I attended not one minute of college. I had all kinds of jobs, several in warehouses or factories, but at a certain point I’d been unemployed for a while and decided to take the Civil Service Test, see where that might lead. I was offered a job at the Veterans Hospital. The VA in Portland is up on a hill, its buildings old and run-down. The hospital atmosphere was something new and strange to me.
I was squeamish about sickness and blood. When I soon ended up as the clerk in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, I knew that the involuntary experience would be good for my writing. I had never seen anyone die.
The first one I remember was named Donald Davis. He had undergone brain surgery that I guess hadn’t worked. He was in a bed in a corner, soothing beeps and whooshes of respirators and monitors all around. It was maybe 10 o’clock at night. I touched his arm. He was DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), so there was no alarm. His head was bandaged almost in a kind of turban. His eyes were shut, a disconnected tube from the no longer needed respirator still taped in his slack mouth. He was at most 40 years old.
I stared at him, but nothing happened. I wanted some dynamic flash of metaphysical insight. But I wasn’t sensitive enough, my senses were too dull. I wanted to really feel something, even if I had to fake it, make it up . . . but nothing happened. I felt nothing. He flatlined. My brain was cold. Donald Davis was a corpse, my fingers on his flesh. He was different now, forever. Was I?
Later on, I wrote a novel and burned it in my fireplace.
I then got a job as the admitting interviewer in the Emergency Room at Emanuel Hospital, in the most dangerous part of Portland, on the night shift, where we saw most of the city’s victims of violence and crime. The nurses had wanted a male on nightshift, because you never knew who might come in— in what condition.
I was the first person you saw when you came in. “Can I help you?” was my opening line. I wore a white labcoat. I didn’t necessarily expect people to mistake me for a doctor, but if they did, no doubt I was pleased.
It only occurred to me to write about the Emergency Room when I had already worked there a number of years. My first novel, Within Normal Limits, had some minor success, but it was difficult to know what to do next. I was no longer working in the ER. I had been diagnosed with multiple schlerosis. Now I knew
real weakness and helplessness as never before.
It was another few years before I arrived at the aesthetic and stylistic breakthrough that I characterize to myself as “cinematic realism,” a method of getting the phantasmagoric quality of my ultravivid dreams into the long form—the novel that I was pushed to write by Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love, a fan of my stories. This breakthrough resulted in two books, Brand New Cherry Flavor and Stainless, which, along with my short fiction, may be my most characteristic work.
My years working in the ICU and then nights in the ER formed me, educated me, made me see how people really live, what life is like at its most extreme. I was not there as a tourist, but because I had to be, whether I liked it or not.
The past is immutable. It has to be what it is. The struggles I went through are what made me me. I don’t think I would have been a better writer had I gone a different, perhaps easier path. Things had to go the way they did.
Things are currently going well for Todd Grimson who, a decade removed from his last novel, is experiencing a regeneration of the energy and praise that defined his early career as a novelist (His first novel, Within Normal Limits, won a 1988 Oregon Book Award). Schaffner Press has just re-released Grimson's Brand New Cherry Flavor, a supernatural Hollywood zombie noir novel that Katherine Dunn called “a modern classic–brutal and funny, gorgeous and profound.”
Brand New Cherry Flavor is prominently featured in NW indie bookstores through the end of the year as part of the “Holiday Books: The Best of the Independent Northwest” gift catalog campaign.