An Interview with Mary Grimm, Author of “The Weight You’re Born With” (Fall/Winter 2020)
Feb 19, 2021
Mary Grimm is the author of two books, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection), both by Random House; her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Antioch Review, Mississippi Review, and Bellingham Review. Currently, she is working on a novel set in 1930s Cleveland. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University. After reading “The Weight You’re Born With,” which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Colorado Review, editorial assistant Eliana Meyer reached out to Grimm with a few questions. [This conversation, which took place over the phone on January 28, 2021, has been edited for clarity and space.]
Eliana Meyer: One of the things that drew me to this story was this point of connection between the characters, this feeling of being afloat while also being in the thick of things—Allan is such a perfect representation of this. Were you thinking about the idea of connection, the idea of being present vs. engaged when you were writing this?
Mary Grimm: Yeah, I definitely was. . . . There are two things about that. One is that in a sense Allan is sort of the perfect avatar for a writer because he’s there but not there, as the writer sometimes is. Maybe I’m just talking about me as a writer, but the writer is at least in part an observer. When the writer goes to a party, the writer is at the party, but [they’re] also observing the party because the party is potential material. . . . But also, I teach college, and I’ve done it for a while—a long time, actually—so I know a lot of young people who are in this place; they are people who graduated, and they thought they were going to do X, Y, or Z, but X, Y, or Z did not happen or what happened wasn’t what they wanted, so they’re trying to figure it out. . . . I think for a lot of people who graduate from college, there’s this time afterward where they just are trying to find their feet or trying to figure out who they are, so Allan in particular—but also Doyle and Danielle—are representative of that.
EM: It seems like the characters are all pursuing this idea of a fantasy love, that the fantasy is almost more attractive than the reality, that it has more power. Is there any truth to that?
MG: Yeah. I think I might not have thought about that in exactly that way—that the fantasy has more power than the reality—but that’s a really good way to put it. Certainly, that’s definitely true for Allan. . . . When he finds Doyle and Danielle sleeping together, . . . the betrayal is more of the fantasy that he had of what might happen with Danielle or his relationship with Danielle than a real betrayal. Because after this, he’s not going to confront them. . . . he’s not going to break with them, he’s not going to move out. . . . The rug is pulled out from under him. He can’t hold onto that fantasy anymore.
EM: Allan represents this feeling of melancholy. He has this admiration for the men at Paradise whose journey of success or failure is already over. I love those lines that you write—
MG: Yeah, how sad is that (laughs).
EM (laughs) It’s so sad! It’s like he doesn’t want to even start. He just wants to admire people whose lives have already happened, and—I had to go back and reread this line: “When Judy looked back at me, she seemed to be placing me in the apartment, seeing me in it like an exhibit in a museum.” Because it struck me: when he sees himself through Judy’s eyes as an exhibit in a museum, it’s so heartbreaking. As the writer of this character, how would you describe him? And what about his journey is so compelling and relatable?
MG: I guess what I find so compelling about Allan is that he has aspirations even though they’re submerged or maybe even unrealizable, that he dreams even though the dreams—some of them for sure—are not going to come true, and he’s looking outside himself. I think that that’s something that stands out to me about Allan: that he’s not ambitious. . . . If he had to be ambitious about something or want something, . . . I think Allan would really want . . . this better world, this ideal world where he and his friends—and that includes not only Doyle and Danielle, but also Judy and Dez and maybe even Lana—that they might sort of realize something better for themselves. But at the same time, I think he’s afraid that that can never happen.
EM: I’d like to talk about the title: “The Weight You’re Born With.” When Judy is talking to Allan about Bill, she says, “People don’t start out at their finishing weight . . . . ” And I think on the surface it could be understood that Judy is talking about the physical weight, but with the title in mind, I’m not entirely sure that interpretation would be true or complete. I wonder if you could speak on that a little.
