I read “Hide” last month or so. I loved the book. Every bit of it. So I decided to contact Matthew through his publishers and managed to get an interview. The book is beautifully written – of same-sex love in times when it was unimaginable to even think of it. I cannot wax eloquent enough about the book. Here’s my interview with the author:
1. Why did you choose to set this story in the time it was set – the 50s? Why not a more modern time?
Setting the bulk of their love story during that time period was partly a necessary extension of the initial impulse behind the novel, which was that I wanted to write about this gay couple who’ve been together for a very long time facing the end of the life they’ve built with each other, struggling to cope with the sacrifices they’ve made to stay together, the failures of their bodies, the slipping of their minds, the approach of mortality. In order to have that portion of the narrative set in the present day, which seemed most natural, it meant that I really had to set the early years of their romance during some of the most oppressive decades for LGTB people in America. And although this started out as a sort of secondary choice, it became really central to the novel, the fear and oppression of that time period being a great crucible to intensify the conflict and sacrifice that’s inherent in any long-term relationship—and, consequently, the ultimate devastation when that relationship is lost.
2. How did the voices of Frank and Wendell distinguish themselves as you were writing?
Frank and Wendell’s voices were probably one of the first aspects of the novel that came to me, and they really guided me through writing the book. Large parts of Frank and Wendell’s lives and personalities were based on my own grandparents (this is also partly responsible for the novel’s time period, which reflects the span of their lives). In a lot of ways, Wendell’s voice is sort of a combination of my grandmothers’ voices, while Frank’s is a combination of my grandfathers’, and so the process of writing the book was mostly about me trying to listen to them and write down what they were saying—both in dialogue, and in Wendell’s narrative voice. I always used to hate it when writers talked about just listening to their characters and letting them do the work, but that’s really how it felt—although, of course, those voices were voices that I had been absorbing my entire life.
3. The book is all about “tough love” and yet so many moments of tenderness. Do you think men of those times didn’t have to say it out loud that they loved each other? You think actions were enough?
I don’t know that I think actions were enough; so much as that men of that time period in America simply didn’t feel very comfortable expressing their emotions, regardless of their sexual orientation. Nor were they expected to—particularly during the 50s, men were often expected to be these idealized, strong, impenetrable fortresses, who never showed any weakness, expressions of emotion being considered weakness. Frank and Wendell are very much men of that generation, and their ability to explicitly share their feelings is further blunted by the very real danger in which they’re living, which makes the public expression of those emotions a real risk. The sense of fear arising from that really bleeds into their private lives, too, which is why so much of their love for each other ends up being expressed not in words but in the intensity and strength of their devotion, and the sacrifices they make for each other.
4. In an age of social media and technology and so many dating apps, do you think same-sex love survives a lifetime?
In a way, it’s probably easier now for same-sex love to last than it has ever been, at least in the modern configurations that we think of as love. But when I look at relationships I know that have lasted a lifetime, there’s a real sense of obligation and duty to them, and also a sense that you can’t have everything, an acknowledgment that you are closing off other possibilities for excitement and romance and newness in exchange for a different set of possibilities—companionship, steadiness, mutual growth—with a single person. And I think in certain ways, dating apps run counter to that, by presenting this endless smorgasbord of people to meet, with new ones always popping up, looking their best in carefully-curated photos. But in the end, of course, it’s all about how you use it and what you want. I think any kind of love is hard-pressed to survive a lifetime. It’s this sort of impossible aspiration, to find this single person that you promise to love and stay with no matter how you change, no matter what happens. I think the beauty of that promise is precisely in its impossibility.
5. Your top 5 favourite LGBT love stories
I’m going to play a little loose here and start with Xena and Gabrielle from the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, which I was so obsessed with in middle school that I had a different Xena t-shirt to wear every day of the week. Their romantic relationship was mostly kept under the surface of the narrative (it was the 90s!), but it was pretty clear if you were looking for it, and also one of the longest and most complex, fully-developed LGBT relationships I’ve ever seen in entertainment. I love Jamie O’Neill’s novel At Swim Two Boys. I thought Carol, the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, was brilliant, and the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple—both the book and the movie—will always stick with me. I’m also going to stretch the rules and wrap up with Melville’s Billy Budd, which isn’t technically an LGTB love story but is probably one of the most homoerotic and gorgeously-written pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and there is a real romantic ache to it.
6. What is your next book going to be about?
I have no idea! I’m slowly writing my way into something new, but I tend to write haphazardly at first, without knowing what’s going to stick or how different pieces might cohere, and I’m so early into this next project that I really don’t know what it will become, or if it will become anything. I’m also a little superstitious about talking about what I think I’m going to write next, because I’ve spent years working on projects that went nowhere. Hopefully that won’t happen this time. I do know that I want it to be different from Hide, that I want to challenge myself to do something new, though I don’t know yet exactly what form that will take.
7. Was writing “Hide” cathartic? If yes, in what ways?
I don’t know that I’d characterize it as cathartic. But it was distinctly different from every other piece of writing I’ve ever done, in that, especially in the first draft, it really did seem to come from someplace outside me. That first draft was the most fun, blissful experience of writing I’ve ever had, and it’s one I’m desperate to recapture as I start working on something new. After that, of course, every subsequent draft was more and more difficult. But that first one was pure joy. Even when it was hard, it felt right.
8. Did you have to research a lot for “Hide”?
I did do a lot of research, particularly into the details of taxidermy, which was challenging because I needed to know how Wendell would have learned the craft in the 1930s and 40s, which is quite different from the way it’s done today. But the internet is a great resource, both because of all the information and videos it makes available, and the way it leads you to other resources—I ended up, on recommendation from an internet message board, ordering a taxidermy correspondence course from the early 20th century, which was invaluable. I also did a lot of research about LGBT history and discrimination in America during the 20th century, as well as the broader political climate, particularly during the 50s and 60s when fear of gay people was tied to the threat of communism. I wrote the first draft with as little research as I possibly could, because it’s really easy for me to get caught up in being historically accurate instead of imagining deeply, and I wanted to avoid that in the initial material. Then with each subsequent draft I did more and more research and incorporated it to refine the particular details, though even then I tried to include only what was crucial to the story or had some particular metaphorical or emotional resonance.