Matthew Griffin – Hide
Matthew Griffin’s stunning debut novel Hide (Bloomsbury) tells the story of a lifelong relationship between two men, Wendell and Frank, who’ve kept their partnership hidden from family and neighbors in their small North Carolina mill town for over fifty years. When Frank’s mental and physical health rapidly declines following a stroke, Wendell struggles to care for him alone, fearful of exposing their relationship, even as Frank’s condition becomes increasingly unmanageable. The story of their later years is intertwined with the story of their meeting and secret courtship just after the Second World War. Hide is a gorgeously rendered, heartbreaking story of love and loss, the intimacy of marriage, and the fragility of memory.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Hide captures, with heartbreaking and harrowing detail, the isolation of caring for a loved one with dementia. For Wendell that isolation is compounded by the fact he and Frank have kept their relationship secret, living together in self-imposed exile for decades. Hide, told through Wendell’s voice bears witness to generations of hidden relationships whose lives the recent gains of the LGBT rights movement have not reached in time to make a difference. What, if you can pinpoint it, was the original seed of this novel for you?
MATTHEW GRIFFIN: The original seed of the novel was really about my grandparents. I was close to both sets of them, and I watched them take care of each other and drive each other crazy at the ends of their lives. My grandpa on my dad’s side had dementia for a long time, though it was of a pretty mild and genial sort. But it drove my grandmother crazy. And I watched the surviving grandparent on each side—my granddad on my mom’s side, my grandmother on my dad’s—go on living after they’d lost the person they’d loved and lived with and built their life around for half a century.
I tried and utterly failed to write about that in a novel I worked on for about five years that, for a lot of reasons, never worked. When I finally realized that book was a failure, after I nursed my wounds for a few days and did some serious thinking about my writing, I went back through to see if there were any salvageable bits from the manuscript. And the only bits I really cared about were about my grandparents, and their experience of trying to hold onto each other and ultimately losing each other. In that older book, the material took the form of a plotline about an old woman renovating a fallout shelter she’d built with her husband during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the very few, small pieces of it that actually felt alive to me had nothing to do with that. They were about watching the birds, trying to get her husband to remember their life, quiet afternoons of grief.
Those few sentences and images really inspired me to dig into what it must be like to build a life with someone, the compromises and sacrifices you have to make to sustain any relationship over that long a period of time, only to watch it inevitably come to an end. I couldn’t think of anything more profoundly sad, or more profoundly beautiful. And then I started to think about what it would have been like as a gay couple to do the same thing, during the same period of time. I wanted to try to imagine for myself what that would have been like. How much harder it would have been, and how devastating the ultimate loss. From there, the characters and voice and a lot of the imagery came really, really quickly. It was overwhelming and unbelievably exciting. I was scribbling sentences down all the time.
AR: It’s fascinating (and reassuring) to hear about the process of coming to this story and characters over time. I’m interested to know how your personal experience played into the writing of Hide. You and your (now) husband Raymie have been quite open in your political advocacy for marriage rights in the south—there’s a very moving video [linked below] of your requesting a marriage license in Tennessee in 2013, knowing you’d be turned away, to raise awareness of anti-gay marriage laws as a civil rights issue. I watched it having just finished Hide, and it felt like a very moving coda to the story of Wendell and Frank’s hidden life together. Of course, chronologically speaking, you may still have been writing and revising at that time–how did the experience of writing Hide inform your public advocacy (and vice versa)?
MG: That’s a great question. I was still pretty much in the middle of working on Hide when Raymie and I got involved with the Campaign for Southern Equality, which at the time was focused on marriage equality and is still doing really great work for LGBT rights, particularly in the South. I really have to give him credit for taking the initial steps that got us involved with them—he saw one of their earlier videos of a lesbian couple in Asheville applying for a marriage license and emailed the campaign manager to find out how we could help. But of course the concerns of the book are also tied to issues of politics and social change, and the effect that injustice takes on even the tiniest details of our intimate lives, so I’d been thinking about those things for a while, and I’d also just started working at Highlander Research and Education Center, which has been helping people organize for racial and economic justice in the South and Appalachia for over 80 years and is still going strong. So those issues were on my mind on multiple fronts, both in my daily life and creatively.