MG: I think that she could also be read as talking about substance. This is something—it’s probably an old person thing or maybe a teacher thing—because I see . . . this new group of young people every year, and they’re so bright and full of promise and charming and lovely, and they’re slender, and I mean slender, not necessarily in a physical sense, but that there’s this kind of evanescence to them, they haven’t solidified into their adult selves yet—which is something that is going to happen, and it is something that is desirable. But there’s this beauty of transience that’s going to be lost, but will be replaced by, ideally, this more substantive future, the weight that you accumulate as you go through life, which can be good and can be bad, but it shapes you.
EM: Could you talk about your writing process generally and maybe for this story if you can remember? Does your writing process change? Did it change? Did the story change as you were writing it?
MG: My writing process is often torturous (laughs). . . . I think that it probably took me (I’m sort of guessing, but . . . ) maybe a year and a half or maybe two years [to write this story]. . . . When I started, . . . it was the kind of story that starts with a voice. And I actually wrote the first two paragraphs of it, . . . and then I just let it lie around. There is this book by Natalie Goldberg called Writing Down the Bones. . . . She says to begin with a sentence . . . and then you write another sentence to go with that sentence, and you don’t think about where you’re going, you just keep adding sentences. . . . And that was what I was doing . . . [for] the first several pages or so of the story, because at some point the narrative started to have a life of its own, and I started writing it in a non-Natalie Goldberg way. . . . I wrote about half of it, and then I left it alone because I didn’t know where to go. . . . At [the] point when I got to the party, I wrote this note: “At a standstill, am worried that this is another sad story, which maybe I’m tired of writing.” . . . I didn’t know the last part of the story; that scene was unshaped for me. I didn’t know that Danielle was going to sleep with Doyle, I didn’t know that Judy was going to say that to Allan, I didn’t know that it was going to end up in Bill’s back yard. All of that sort of came in a rush in the last part of my working on this story—which was actually pretty quick—and then I agonized over it for a long time, and I took it to my writers’ group. . . . That sounds very disorganized, and in fact my writing process is pretty disorganized; it’s not unusual for me to spend a long time on a story—to start a story and finish it two, or three, or five years later. And it won’t be that I’m writing on it all that time—I will come back to it occasionally and revisit it and maybe add some more to it and still be dissatisfied and walk away from it, and then that process will repeat until it’s finished.
EM: Do you have any current projects you’re working on or something that you’re wanting to pursue sometime in the future?
MG: Oh yeah, I always have a lot of projects (laughs). . . . The big thing that I’m working on is the last section of a historical novel, which is in . . . 1930s and 1940s Cleveland. And it’s based on my mother, on her life, although it’s fictional—it’s fictionalized. . . . But I’m also working on . . . a serialized story, . . . but I’m writing it at the same time as I’m posting it [on Substack], so it’s coming out in real time. . . . Then about maybe two years ago, . . . I started writing flash stories; and . . . I found that I really liked doing it, and it was fun. . . . I have this novel that I began a while ago, maybe five years ago, and it’s a near-future-dystopian story, . . . and I want to go back to that when I finish the one that I’m working on now.
EM: Where are you finding joy these days?
MG: Well, actually the writing is something that is really [bringing me joy]—I know that not everybody has been able to write during this bad time, I know that in a general way, but I also know that in a particular way because I have a lot of writer friends and some of them have had a lot of difficulty writing in this past year. I feel really lucky. . . . I’m in a vulnerable category: I’m an old person, and so I’ve basically been home for the last however many months it’s been, so if I hadn’t been writing, I don’t know what I would have done. And I’m really pleased to find that I’m almost at the end of this novel that I’ve worked on for such a long time. And I have to say—I know people complain about it all the time—but you know Zoom has been really great, in a number of ways. It made it possible for me to teach—that’s been really excellent—and to keep in touch with my family. But also, because of Zoom, people have used it really creatively to do events that would have been in-person events, so . . . I have attended some amazing readings.
Eliana Meyer is a first-year MFA student in fiction at Colorado State University and an editorial assistant for Colorado Review.