conroy. But when the first draft was finished I read twenty pages and thought, ‘Where’s Frank?’  That’s when my friend Charles D’Ambrosio read it and said, ‘Okay, the story is your story.  Frank is a large part of it, but he’s not the only part.’ As for writing, I learned how tightly I could depict events and describe backstory. I learned how to get into a scene as close to its end as possible, which gives the book a feeling of quickness. Emotions resonate because of this. But learning this took thirty years.”

Frank Conroy

You write of your sense of failure, yet you have published a lot, including books with big New York trade houses. Although you aren’t as famous as the scant handful of writers in a generation so blessed, you became a writer, an artist. Do you think your friendship with Frank Conroy, had he lived longer, would have ameliorated this feeling? Or is this sense intrinsic to being an artist, a practitioner in a field full of geniuses? Or is it just personal, in your case perhaps stemming from your difficult upbringing revealed in Mentor?

“It was strictly personal and my sense of failure stemmed from two things: being manic-depressive led me to think the worst of myself, and it enlarged my ambition. I wanted to be a ‘great’ writer, like Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Pynchon. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelf their books occupy. So it’s ironic that a book about my sense of failure may be my most successful book, and after abysmal publishing experiences with large houses, publishing with Tin House has been the best experience of my life. Writing Mentor put a lot of demons to rest. I no longer feel like a failure. What can writers take away from this? If you doubt yourself, you’re not alone; and never, ever quit.”

There’s a great interview between Tom Grimes and J.C. Hallman at Bookslut, and another, with Louis Mayeaux, at Southern Bookman. The Washington Post Book World ran a rave review of Mentor by Michael Dirda. There’s a wonderful 2002 interview with Frank Conroy at Identity Theory in which he discusses his approach to writing as a career (not for him) and his admiration of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a previous post, “Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir,” I excerpted his interview with Narrative Magazine.

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5 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, structure

5 responses to “Q&A: Tom Grimes on ‘Mentor’ memoir, 3-act structure & language as bedrock

  1. Scribbly Jane

    I didn’t intend to read ‘Mentor’ until I read your review. Now it’s a must!

    Grimes’ advice to remove unnecessary language, get to the dramatic action and to remember the third act is very astute. So many layers to our work! I particularly enjoy line editing and am always amazed at how many words can be removed.

    Nice review Richard.

  2. theexile

    Grimes is an excellent writer. His prose very fluid. How interesting that he reveals a sense of failure in Mentor. It has to be a common feeling among writers.

  3. Daiva Markelis

    I’m with Scribbly Jane above. I had no intention of reading the Grimes–I’m still slogging through Mary Karr’s “Lit” and have Michael Chabon’s memoir next on the agenda. After your review, though, I plan on reading Mentor. Thanks for another great review.

  4. Pingback: Popular articles on editing and memoir I posted to Twitter this month

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