On the other hand, it was also important to me that the novel not be making any sort of explicit political or legal argument—not because I don’t think art should do that, but because my imagination starts to shut down and be less interesting when it knows it’s being manipulated toward some conscious end.
And one of the reasons, actually, that I was interested in writing about an older gay couple is that, because these two men have been together for nearly 60 years, the narrative pretty much has to assume the validity and sanctity and enduring nature of gay relationships from the very beginning. I really wanted the basis of the novel to completely dispense with those arguments—which I’m guessing anyone reading a book about a relationship between two men wouldn’t be interested in anyway—so I could focus on the profundity of very simply and directly watching the person you love vanish. I thought that diving into that experience as deeply and fully as I could would make the argument for marriage, and for equality in a much broader sense, in the most powerful way possible, by revealing this couple to be like any other.
AR: Two stories unfold simultaneously in Hide: the present-day account of Frank’s physical and mental decline and Wendell’s attempts to meet his increasingly complicated needs, and the story of their relationship, from their first meeting and slow, cautious courtship, to their secret life together. Hide alternates between past and present, and the present sense of loss grows as we learn more about their past. Wendell’s memories provide narrative respite from the slow painful progression of Frank’s dementia and his increasing needs. I was curious about whether you wrote these chapters in alternation (as they appear) or drafted the past and present timelines separately to weave together later?
MG: I wrote the first draft in an incredibly messy way, which was that I went up to my office every day and just wrote about whatever struck me, whatever came to life for me that day. This was partly a response to that failed book, which I had plotted and planned so carefully I squeezed the life out of it. I didn’t want to do that this time. So I had the broad ideas of the two narrative threads, and I had a bunch of images, moments, and sentences written on a bulletin board, and I’d just go up and try to listen to Wendell’s voice and see what struck me. Some days I’d write in the past, some days in the present, some days maybe a little in both, whatever felt most alive and pressing. None of it was chronological then, even within the individual timelines. I never made myself write a scene or a passage I wasn’t excited about writing and absolutely carried away in. This was especially important for those moments early in their relationship, which I wanted to feel really electric and charged, and also to have the compressed intensity of memory. I had to wait to write them whenever the lightning struck.
All of that was incredibly fun and liberating and exactly what I needed for the first draft. Afterwards, of course, it took a whole lot of gradual work over subsequent drafts to figure out how those two timelines fit together best before I settled on the (mostly) alternating pattern. Even with the second draft, I don’t think I even had chapters yet. I just tried to string the scenes in some kind of order that made sense. I played around with the structure a lot draft by draft, shaping the chapters, figuring out how to order them so that the different timelines would play off of and echo one another in a meaningful way. In a lot of ways, that was the most difficult task of the entire process.
AR: Wendell is a taxidermist and you give us both past and present scenes in which the process of his work is described in painstaking detail. There’s such rich metaphorical material here, about beauty and death and the body, about preservation and sentiment, brutality and craftsmanship, playing God. But I was most fascinated in these scenes by the taxidermy process itself, which you describe in breathtaking, visceral detail. Why did you choose this profession for Wendell in particular, and how did you come to know so much about it? Did you know or observe this work first-hand, and if not what was your research process like?
MG: Partially I chose taxidermy just because I’m interested in it and thought it would be fun to learn about. But really it seemed to fit Wendell’s character in a lot of ways—we tend to associate the taxidermist with a bit of reclusiveness, a little strangeness, regardless of whether or not that’s fair or warranted, all of which felt right for Wendell. Also because of those things, it seemed like the kind of occupation where you could make a living without people trying to get to know you, and without any nosy coworkers, which is what Frank and Wendell needed. And the act of taxidermy, of preserving something that’s already gone, worked thematically with Wendell’s broader struggle of trying to hold on to Frank, to the man he was, as that man inevitably disappears from the world.
For the research, I started off by spending a lot of time on internet message boards about taxidermy, trying to get a sense of what techniques Wendell would have been using in the middle of the 20th century, which were entirely different than what taxidermists do now. Luckily, a very nice research librarian on one of those forums pointed me toward J. W. Elwood’s Northwestern School of Taxidermy, a mail-order correspondence course that pretty much every taxidermist learned from around that time because no other taxidermist would teach you since you might steal his business. So I got on eBay and bought the entire course, which was nine booklets, plus two catalogues full of all the fantastically horrifying tools—fat scrapers and bone saws and eye hooks and all that. Those booklets were really helpful. And they were definitely well-used; several of them have huge dark rust-colored stains that I can only assume were some animal’s blood. I always washed my hands after I read them.
