Monday, August 23, 2010

Tom Grimes' "Mentor"

Tom Grimes directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University. He is the author of five novels, including Season’s End, City of God, and Redemption Song, and the editor of The Workshop: Seven Decades of Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and he has twice been a finalist for the PEN/Nelson Algren Award.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mentor: A Memoir, and reported the following:
I was surprised and saddened when I opened Mentor to page 99. Although the memoir is largely about my friendship with Frank Conroy, and the experience of my writing life with him, page 99 refers to my play, Spec, and its production in Los Angeles during the time I was an Iowa Writers Workshop student in 1991. I had set aside my novel Season’s End to spend six weeks in L.A. the summer the play was produced. While I was there, I sat through hours of rehearsals every day, and then spent time with the cast and crew backstage every night. We drank, talked, and quickly I became close friends with the play’s producer, who happened to be a great actor known for his originating roles in Sam Shepard’s plays, including one in Buried Child, which earned him a Tony nomination. He was James Gammon and on page 99 I wrote about the evening we met. He didn’t know I was writing a memoir, but I planned to mail him a signed copy as soon as I received my books from Tin House Books, my publisher. They arrived last month – late July, 2010. The day after they arrived, I learned that Jimmie (as I and everyone else called him) had died of cancer a week earlier. I spoke with his wife, Nancy, and promised to send her a signed copy in Jimmie’s memory. But I was struck by something about the nature of memoirs I hadn’t considered until that moment.

I’ve written five novels, but Mentor is my first and perhaps the only memoir I will ever write. So, never before had I encountered the fact that someone I had written about was dead, truly dead, not fictional, make-believe dead. In fiction, even if your characters die, they’re still alive, in a way. All you have to do to bring them back to life is reread the book. But with a memoir the people you’ve loved are dead, dead forever.

Memoirs, I learned, are ultimately about mortality. We recollect events and feelings from our past, but we’re unable to hold onto them, or to the people we knew. After I’d read page 99, I counted the number of people I’d written about in Mentor who are now gone. I hadn’t realized how much of my past has vanished. And should I ever reread Mentor I’ll do so with a sense of melancholy. But by opening my book I can recall the life we shared, even though I know I can never have it back.
Read an excerpt from Mentor, and learn more about the book and author at Tom Grimes' website.

--Marshal Zeringue