Winter Birds: A Novelby Jim Grimsley, Smith
The novel begins on Thanksgiving in rural North Carolina in a broken-down cottage the Crell children have nicknamed
In Jim Grimsley's remarkable first novel, Winter Birds, Danny Crell tells himself his own story, and in doing so illuminates the heartbreaking story of his father's violent tyranny over his mother, his sister, and his three younger brothers.
The novel begins on Thanksgiving in rural North Carolina in a broken-down cottage the Crell children have nicknamed "The Circle House." Ellen Crell's attempts at a family meal are thwarted and finally disastrously ruined when Bobjay draws her into a violent quarrel. It leads to a chase wherein Bobjay is the hunter, Ellen the prey, and their five children are caught in between.
Winter Birds is a haunting, unforgettable portrait of an American family shattered by violence, and of the lengths a woman will go to keep her family whole.
Meet the Author
Jim Grimsley was born in 1955 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and like his character, Danny Crell, moved around a lot with his family, following his father from job to job. In an essay about his writing, called "True Fiction," Grimsley says, "We were always poor, moving from house to house, with our every move the subject of discussion by our neighbors in the small farm community where we lived." Like Bobjay Crell in Winter Birds, Grimsley's father had lost his arm in a farm accident and was every bit as heavy and abusive a drinker as Bobjay. One night, in a drunken rage, he went so far as to light the family home on fire while they were all barricaded inside, against him.
Even so, Grimsley has some compassion for his father."My father wasn't at all prepared to be married or to be a father," he says, "and to all of a sudden have children children with big problems. They were terribly in debt by the time I was five.... Father not only lost his arm, he lost his job after he'd already waived his right to file for any kind of insurance claim. The farmer did him dirty. So he had all that anger, and he's 23 or 24 and his life is already ruined. I feel really bad when I think of that side of him. He kept us fed, he didn't give up, but he could never stop being just furious. The only people he had any power over in his life were his family." Sadly, Grimsley's father later committed suicide.
Grimsley went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied creative writing. Around the time of his father's death, he began to write Winter Birds."I have vivid memories of my family, of the way we lived, and my writing feels very powerful when I am working out of this material," he says. "These memories are often very unpleasant and lead to stories that are cathartic to read, but hard to sell to publishers. But I think you really do see, in writers now, people writing from a class that hasn't yet spoken at all. Many people have written about poor people, but I don't think the very poorest people have been written about quite the way you really see them. The attitude in literature toward that class of people up until now has been that poor people were just like everybody else, only with fewer material things. Nobody dealt with just how animalistic your life can become when you don't have anything."
Winter Birds went unpublished in the United States for ten years. Publishers rejected it because they thought it a grim, hopeless story. But in 1992, a German publisher who was familiar with Grimsley's plays, published Wintervogel. France followed with the publication of Les oiseaux de l'hiver in 1994, which won the distinguished Prix Charles Brisset award, the first time the award had ever gone to a non-French writer. In the United States, Winter Birds was finally published in 1994, and it was a runner-up for the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award. Winter Birds won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. "A hell of a ride," Grimsley says of his new success.
During the lean years, Grimsley turned to plays, believing they were more easily realized than novels. In his case it turned out to be true. In 1984, 7 Stages in Atlanta produced Grimsley's first play, and in 1986 he became a playwright in residence. In 1988, he was awarded Newsday's George Oppenheimer Award as the year's Best New Playwright for Mr. Universe. Ten full-length and five one-act plays have been produced, and Math and Aftermath, Grimsley's new one, just finished its run at Camilla's Theater in New York.
Grimsley's second novel, Dream Boy, has received critical acclaim: "a singular display of literary craftsmanship," says Publishers Weekly. It is the haunting, sensitive story of two adolescent country boys who fall in love. Grimsley wants it to be more than just another "gay novel," hoping that Dream Boy will be a book that breaks down the lines between "gay fiction" and fiction. Dream Boy won the 1996 American Library Association's Gay Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Lambda Literary Award.
Grimsley now lives with his two cats in a basement apartment in Atlanta, where he writes continuously, turning out several pages a day, every day, while still maintaining his job as playwright in residence. He is presently finishing up a sequel to Winter Birds and says there are "a dozen more novels" he wants to write. Novelist and friend Ann Patchett says,"Jim does this all-the-way-to-the-wall, beautiful writing about horror. He has come so far from where he is from, strictly through his own talent. He wrote his way out of backwoods North Carolina, the same way he wrote his way out of his limitations of hemophilia."
To make his success bittersweet, in addition to having hemophilia, Grimsley is HIV-positive."A couple of journalists have even asked me how long I thought I'd live," he says. "I plan to live to be 100. I don't feel at all mortal. I started hearing that I was going to die young, so young that I really don't think about it. It makes a lot of difference that I'm happy."
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