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A chance encounter between two writers, one young, one older, develops into a wonderful friendship neither expected. Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir Stop-Time, meets Tom Grimes, an aspiring writer and an applicant to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Conroy directs. First as teacher and student--and gradually as friends—their lives become entwined, and through both successes and disappointments, their bond deepens.
Exquisitely written, Mentor is an honest and heartbreaking exploration of the writing life and the role of a very important teacher.
"From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes' brutally honest and wonderful Mentor."
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"Employing a constant tension of ambivalence—shame and tenderness, pride and humility—Grimes proves in this stunningly forthright, forlorn memoir that his great subject is Conroy himself."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Grimes' staggering self-critique, keen tribute to Conroy as writer and mentor, and hard-won insights into the true demands of writing and the deep resonance of literature are arresting and cautionary, inspiring and affecting."
—Booklist, starred review
“Grimes delivers an eloquent portrait of the writer's life. . . Without wasting a word, Grimes presents a thoroughly readable view of how stories and writers, at least of a certain kind, are made.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Refreshingly genuine and engaging. A-"
"With beautiful simplicity he describes the surreal, physical experience of writing a last sentence and knowing your book is done."
—The San Francisco Chronicle
"Like all good memoirs, Mentor reveals more than its ostensible subject. The relationship between the two men offers a vivid illustration of the personal struggle at the core of a creative life."
"An eloquently confessional memoir."
—The A. V. Club
"What's important about Mentor is that it takes the freighted terms of a place like Iowa and a man like Conroy and examines their character not with the grand stakes that make for a debate but the intimate ones that forge an artist."
—Time Out Chicago
"An honest memoir. . . Grimes has perhaps written a memoir that exceeds its own bounds, delivering more than he set out to write."
—The Austin American-Statesman
“Mentor is inside baseball for rabid fans of the writing life.”
“Mentor is the story of acceptance and, as with any writer’s life, a tale of brutal rejection. And it is something I never expected from a writer’s memoir of mentorship: It is one of the finest books I have ever read. Period.”
—Texas Books in Review
"Mentor is a must read for any aspiring novelists to understand the persistence and strength of character needed to survive as a career novelist. . . It's delightful, heartbreaking, and ruthlessly honest."
—The Longest Chapter.com
"One of the truest accounts of a writer's life—of two writers' lives—I've yet seen. A poignant and beautiful book."
"It's astonishing how much insight, passion, pain, joy, self-doubt, and sheer love Tom Grimes has managed to pack into this tightly made memoir of his relationship with the writer Frank Conroy. Not only does Mentor offer an honest and compelling account of the struggles of a writer at the onset of his career, but this immaculately composed memoir also draws an enduring and eerily lifelike portrait of Frank Conroy. For me, it was as if Conroy had somehow risen from the dead before my eyes, with all his impish zest and stern earnestness and voluble wisdom. Mentor is a beautiful, beautiful book—a monument both to Frank Conroy and to the writer's terrifying quest for artistic excellence."
—Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried
“Mentor is a fine and unique achievement. It's moving as the record of a first rate writer's early career. But its uniqueness lies in its treatment of something quite ineffable, the way in which a major artist can nourish the talents and maintain the confidence of a younger one. . . . Frank Conroy was a wild, wildly talented, phenomenal artist. Tom Grimes has served his memory superbly."
—Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers
“Mentor is a must read for people who write and for every reader who has wondered about the mysterious alchemy that produces a writer.”
—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting For Stone
"Mentor is a touching memoir about one of those rare encounters in life, where the deep connection between two human beings transcends time and death. It is about artists and their arts, fathers and sons, families and friends, and above all, love that allows each generation of artists to dream and create on the shoulders of their mentors."
—Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants
"Tom Grimes has written a most affecting book. Part memoir and part homage to his mentor, Frank Conroy, it is also an extremely candid meditation on the writing life, both its joys and its pains. Anyone who has ever been on either side of the mentor-student relationship will catch glimpses of himself in this remarkable memoir."
—Scott Anderson, author of Triage
"Tom Grimes has written a beautiful book, as muscular, honest and lasting as the gift he received.Mentor, A Memoir belongs on the shelf of every writer, every teacher, every reader."
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark & Termite
"Mentor is a tender, tough, and appropriately bewildered look into the heart of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—indeed, into what it means to be a writer of ambition altogether. It is also a magnificent double portrait of two fiction writers, rendered in fine, piercing, fond, and ruthless prose—and, above all, a love letter to a teacher."
—Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
"It's such a mesmerizing book I read it in one sitting."
—John Matthew Fox, BookFox
"Ultimately, Mentor: A Memoir can best be summarized in the following: I couldn't put it down . . .Mentor captivated me."
". . .couldn't put Mentor down."
—The New York Times
"Inspirational for aspiring writers and an insight for readers, Grimes' book is a true writer's memoir."
