Austin American-Statesman from Austin, Texas on August 22, 2010 · E5
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Austin American-Statesman from Austin, Texas · E5

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Sunday, August 22, 2010
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E Austin American-Statesman INSIGHT & BOOKS Sunday, August 22, 2010 Page C M Y K By Michael Dirda The washing T on pos T From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’ brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.” Though 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 1967 memoir “Stop-Time.” At the age of 32, Grimes was working as a waiter in Key West, Fla. 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. 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’ novel and announced that he was giving him the program’s top scholarship. 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. After class, Conroy would regularly adjourn to the Mill, a local watering hole. “Frank ignored warnings about high cholesterol, got drunk nightly, and couldn’t write without a cigarette,” Grimes recalls. Although in his mid- 50s, Conroy had published only a slender col - lection of stories (“Midair”) since “Stop-Time.” Now he was working on his much-anticipated rst novel, “Body and Soul.” Surely it would be a great success. Thus, as “Mentor” goes on, we follow the lives of two men, the fates of two novels. In “Mentor” Grimes brilliantly evokes the intensity of the Iowa program — of his close friendship with short-story writer Charles D’Ambrosio, of what it’s like to sit around a seminar table while your classmates rake over your work, of the serenity felt when the sentences are flowing well. Though much happens to Grimes at Iowa, initially everything seems to go his way: An apprentice work is published by a small press and receives critical accolades; a play is produced in Los Angeles and wins an award. Conroy continues to speak of a six- gure advance for his favorite student’s novel. Finally, Grimes nishes “Season’s End,” and an agent sends out the manuscript. All his adult life, Grimes has yearned to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux or by Seymour Lawrence (whose clients included Katherine Anne Porter, Kurt Vonnegut and Conroy). Both are interested in the book, as are three other firms. What happens during the actual negotiations is enthralling — and what happens afterward is even more so, as Grimes ghts to save his book from being “orphaned” because his editor leaves for another company, and then ghts once more against being ignored after a negative review in Publishers Weekly. When Grimes travels to Dayton, Ohio, for the first stop on his pathetic book tour, any writer will recognize the scene that awaits: Fifty chairs are set up for the audience, copies of “Season’s End” are stacked high on a table, there are plates of cookies and an urn of coffee — and nobody comes. Not a single person. In its nal quarter, “Mentor” darkens further, as the wheel of literary fortune turns against both Grimes and Conroy. “Body and Soul” makes money but doesn’t become a best-seller and wins no awards. Grimes ends up taking a low-paying teaching job at Texas State University in San Marcos, then known as Southwest Texas State and ranked by Playboy as the best party school in the country. He suffers a severe breakdown, leading to the brink of suicide. Meanwhile, Conroy’s health fails and he dies at 69. Yet neither man’s faith in writing ever wavers. Near the end of “Mentor,” Grimes starkly confesses: “I’m a failure as a writer because I’ve overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent. Yet I willingly accepted that risk.” He feels that he’s always somehow left himself out of his fiction, and so concludes that “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.” In his teaching, Conroy always stressed “meaning, sense, clarity,” and Grimes’ deeply moving account of what the writing life is actually like shows how well he learned those lessons. “For me,” says Grimes, who now directs Texas State’s graduate creative writing program, “writing is a necessity. I exist in sentences. I forget my sense of failure. I forget time. I forget that I’m aging. I forget that one day I’ll die. Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting with a reader is the only leap of faith I’ll ever take.” In “Mentor” he not only leaps, he soars. Recollections of author’s struggles re ect path taken by his mentor M e M oir By Marcia Bartusiak special T o T he washing T on pos T For those 30 or younger, the journey is now ancient history, having originated before they were born. As summer was coming to an end in 1977, two spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., outfitted with a bevy of instruments to take a grand tour of the outer planets. NASA was taking advantage of a planetary alignment that comes only once every 176 years. Stephen Pyne chose now to write about these probes, Voyager 1 and 2, because he views them as potent symbols of a third great age of discovery. The earlier eras were forged by European rivalries — rst the great oceanic explorations during the Renaissance and then more scientific ventures in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. But the third epoch transcends “anything humanity has known before,” Pyne writes. “It would reach beyond sordid politics and the blinkered ambitions of its originating time and place.” That’s a weighty mantle for Voyager to wear, I thought upon starting the book. Why not choose, as the avatars of this age, the robots roving over Martian deserts or the Apollo program that took men to the moon? Pyne, an environmental historian at Arizona State University, answers that question — and much more — in this fascinating and beautifully written chronicle. Much like Ferdinand Magellan’s bold, world-spanning journey, Voyager was one of those “moments of exploring that … fuse place, time, discovery, and yearning.” The Apollo program, Pyne contends, “went nowhere, withdrawing to the virtual solipsism of the space shuttle and a near-Earth space station.” But the Voyagers found new moons, planetary rings, erupting volcanoes and potential sites for extraterrestrial life. It was the grand gesture. Despite the title, “Voyager” is not a detailed, straightforward account of the project. What makes this book unique is Pyne’s combination of history and philosophy as he re ects on the role of exploration in human society. Throughout its pages, the Voyagers’ passage through the solar system is compared and contrasted with terrestrial expeditions of the past. Even the most passionate aficionado, who devoured every digital bit sent back by the Voyagers, will find this overview enriching. Occasionally a comparison can be prosaic, but more often they are poetic and engaging. A Voyager rounding Jupiter, for example, is likened to Vasco de Gama’s swing around the Cape of Good Hope. Only this time we found “hurricanes the size of Earth’s Moon that lasted for centuries; stormy eddies that roiled past like boiling Mississippis; trade winds that would shred and crush sailing ships.” De Gama caught the austral westerlies to hurl him past Africa; the Voyagers were boosted gravitationally as they sailed from planet to planet. Once Voyager 1 ew past Jupiter and Saturn, it headed out of the solar system. It was Voyager 2 that completed the full grand tour, arriving at Uranus in 1985 and Neptune in 1989, so far out that it took four hours for its data to reach Earth. According to Pyne, the golden era of the third age is now turning to silver, where more focused work replaces inspiration: The Magellan probe goes to Venus, Galileo to Jupiter, Cassini to Saturn. What comes next is dif cult to predict. Perhaps millions will gain the opportunity to virtually explore, as technology progresses. Or maybe there will be renewed competition among spacefaring nations, harking back to the first age. Whatever the outcome, the Voyagers are still on the job. Now past Pluto, the stalwart pair are “sounding” the depths of space and have enough power to send back their findings until 2020. Only last year the probes detected the presence of magnetic fields that are holding together an interstellar cloud, through which the solar system is now passing. Hardly ancient history after all. Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery Stephen J. Pyne Viking; $29.95 NASA Mentor Tom Grimes Tin House, $16.95 Tom Grimes What: Reading When: 7 p.m. Friday Where: Barnes & Noble Arboretum, 10000 Research Blvd. Information: 481-8985 A reader’s take Excerpt from a review of Tom Grimes’ ‘Mentor’ by Statesman reader Betsey Van Horn: What is so touching about this memoir is the candid honesty of the narrative. Grimes isn’t afraid to reveal his awkwardness, his rejections and his missteps. He keeps a fluid balance between light and heavy without tipping into a confessional mode. I was unacquainted with Tom Grimes before I read his memoir. I won’t forget him easily, though. He connected with this reader in intimate, echoing ways. Additionally, he invited us into one of the most important relationships in his life, to his deeply touching bond with the enigmatic writer Frank Conroy. His humanity and his heart form a moving testament to his story. It is a memoir of friendship, faith, time, teaching, writing and reaching out to others. Want to write your own review of a recently published book? Visit our book review database on statesman.com/books . Setting sail for the nal frontier History, philosophy weave engaging tale of Voyager Marcia Bartusiak is executive director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. Her latest book is ‘The Day We Found the Universe,’ on the