Tom Grimes: "Mentor," a memoir of Frank Conroy, is "the book I had to write"
I've loved Frank Conroy's work ever since I discovered a worrn paperback edition of his classic memoir "Stop Time" in a Florida flea market while on vacation. Over the years, I strongly admired Conroy's novel "Body and Soul" and his essays.
A few months ago, I read in the literary magazine Tin House an engaging memoir about Conroy, written by the novelist Tom Grimes (left). The piece gave a vivid portrait of Conroy and his nurturing of Tom's writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which Controy directed until his death. Later I discovered that the piece was an excerpt from Tom's book "Mentor," to be published in August by Tin House Books.
With a moving, compelliing story, elegant language and the affirmation of the power of friendship and redemption, "Mentor" gives an affectionate, multi-sided portrait of Conroy as a writer and man. Tom's personal journey is rich and moving. "Mentor," like Conroy's "Stop Time," is a memoir that possesses the narrative power and understanding of the human heart of the best novels.
The author of five novels, including "Season's End," "City of God" and "Redemption Song," Tom directs the MFA program in ceative writing at Texas State University. In the following Southern Bookman interview, he discusses the writing of "Mentor."
1. In “Mentor,” you achieve a warm, in-depth portrait of Frank Conroy as a writer and person. Does he deserve wider recognition as a major American writer?
I think Stop-Time is the most unique American memoir yet written, and it appeared well before the 1990s when memoirs became fairly commonplace. It's a singular achievement, one worthy, I think, of a place in whatever we call, or describe as, these days, the canon of American literature. And a lot more people should read the rest of his work, too, simply for pleasure. Frank was a brilliant essayist.
2. The book gives one of the most honest accounts I’ve read of the heartbreaks and triumphs of the literary life. How does a writer persevere through times of failure to achieve a book like “Mentor?”
I tell young writers all the time, if you're truly a writer, you can't give up. It's impossible. The writing life chooses you, you don't choose it. Without being conscious of it, I created a life that allowed me to be a writer above all else, even if I failed according to my own aspirations and standards. However, I did reach a point a while ago when I began to think, if my next book doesn't succeed in a satisfying way, I'm done. Then, by sheer chance, Mentor came along. I never intended or had any plans to write the book. It began as a casual aside from the memoir's editor, Lee Montgomery of Tin House Books. But Mentor became the book I had to write to feel complete. I imagine that many writers feel the same way, and want to write the one book that puts to rest all doubts about the life we've surrendered to. To my complete astonishment, I believe I've accomplished this. But basically the only rule is: don't quit.
3. A key theme is friendship and how our friendships change through the seasons. Your friendship with Frank encompassed many levels, from writing to the enjoyment of sports. What is the most important lesson you learned from knowing Frank?
I learned that he loved me. It wasn't a lesson, it was a gift, one that changed my life, as all deep friendships change people's lives.
4. How did your abilities as a novelist contribute to the narrative power of “Mentor?”
I wanted chiseled prose and a cadence that coincided with an average human breath. I discovered that I'd accomplished this when I recorded the audio book version for Audible.com. My prose flowed smoothly. My narrative skills focused me. I had a lot of events and a lot of time to cover. But I wrote each section of the book tightly to move the story along and keep a reader engaged. This compression also prevented me from become glib or self-indulgent. For the reader I felt that less would be more, which is why the memoir reads like a novel. There's a story to follow, and I trusted my experience as a novelist to find and shape it.
5. One of the most touching parts of “Mentor” is Frank’s enthusiasm for your novel “Season’s End” and its troubled reception. What are your hopes for the book now?
Naturally, I'd like Mentor to be widely read. But it's the quality of the reading that's important to me. The other day I received an e-mail from a total stranger who told me he was moved by the book, and he thanked me for writing it. That touched me. A great review may thrill me, a bad review may disappoint me, but they can't move me the way a simple, generous note from a reader can. So my hopes are that the book resonates with readers, and sustains writers who may feel lost and alone, as I often did.
6. “Mentor” also looks honestly at mental illness. You unflinchingly portray problems suffered by your sister, yourself and Frank. Why did you decide to give such an open account of these difficulties?
Because I don't think there should be any stigma attached to it. To me, mental illness is no different than any other physical illness. I didn't choose to be manic-depressive, nor did my sister; we have the gene for it, just as someone has a gene for another illness. Also, I wrote about it because the episodes occurred during the story of my friendship with Frank. I suffered a much worse suicidal period than the one depicted in the book, but I didn't write about it because it happened separately from the central story. If an incident didn’t fit into that time frame or it concerned only me, I left it out. Serve the story and the reader. That's always the writer's job.
7. What new projects are you working on?
None. In a sense, having completed Mentor completed me. So right now I have no interest in writing. Also, I still have to read to audiences, blog for web sites, and, with great pleasure and gratitude, have this conversation with you. Maybe when all of it fades, I'll feel differently. But for the moment I'm a guy without a book to write, and for the first time since I was 19 that feels OK.