"[Grime's] humanity and heart form a moving testament to his story. It is a memoir of friendship, faith, time, writing and reaching out to others."
"Mentor describes a writer at full strength. . ."
—Las Vegas City Life
"This book is about striding up to the brink of success, only to have it disembowel you."
"The dynamic between [Grimes and Conroy] is fascinating, but for our money, the best bits are about Grimes' own journey to publication and beyond."
"Mentor is undoubtedly a book that appeals to writers."
"Without being whiny or petulant, [Grimes] explores the all-too-human desire to want, and the all-too-familiar agony that comes when, despite our very best efforts, we can't get our dreams to cohere into reality."
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Frank didn’t take attendance. Instead, he went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk. He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity.
Then he faced us. “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader.” He moved sideways and drew an arc. At its two bases, he wrote: writer, reader. At the top of the arc he wrote: zone.
“The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.” He circled the word zone. “That’s where you want to be.” He turned to the board again and sketched a rectangle. Inside it he wrote: voice, tone, mood.
Above that, he drew a smaller rectangle, then a smaller one, and one smaller still, as they climbed the board in the shape of a ziggurat. Beginning with the lowest of the three rectangles and then continuing upward, he wrote a word inside each of them: subtext, metaphor, symbol.
He waved a hand at them and said, “That’s the fancy stuff. For now, worry about the basics.” Then he took a seat at the square that had been formed by placing several desks adjacent to one another.
He said, “We do two stories a week. Who’ll go up first?” Two of my classmates each raised a hand. “Okay,” Frank said. “And the week after?” Two more. “Okay.”
I surveyed the other thirteen students in the class. Those in their second year were noticeably at ease. The rest were diffident and looked a bit shell-shocked. One woman in the room was older than me. A few other students were roughly my age. Two were in their midtwenties—a long-haired girl who wore glasses appeared to be fifteen, and a short, redheaded guy, who likely had his ID checked at bars before they’d serve him alcohol.
With fingers spread and his wrists arched, Frank tapped his desktop the way he’d play a piano. He said, “We don’t have any text, so there’s nothing to talk about. Someone explain to the new guys what we do next.”
Steve Kiernan, a second-year student, answered, “We go to a bar called the Mill.” He gave us directions. Then Frank said, “Okay, that’s it. See you there.” And we left.
Your memoir, Mentor, grew out of a shorter piece, an essay you wrote for Tin House magazine. At what point did you realize that you had a longer story to tell?
When Lee Montgomery, executive editor of Tin House magazine and editorial director of Tin House Books, read the first three pages of the essay and told me I should keep writing the story I’d begun to tell. Originally, I was supposed to write about Frank Conroy’s work. But, without even considering what I was doing, I immediately established a contrast between my father, who didn’t read or write books, and Frank, who did. Lee said, “This isn’t what I’d meant, in terms of an essay, but you shouldn’t stop. You might have a book,” which surprised me. I said, “Okay, I’ll keep going and write the essay separately.” I’d never planned to write a memoir. Its genesis was sheer chance.
Though Mentor is a memoir, it is also a tribute to and a partial biography of Frank Conroy. Did you find that focusing the writing on Frank and your friendship with him allowed you to write about other aspects of your life in a more objective way?
Yes. I called what I was writing “the Frank book.” He was the book’s subject. Yet I kept appearing. When I read the book’s first draft, I thought, Why am I in Frank’s story? The memoir wasn’t supposed to be about me, which may sound odd. A way to explain it is to say the book was a biography that became a memoir. After reading the first draft, Charlie D’Ambrosio said, “This is your story. Frank’s now just a part of it.” Along with my wife, Jody; Lee; and Connie Brothers, who worked with Frank at Iowa for seventeen years, Charlie read the book as it evolved. But only when he told me the story was mine did I realize that Frank was the lens through which I saw myself. I realized this when the book was finished. Otherwise, I concentrated on writing chiseled sentences to create prose that could be read swiftly to create the illusion of time passing quickly. I hoped that the combination of this style and rapid changes of scene, tone, and mood would eradicate any potentially self-indulgent impulses and, if I was lucky, create an emotional force greater than the sum of its seemingly disparate parts. But I understand and can articulate this only in retrospect. While I wrote the book, I focused exclusively on the sentences and the truth of what the narrator said.
Your previous books are novels. In what ways was writing a nonfiction book easier than writing a novel? In what ways was it more difficult?
It was easier in that all the material—my life—was there, waiting for me to recall it, rather than, as with a novel, to generate it. But the difficulty in writing a memoir was deciding what aspects of my life were worth investigating. People speak of universality in fiction. I believe that a good memoir taps into a universal emotion, not on purpose, but by the memoirist observing him- or herself as a stranger. I often forget some events in my memoir because I was estranged from myself while I wrote it. When I finish a novel, I’m lonely because I miss my characters. When I finished this memoir, I felt like my life had been lived by someone else.