birth of modern cosmology. “You look at my stuff and I don’t think there’s anything that says ‘A guy from Texas wrote that,’ ” Roberson said. He turns 40 on Wednesday and grew up south of Dallas in Duncanville. “I was raised by television,” Roberson adds. “I’ve met writers and creative types from Canada or England with whom I have much more in common culturally than folks who lived in the same place as me for 20 years.” S o who belongs to the weird Texas genre? Names such as Joe R. Lansdale, Howard Waldrop, Don Webb and William Browning Spencer come up again and again. Waldrop was born in Mississippi but raised in Arlington, which explains his accent, which does not quite exist in nature. But his fiction is its own brand of surreal, from his 1974 debut novel “The Texas-Israeli War: 1999” to stories such as the award-winning “The Ugly Chickens” (about the dodo, of course) and “Heirs of the Perisphere” (Disneyland robots hang out in the far future). “Waldrop is a big one-from-column-A-B-and-C guy and you’re like, ‘How the (expletive) did he come up with that?’ ” Finn said. “I wrote something about the idea of weird Texas for the Austin Sun years ago, essentially saying ‘people see a bunch of mavericks run - ning around and they mistake it for a herd.’ I wouldn’t be able to do the things that Lansdale does and (former Austinite Bruce) Sterling does, but when we were starting out in the ’70s, we were reading each other’s stuff and most s-f writers came from New York and California.” But everyone seems to agree that Austinite Neal Barrett Jr. is pretty important, whether he thinks so or not. Barrett, born in 1929, has written more than 50 novels and numerous short stories, articles and columns. He is this year’s Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America author emeritus. His 1991 novel, “The Hereafter Gang,” the postmortem tale of a Dallas public relations man who explores his past after his death, has become a cult classic. Now, Barrett says, he prefers the poetic universe-hopping of Cordwainer Smith to Howard. But there’s no question Barrett is a Texan even if he’s reluctant about the label: “People always accuse me of doing countywide s-f instead of galaxywide s-f,” he said. “There is a rather unique business about the state. I think all weirdos got together and stayed here.” Webb, an Austin writer, fully subscribes to the idea of weird Texas. His 1998 debut, “The Double,” involves a guy nding his exact double dead in his house. “The elements are horror, humor and regionalism,” Webb said. “I grew up in Amarillo, home of the world plutonium industry. Our number one employment was the making of plutonium bombs. You’re going to end up in a weird place.” For hard-core weird Texas, look no further than the proli c Lansdale. “I think Joe starts where Howard leaves off,” Finn said. “I see a real strong similar thread in their work. Maybe not thematically, but this desire of not being hampered by what’s accepted and just GO.” “I sold my first story when I was 21 in 1973,” the Gladewater-native Lansdale said. “When you live in a small town behind the Pine Curtain, you live inside your head a lot. There, Southern gothic in uence is a lot stronger than stuff from West Texas. There’s that old Southern feel of babies in the well and things in the river.” And a small-town upbringing never hurts. “People in my town were not that into reading, but the overblown way Texans told stories was important,” Lansdale said. “The rhythms and hyperbole of the Bible affected a lot of writers. So I think I had a leg up on other folks trying to tell these sorts of stories.” Or maybe weird Texas is just an aspect of Texas in general. “There’s a huge streak of Texas pragmatism in these writers,” Finn says. “Take everything you can use and leave the rest. Howard never threw anything away. It’s no different than Te - jano music or Bob Wills. You look at all these other forms and the instinct is there.” jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926 Continued from previous page Discovering ‘weird Texas’ Austin author Don Webb chooses six modern ‘weird Texas’ classics (including one of his books): ‘Night of the Cooters’ by Howard Waldrop. Webb: ‘H.G. Wells’ Martians land in Texas and are out-gunned.’ The short story ‘13 Days of Glory’ by Scott Cupp. Webb: ‘Those boys at the Alamo were there to set up a gay homeland.’ ‘Interstate Dreams’ by Neal Barrett Jr. Thanks to the shrapnel in his head, an Austinite named Dreamer can get past any lock, safe or alarm. ‘When They Came’ by Don Webb. A collection of dark, almost experimental fantasy stories. ‘Zod Wallop’ by William Browning Spencer. Two versions of a children’s book might or might not be coming true. ‘Bubba Ho-tep’ by Joe R. Lansdale. An untold tale of Elvis. Webb: ‘If you ain’t seen this movie, you are hurtin’.’

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