Those booklets were an enormous help procedurally, but I also needed to see the gory details, so I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching videos of various animals being field dressed and skinned and mounted. There are a whole lot of those videos. I mean, a surprisingly large amount. And I bought a DVD from some taxidermist in Iceland about the particular technique of wrapping bodies from excelsior, because very few professionals do it anymore, and watched him do the whole process from skinning to finishing. I should also note that I’m a vegan and a pet-owner and a generally huge lover of animals, so that part of the research was not particularly fun for me.
AR: Wow–I should probably also mention a turn of events towards the end of the novel (involving a family pet) that was very hard for me to read, and which must have been challenging for you to write as an animal lover. I won’t include spoiler details, but some of those passages had such emotional intensity for me that I had to consciously pace myself during the last third of the book. On the one hand, I was so invested in these characters (human and animal) that I had to know what happened to them, to see them through to the end of the story. On the other hand I kept wanting to avert/delay the crisis that was so clearly unfolding. Knowing now that you didn’t draft the novel chronologically, I’m interested in how it felt for you to write some of the most emotionally devastating scenes. And how did you approach/consider the reader’s experience as you decided on the overall sequence and arc of the novel?
MG: Yeah, writing those bits could be hard. A lot of those more devastating moments arose in the writing process completely unplanned, and at least once I thought to myself when I realized what was about to happen, “Do I really have to write this?” But of course you have to. In a way, the hardest part is revising those passages. When I’m first writing, it just sort of happens, but then on revision you have to drag yourself through those things and relive them again and again. I actually did, in one of the later drafts, try to change the story so that the specific moment you mentioned didn’t happen, because it was just too hard for me to revisit for a number of reasons. But when I pulled that thread out, the end of the book didn’t hold together the way it should, and I had to put it back in. Plus I think it’s generally important not to shy away from those most awful moments.
And my primary concern, as I was putting the overall sequence and arc of the novel together, was to capture as best as I could how it would feel to be Wendell at any particular time. And so as the novel progresses toward its end, it was important to me to evoke as fully as I possibly could the gathering, almost suffocating sense of loneliness and desperation that he’s experiencing as Frank gets sicker. And that loneliness and desperation is also the culmination of the entire life they’ve lived together—the end result of all the seclusion they created to keep themselves safe. These two men literally have no one but each other, and to try to be a caregiver all alone, with no help, and to watch the person you love slowly dying—it would just be overwhelmingly, brutally painful. So as I was structuring the novel, I tried to order the scenes so that each one pushed us a little bit deeper into that loneliness and desperation, until the pressure of it was almost unbearable. I figured this would be hard for a reader to go through with him, but also that it was the only way to do justice to the life they’d lived together and immensity of its loss.
AR: A third story runs through the background of Hide: the tabloid story of a woman accused of drowning her baby is playing on the TV in the hospital after Frank’s stroke; he and Wendell initially follow along with morbid humor and curiosity. The saga of “Debbie Drowner” as the media dubs her, plays out over several months and Wendell’s continued interest in the story—his delight when she confesses (he can’t wait to share the “good news” with Frank), and his disappointment when Frank loses the ability to remain interested–is both funny and heartbreaking. In spite of the fun they initially share in judging Debbie’s situation, it feels like a bulwark against their own fear of exposure and public outing. Can you talk a little bit about this undercurrent in the story?
MG: I’d read an interview with a writer, I think it was Will Self, who talked about how much time we spend watching TV, and how any honest fiction about the contemporary world has to account for that in some way. That was in my mind a little bit, and my grandparents had loved watching court shows and live trial coverage and all of that, and so partly I was just trying to be truthful to the characters and their world. I thought that for Wendell and Frank in particular, their reliance on and interest in that kind of news coverage would be heightened, because they have so little meaningful contact with other people, and so it becomes for them a window into the world they’ve given up—and the picture it paints of that world is so awful, it reinforces the rightness of their decision. In that way I think it is a bulwark against their fear of exposure.
