‘Mentor,’ a memoir by Tom Grimes

From The Washington Post:

Book From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes's brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.” While there have been plenty of books on how to write, or how to get published, or how to promote your work, as well as a number of triumphalist accounts of “making it,” this is a story of what it's like to just miss succeeding. It's also a superb reminiscence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s and of its celebrated director, Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir “Stop-Time” (1967). At the age of 32, Tom Grimes was working as a waiter at Louie's Backyard in Key West. He'd already been writing fiction for years and seemingly getting nowhere fast. His childhood in Queens, N.Y., had been psychologically debilitating because of a cold, unloving father; a streak of depression ran in his blood; and he'd recently been divorced. Now, he was happily remarried and wondering what to do with himself. Time was passing. Should he go to law school? Instead, at the advice of his wife, Grimes applied to four creative writing programs. Three turned him down.

One day, though, just as he was about to ride his bicycle to work, the phone rang. ” 'This is Frank Conroy from the Iowa Writers' Workshop,' the voice said.” Conroy had loved the excerpt from Grimes's novel and announced that he was giving him the program's top scholarship. “See you in August.” That fall in Iowa, Conroy continued to sing the praises of Grimes's unfinished novel about baseball and the American dream. “I'll tell you. Your manuscript. Jesus Christ. . . . If you want, you can have the best agent in America tomorrow. I'll call her in the morning, if you want me to.” (At the time, this was Candida Donadio.) Later, Grimes learned that another student was referring to him as “Golden Boy,” and people were comparing his writing to that of Don DeLillo and the young Richard Ford. Surprisingly, Grimes turned down the scholarship and asked to teach courses instead, calculating that he might need such experience on his résumé. He knew himself to be a bundle of neuroses, prey to anxiety and depression, and deeply uncertain whether he could complete his book to his own satisfaction and that of his new mentor and friend. Indeed, Conroy quickly seems to have looked on Grimes as a foster son, even an heir. It's clear that their similar backgrounds — hardscrabble New York childhood, crummy jobs, drink, divorce and much else — might generate a spiritual kinship.

More here.