Since leaving Iowa, you have taught in the creative writing program at Texas State University. How has your relationship with Frank affected the way you interact with your students? Have you been a mentor to any of your students to a similar extent? If so, how does it feel to be on the other side of the relationship?
I’ve never considered myself to be anyone’s mentor, although I’ve become close friends with a number of students. But whenever a student projects that quality onto me, I’m surprised to discover that someone’s sense of self depends on my opinion. So, while I am now on the other side of the mentor-student relationship, I don’t feel like I am. Also, I never take credit for a student’s success as a writer. Ultimately, the writer is alone in his or her room, facing a blank page or computer screen. If the work is good, it’s the writer’s success, not mine. And Frank knew this, even when all that mattered to me was his opinion of my work. Once, in a smoky bar, I thanked him for his help and told him how much I’d learned from him. He answered, “Hey, you had good chops before you got here. I’m only a little farther down the road that you are.” And I now believe that’s true for any relationship between an older and a younger writer.
Several people read this book to verify facts and give feedback. Was it helpful to have so many readers or did it become confusing or overwhelming to attempt to take into account so many opinions? How did you maintain your own vision of the book?
Hearing from others rarely confused me. Very little was “corrected,” since I refused to write anything I didn’t believe to be “true.” Frank’s wife, Maggie, and his second oldest son, Will, pointed out a couple of things to me—Frank’s hands were smaller than I remembered and affected how he played the piano, and, while his time away from his boys after his divorce was technically “correct,” to Will his separation from his father didn’t feel extreme, since Frank saw him whenever possible. Elizabeth McCracken corrected me with regard to Norman Mailer’s Iowa visit. I was right about being asked by women in the program to protest it, but I recalled this as occurring after the visit; Elizabeth said that it happened before the visit. She told me not to change it because a memoir will contain flaws that prove memory’s fallibility. Still, I deleted the line. Also, when I began the book, Jody and I agreed that she wouldn’t second guess whatever I wrote. Given that everyone remembers events differently, we would have argued endlessly about whose “recollection” was right. There is no “right” in a memoir. There’s only the author’s honesty. We argued about one thing only: the name on the door of the lawyer we wrote screenplays for in the mid 1980s. Ultimately, I couldn’t remember if the name was right, or if I’d imagined it, so I cut the line. Other than these minor suggestions, not much changed—fortunately.
As writing programs expand and enrollment grows, do you think relationships such as the one you had with Frank Conroy are still possible?
I’m sure they are, although my relationship with Frank became so deep and lasted so long that not many relationships are likely to duplicate it.
In Mentor, you describe your previous experiences publishing books. The publishing industry has changed a lot in the past few years, with lay offs at major houses and an increase in the use of electronic media such as Kindles and iPads. Do you think these changes affected the process of publishing Mentor? If so, was it affected positively or negatively?
I’m not sure yet, but having Tin House publish the book has been the best, most enjoyable publication experience I’ve ever had. I love the staff, and rather than speaking to one person—the book’s editor, if he or she has time to speak to the author—I’ve been lucky enough to speak with everyone. So the book doesn’t feel like a product or a commodity. Instead, it feels like a family project, which is wonderful.
Are there any books, memoir or otherwise, that influenced your writing of Mentor?
I reread all of Frank’s work while I wrote the memoir, and his five books still sit on a corner of my desk. I don’t know how long they’ll remain there, but I know how lonely I’d be without them. So I won’t move for quite a while, if ever.
What are you working on now?
Nothing. Writing this memoir silenced the voices that told me I was a failure. It’s as if this book became a bow and I pulled back its string until it was ready to snap, then released an arrow that pierced my heart. I was archer and target. Now, I’m neither. So for the first time in thirty years, I’m not writing. Instead, I’m reading books I couldn’t read while I was writing twenty-five hours a week.
If Frank were still alive, what do you think he would say to you about the book?
"Hey, you did it!" Meaning: I wrote the book he always thought I was capable of writing, which is a book that, with any luck, will last.
1. At one point in the book, the author writes, “All true memoirs must be incomplete.” How does the author address the subject of memory’s fallibility and limitations?
2. In order to write a successful memoir, an author must find, and then illuminate for the reader, the “story” within the “situation.” What is this memoir’s “story,” and what is its “situation”?
3. Mentor explores the subjective nature of success and failure. How does the author come to terms with each?
4. Does Frank Conroy’s “mentoring” affect the direction of Tom Grimes’s writing life? If so, how?
5. Has reading the book changed your feelings about every writer’s life?
6. How does the author create a fluid sense of time, even though the story contains numerous flashbacks?
7. Throughout the memoir, how do the author’s recollections change his perception of who he was “nearly a third of my lifetime ago”?
8. If you were to write a memoir, which techniques used by the author would you consider using?