At the same time, with that particular kind of sensationalized, high-profile trial where pretty much the entire public has already assumed the guilt of the accused, there’s a sort of very stark, unforgiving sense of justice that’s part of the very black-and-white value system in which Frank and Wendell were raised, and which shaped their sense of their relationship. They both believed in this very traditional system of values to an extent, Frank more than Wendell, I think. Frank really wanted to be a part of that system, of its enforcement—he wanted to be a policeman. And within that system, their love for each other was wrong and illegal. There was no middle ground, no shades of gray back then. And even though they escape it enough to love each other, they still believe in that value system. And so their enjoyment of the trial’s coverage reflects that kind of moral certainty, which has really imprisoned them their whole life together. Meanwhile, Debbie herself presents a threat to that: we know that she committed the crime, but her defense is that things are actually more complicated than the simple facts. That the messiness and difficulty of any particular life might bring that clear-cut sense of right and wrong into legitimate question. She’s a real sign of the way times have changed—it’s much more okay to be gay now, but along with that has come a sort of moral relativism that to them seems absurd, and threatening. Especially because it means that maybe they didn’t have to be as closed off from the world as they’ve been. At least not as long.
Also, I think the Casey Anthony trial was happening around when I started working on the book, and that was partly in my mind. I should be honest that I was kind of obsessed with Nancy Grace for a little bit during this period.
AR: Maybe because I read the novel while visiting my parents, who’ve been married fifty years, I was struck by the way you captured all the mannerisms, the exasperation and intimacy of a long life together. There’s love, of course, but there’s also frustration, codependency, the feeling of “time served” that all that time entails. Wendell’s dry, observant, narration is such a capable guide throughout, but the dialogue between Frank and Wendell, particularly in the present, really brings those scenes alive, even (maybe especially) as Frank is struggling with language. How did you develop your ear for dialogue?
MG: That’s a tough one! Part of it may just be that I’m sort of awkward and not a great talker, and so I tend to spend a lot more time listening to other people—at least when I’m first getting to know them—than actually saying anything. But I’m also a bit of a sponge with other people’s speech patterns. When I spend a lot of time around a person, I start adopting their rhythms and figures of speech, without even meaning to. It was the worst in college. I was constantly stealing my friends’ phrasing and emphasis. We all do that to some extent, adapt our talking to whoever we’re with, but I think I can take it to the extreme sometimes. I don’t know why.
But with Frank and Wendell in particular, their dialogue is very much based on my grandparents. I spent a lot of time around them during my most formative years, so their voices are really ingrained in my mind. Wendell’s voice is really a combination of my grandmothers, while Frank’s is a combination of my grandfathers. With other things thrown in, of course. And hearing those voices was really important for me as I wrote the book—I really felt like I was listening to Wendell talk, and I was just writing it down. When I’ve done readings from the book, I have to be really careful, because I have a tendency to slip into this old-man impersonation, and no one wants to see a 31-year-old reading from his own book, pretending to be 83. But that’s how I hear the language in my head.
AR: Ha! I’m never averse to a good octogenarian voice. Speaking of readings, where will folks be able to hear you read in person in upcoming months? Any plans to expand your tour?
MG: Yes! We’re kicking the book tour off in Iowa City, where I went to graduate school at the Writer’s Workshop. I might have to buy a new winter coat before I go, because I’m pretty sure my body has completely forgotten how to withstand even the mildest normal temperatures of an Iowa winter. Then I’m headed for a reading and panel in Oxford, Mississippi at the Oxford Conference for the Book, and then later in March, when I have some time off from teaching for spring break, I’m hitting the road in earnest for a tour through a bunch of places in Tennessee and North Carolina—Knoxville, Asheville, Greensboro, Chapel Hill. And we’re still working on adding more dates and locations. I’m really excited to go out and share the book!
Purchase a copy of Hide at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library,
Watch a New York Times video about Matthew and Raymie’s advocacy for marriage equality here.
Matthew Griffin is a graduate of Wake Forest University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Previously, he was an assistant to the director of Highlander Research and Education Center, a renowned hub of grassroots organizing for social justice throughout the South and Appalachia. He was born and raised in North Carolina and now lives in Louisiana with his husband and too many pets. This is his first novel. (Author photo by Raymie Wolfe.)
Anne Rasmussen holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. She edits the Late Night Interview column and reads fiction entries for Sundress Publications’ annual Best of the Net. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.