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Tom Grimes on Mentor

August 16, 2010 | by

In his new book Mentor, Tom Grimes explores his friendship with Frank Conroy, who was the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for almost twenty years, offering the reader an unvarnished account of the vagaries of MFA programs, the fickleness of publishers, and the anguish and second-guessing that even the best writers suffer. He recently answered our questions about the book via e-mail.

You write of Frank Conroy's memoir, “What electrifies Stop-Time is its demonic anger.” There's definitely some anger in Mentor, and a strong brew of other emotions. How did you marshal those into a finished book? Type angry and revise calmly?

Actually, I never expected to write the book. Its existence is due to pure chance—an off-the-cuff comment by a Tin House editor who suggested that I write about Frank Conroy’s work. Instead, without giving it much thought, I began to write about Frank and me. Since the memoir’s inception was accidental I didn’t know what emotions I’d encounter. I simply knew that I had the beginning of the story—when I met Frank Conroy—and the events that happened during the sixteen years we were friends. Other than that, I handled what came at me, through my recollections, on a daily basis. Usually, I had no idea what would come next until I was just about to write it. Certain parts of the memoir clearly needed to appear: writing my second novel, describing its fate, continuing to write, and my relationship with Frank. But the memoir opens up into a larger meditation on friendship. I never really considered Frank my “mentor.” I considered him a friend and I was more interested and invested in that relationship than I was in our relationship through writing, once we’d moved past the experience of my second novel’s fate. Also, I revised sentences relentlessly and that marshaled my emotions as I wrote. And the quickness with which events moved saved me from the sandpit of self-absorption, which any memoirist absolutely has to avoid.

Has Conroy's initial snubbing of you at a reading in Key West influenced the way you act at your own readings?

Yes and no. I’m polite to everyone who approaches me, but I understand that Frank had to be wary of strangers who approached him with questions about applying to or getting into the Iowa Writers Workshop. In retrospect, I understand his guardedness. More importantly, his initial snubbing of me sparked the anger that informed our relationship later on. I believe that if I’d never encountered him I may have been just another student who studied at Iowa but lacked a strong emotional reaction to and, ultimately, a strong emotional bond with him. Several years after the incident when we knew one another quite well and were very close friends, we were at a bar, somewhat drunk. I looked at him and said, “You know, the first time we met you walked right past me after I asked you a question.” Momentarily, Frank stared into space, puzzled. Then he said, “But I didn’t know it was you.”

You are unsparingly self-critical in the book, especially about your second novel, Season’s End: "I'm a failure as a writer because I've overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent." How are you judging failure here?

My sales were lousy and my novels—no matter how good some people (or reviewers) told me they were, or how good I thought they were—hadn’t won any prizes, so I was left in a vacuum. The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached. Had I set my sights lower, at age nineteen, which is when my ambition was first formed—before I’d written a word of fiction!—I may have been less tormented for the past twenty years. Read More »

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TPR vs. The New Yorker: The Softball Diaries

August 13, 2010 | by

After the jump, a recap of Tuesday night's softball game against The New Yorker. Read More »

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Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

July 28, 2010 | by

After the jump, a recap of our last two softball games, against High Times and The Nation. Read More »

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Before There Was Twilight, There Was Dusk

July 7, 2010 | by

Dusk Add James Salter's Dusk to the list of genius reissues coming out this year. Modern Library has put out a handsome new edition of the story collection, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award when it first appeared in 1988. (If songs from 1988 can be called oldies, then a book from the same year definitely qualifies as a classic reissue.) Dusk had been out of print for many years, so the new edition is a godsend for those of us who don't have the original issues of Esquire, Grand Street, and, ahem, The Paris Review lying around. Four of the stories in Dusk first appeared in our pages, and to celebrate the return of a great book, we've put the full text of "Am Strande von Tanger," the lead-off story in the collection, online here. That story is forty-two years old, and it's still not showing any signs of age.

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Congratulations to Barbara Demick

July 2, 2010 | by

Nothing to EnvyBarbara Demick wrote an excellent book about North Korea, Nothing To Envy, that has just won the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. Demick interviewed dozens of defectors from the North during the years she spent living in Seoul, and the book follows the lives of six of them as they struggle to survive in Kim Jong Il's crumbling police state. In our fall issue last year, Demick told the story of two of those defectors, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who fell in love in North Korea but defected south without telling each other. Here's how she sets the scene for their love affair:

The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in northeast Asia, the only airspace spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. And no electrical glow competes with the intensity of the stars there. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Now when the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of Pyongyang, the capital, you can stroll down the middle of a street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.
      Such darkness is a curse, of course, but it also has its advantages. If you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with, invisibility confers measures of privacy and freedom that are hard to come by in North Korea. You can do what you like without worrying about the eyes of parents, neighbors, or the secret police.

You can read a little bit more here, but you have to either buy the book or the Fall 2009 issue to get the full story.

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Jennifer Egan

June 25, 2010 | by

Jennifer Egan's new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, covers a lot of ground, from San Francisco to Kenya and beyond, and a wide span of time, from the seventies punk scene to a near future where even the most intimate conversations ("Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn") are conducted via text. We caught up with her, appropriately enough, over e-mail.

Photograph by Pieter Van Hattem/Vistalux

Several chapters of the book started out as short stories. When did you first know that they would come together to form a novel?

I’m not sure there was a moment when I exactly knew, but the whole writing process seemed to be about thinking I would write just one more piece about this constellation of people. But then my curiosity would hook onto someone else, and I’d find myself following them along a byway to a different place. The critical moment came when I realized that four older stories, which I’d written and published some years before, were also entangled with this new material. I felt the whole thing weaving itself around me at that point, and realized it was time to admit I was writing a book, figure out what kind of book it was, and how the hell to make it work. Read More »

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