Jim Grimsley writes the gay love story he wished for in his teens

‘Dove in the Belly’ is author and playwright’s first foray into young adult fiction.

Until recently, the young adult (YA) publishing world stuck to a frustrating rule, says novelist Jim Grimsley. Writers could create sympathetic LGBTQ characters — as long as they killed them off.

“You could write the homosexual novel and write about gay activity, as long as that character was dead by the end,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, but that was a different world.’ Not that different, not that long ago.”

Grimsley, 67, has just turned that axiom on its head with his first foray into YA books, “The Dove in the Belly” (Levine Querido, $19.99). It is an old-fashioned love story between Ronny, slight and sensitive, and Ben, a confident, volatile jock. Both are having trouble with their mothers and find themselves increasingly drawn together.

This affecting novel charts the tentative, electric feelings of attraction between two very different boys who have no models for what their love can look like, but it also explores bigger, universal themes of how joy and grief cycle through all of our lives.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“It’s written for the YA market, but I hope older readers of all backgrounds will respond to the storytelling and recognize those heady feelings of first love,” Grimsley says in a phone interview from his home in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

One function of creating your own world in a novel is that you can save yourself. No spoilers, but suffice it to say “Dove” has a happy ending, for a change. With it, Grimsley has written the kind of book that might have eased his fraught coming-of-age as a gay man from the rural South.

“A book like this one would have made life much easier when I was a teenager,” he says. “The Mary Renault books that I read were a big help. Then I read James Baldwin and was swept away by it. I searched out books like John Rechy’s ‘City of Night’ and Gore Vidal’s ‘The City and the Pillar’ in my 20s, and they were amazing. But that all came a bit late. It was in high school that I needed to read about relationships between boys.”

His editor, Arthur Levine, echoes those sentiments. “As someone who grew up gay in the 1970s, I cannot express what it would have meant to me to have a book like this, a book with a gay protagonist who is so true, real and vulnerable; a plot that gives readers a transporting, exceptionally sexy romance; and an ending that offers genuine hope.

“Jim’s ‘Dream Boy’ won him a passionate following for providing some of these very things,” Levine continues. “But 20 years later, his writing is even more emotionally open, and he’s allowed himself the risk of optimism and clarity.”

Grimsley has been blazing trails with snappy rainbow flags throughout a prolific career in which he’s produced 13 books in different genres and 30 plays, with work collected in more than 20 anthologies — racking up Stonewall and Lambda literary prizes along the way.

“His work holds a particular place in Southern and queer literature,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown. “All of his books. Before I met him, I read his books with the sense that the knowledge therein was making me more free.”

Grimsley was born in rural Grifton, North Carolina. His father, who worked in refrigeration and air conditioning, was a “violent alcoholic,” he says, and his mother owned and managed a cemetery. “For us in the South,” he has written, “the family is a field where craziness grows like weeds.” Strange plants that offer fodder for art, he soon realized.

He was an imaginative boy, escaping into science fiction and fantasy, and trying to emulate those stories in his own notebooks. His was the generation that finally integrated public schools, and Grimsley writes exquisitely and frankly about his dawning social awareness in his 2015 memoir, “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.” Just as he was reckoning with bold, new Black classmates, he was becoming aware of his own “otherness” as gay.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he went to work for the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, and started to find a voice.

“That is where I really developed my love for language,” he says. “It suddenly was not a childish amusement. It felt like a calling, a vocation. At Chapel Hill, I realized that literature can change the world.”

He came out to friends at 20, to family at 25. His head buzzing with words and dreams, Grimsley moved to New Orleans, where he lived for a while “just learning how to be gay.” College friends, though, were settling in Atlanta and launching a vibrant theater scene. “It was just about to take off,” he says, so he moved here in 1981 and began furiously writing plays for 7Stages Theatre.

“Grimsley became an extraordinary playwright of astonishing range, matching that of his novels — some satirical, some fantastical, all lyrical,” says impresario Elisabeth Lewis Corley, who has produced and acted in several. “I don’t think there is an actor alive who wouldn’t leap at the chance to embody a Grimsley character. All of these plays were signature Grimsley — serious, addressing issues from religious hypocrisy and patriarchy to domestic violence to homophobia, gay porn and nuclear proliferation — and wickedly funny, bursting with life, powerful and unafraid.”

Grimsley took up residence in Corley’s living room to write his first novel, the semi-autobiographical “Winter Birds.” American publishers rejected it for about 10 years as “too dark,” until a German edition in 1992 created a buzz. When it was finally published in English two years later, it won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN/Hemingway Award citation. The New Yorker praised its “unwavering, unsentimental love.” Grimsley was suddenly hailed as one of Atlanta’s — of the South’s — literary celebrities.

“Jim’s astounding debut, ‘Winter Birds,’ greatly influenced my own writing when I was working on my own debut,” says novelist Tayari Jones, referring to her 2002 novel “Leaving Atlanta.” “Jim has for many years shown himself to be uniquely gifted in capturing the inner landscapes of young people.

“YA and the culture in general could benefit from more images of gay characters,” she says. “Gay folks should be the heroes and the villains and everything in-between. They should be the main characters, not just sidekicks. Someone out there, a young gay kid will pick up this book and feel the thrill of recognition in this story. That’s huge. Also, it’s important for young readers — all young readers — to understand the textured experiences that are happening all around them.”

Grimsley still collaborates with Corley, who just staged his play “Cascade” at StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “It takes us to the not-so-distant future where the climate crisis before us now is a full-blown, rolling disaster, society is breaking down, resources are scarce, and people are on the move,” she says.

Throughout his career, even with his creative and commercial success, Grimsley kept a day job. He held several clerical positions at Grady Hospital for 20 or so years before Emory University brought him on staff to teach creative writing. But when the pandemic hit, Grimsley moved to Goldsboro to care for his 87-year-old mother.

“This feels somehow natural and right, for me to be here in this phase of my life,” he says. “I’m a small-town boy at heart.”