As a professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Tom Franklin reads a lot of fiction by aspiring authors. Even when it's very good, it tends to have a numbing familiarity. That wasn't the case, however, with Hide, the debut novel by Greensboro native Matthew Griffin, which on Monday won the 2017 Crook's Corner Book Prize for a debut novel set in the South.
"Honestly, it was the one book I hadn't read before," Franklin says with an enduring sense of astonishment at the distinctive voice and heartbreaking clarity Griffin achieved in a love story about two men. It was previously praised as "something like a miracle" by Booklist, a critical resource for library-based buyers.
"The closest thing I've read about this sort of relationship was Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, but this is so much more intimate. I found it incredibly fresh and deeply moving," Franklin says. "The thing that was most remarkable is that the narrator was so fully realized. It could have been anybody—a man or woman, the person who lives across the street from you. It's a Southern story, but in so many ways it is universal."
Sponsored by the Chapel Hill restaurant Crook's Corner, the prize provides $5,000 and, as is traditional with the literary awards bestowed by the Parisian cafes on which it is modeled, a glass of wine every day for a year. Too bad Griffin, now based in New Orleans, can't designate someone to sip it for him.
Forty-seven entries competed for this year's prize, nine of which made the long list. Other finalists included Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux and Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks. Past winners are A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (2016), Byrd by Kim Church (2015), and The Marauders by Tom Cooper (2014).
Hide tracks the decades-long relationship of Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a World War II veteran, who build a hidden life together that is jeopardized when one of the partners falls ill in old age. The New York Times hailed it as "a graceful and understated novel ... A portrait of a particularly repressive period in gay history."
Griffin started working on the book in January 2011. He finished it three years later, before his home state approved controversial legislation limiting protections for LGBTQ people but amid growing hostility toward the last big push for marriage equality, which culminated in the Supreme Court's landmark decision of June 2015.
"Those issues were very much on my mind when I was writing," says Griffin, who is married to his longtime partner. Concerns like power of attorney, being allowed to remain bedside, and to make critical health care decisions for one's partner—a right for married couples long denied to gay partners—are key aspects of Wendell and Frank's story.
"I was very conscious of not getting too technical, as it drained all the energy and creativity," Griffin adds. "But as Frank gets sicker, it is part of why they don't go back to the doctor. The situation would be wrested out of their control."
Griffin appreciates Franklin's description of the narrative as "universal," as it was his goal to demonstrate that struggles like caring for loved ones late in life affect all couples and families. Griffin has started work on his second novel but has no target date for publication. It also will be based in the South, but in a more contemporary setting.
"My experience of the South as a gay man does play into my perspective. I feel both the oppression that many of us experience, because of our sexual orientation and of the history of Southern racism, but also the kindness, the way many people in the South oppose this," he says. "I think being a Southern writer is feeling both sides of that, the conflicts and the strengths, and telling it in ways that can make a difference."
This article appeared in print with the headline "In Plain Sight."