I want to start off by saying just how much I adored The Inseparables. It’s such a beautiful, sad, funny, generous book. It had been a while since finishing a novel had made me cry, which is pretty much all I ever want from a novel – an axe for the frozen sea within and all that – and I was starting to worry pretty seriously about whether I’d grown callous and unable to feel, and then the last couple chapters of The Inseparables had me tearing up every other page. So it turns out I’m still human and this book is great.
One of the things I admire in particular is the way the book handles technology in contemporary life. I always have this paranoia about including cellphones in fiction, because of how quickly that technology and the details of its use change, but of course it’s this huge part of being alive today that has to be reckoned with in any honest portrayal of our time. And you use it so perfectly in Lydia’s story as she deals with the fallout from a nude photo making its way through her high school – that low-level anxiety so many of us already feel from constant communication takes on an entirely new dimension.
Part of why it works so well is that the kind of ridicule Lydia’s getting really echoes the kind of ridicule her grandmother when she published an X-rated book called The Inseparables decades earlier – there’s this feeling that, after all, nothing much has really changed, especially in social attitudes toward women and sexuality, and that technology has just become another venue for expressing them. Were you thinking consciously about technology, and its implications in contemporary life, and how best to handle it in fiction while you were writing? Or did all of that just emerge naturally from Lydia’s story?
On some level, certainly, I recognize that writing about any sort of technology threatens the work with the same kind of obsolescence that all our gadgets face: new toys come along, our not-so-slow immersion into our computers deepens, our upcoming cyborg future grows near. But this was one of the things that excited me most about writing Lydia’s sections. It’s clearly not enough any longer to say that our technology is ever-present, or looming over us in ways it hasn’t before. At this point, the line between where it all starts and where it ends is hard to distinguish. I find myself lately spending so much time trying to preserve whatever is left of my pre-internet brain. This strikes me as something that is unique to our moment, this effort, this constant monitoring of how our memories are evaporating, this growing cultural comfort with the non-linear, the fragmented, the poly-tasked instant.
I’m writing this now in a neighborhood coffee shop in a small town in Rhode Island, and everyone everywhere has their face pressed predictably into their gadgets. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been watching something that I think gets to what made me think about all of this. I’m not in an especially fashionable area or fashionable coffee shop, but merely a shop adjacent to a senior citizen home, and nearly everyone here looks as if they’ve walked across the parking lot for a quick change of scenery, or some better-than-decent baked goods. The only gadget-free people in the place are two people seated directly opposite me – a bearded man, ginger-haired, maybe fifty, in a crisp blue Oxford; a woman, twenty-five perhaps, in a striped sundress, diamonds in her ears, blonde. I suspect this is work related – an interview maybe, or an off-site meeting of some kind. It’s over-air-conditioned in here, and just now she’s put some moisturizer onto her bare arms. The man stops talking to watch her do this, this moisturizing. He’s watching her with the most consuming closeness. Wherever the line is between closely watching and watching too closely, he’s jumped it. Maybe he knows this. She, of course, knows this. She stops talking, flushes a bit, turns to look out at the busy street outside as if she’s seen someone familiar. Because I’m close enough to this, I see that she still has moisturizer on her hands. All of this is to say that all of our screen watching has only personalized and miniaturized and digitized this thing that has always been there in the culture – the gaze, the predatory public. Of course, my watching this, and writing about it, only reinforces what happens online. Our being a silent witness to a certain level of debasement clearly implicates us, but the more and more we see of this, our skin thickens to it, and an unmistakable tolerance builds up.
I’d already worked on Lydia’s character for close to two years before I started up on the storyline that exists now in the book – her picture going around the school. I’d become obsessed by then with the idea of shame, and the ways our technology had weaponized shame, and of course, by the notion that so many of the targets of this shame were the same ideas/concepts/people that had obsessed our culture for so long: the bodies of women and girls, sexual pleasure, male entitlement and the nexus of all these things. This is a somewhat long-winded way to admit that both things are true: I was thinking consciously about these ideas, and they emerged in the work, as usually happens, somewhat unconsciously. But I didn’t worry all that much about dating them with all the technology. What seems dated a year out seems charming ten years out, and antique twenty years after that, and I was fine with that. The main thing I wanted to do with all these characters was to put them into the contemporary world. I started this very soon after I’d finished my last novel, Wise Men, which begins in 1947, and ends some sixty years later. I was very interested in sticking in the modern world after having spent so much time in the past.
What about you? Hide is, of course, a love story, but it’s also a book about refuge. And it’s a book, also, that spans this enormous stretch of time, young men to older men. I know when I was working on Wise Men, I really struggled with how to capture and distill all that time and history on the page. Was this difficult for you?
Okay, first, I just need to say that I am pretty sure people who apply moisturizer in public are monsters. I also love what you said about trying to hold on to your pre-internet brain – I resisted getting a smartphone until 2014 for precisely that reason and felt really, really smug about it. Then ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve been on a long, slow, horrifying downward spiral into needing every spare moment to be occupied with new bits of information entering my brain. So now I’ve been obsessively deleting apps and installing internet blockers everywhere I can in a desperate attempt to preserve my ability to concentrate. I think you’re probably right that we’re in the last moment (at least until society collapses and the internet vanishes, which I assume could be any minute now) when anyone will even worry about such things. But I do wonder about the effect it has on us, including the way we read – and write – fiction, the joy of which for me has always been in sustained, focused immersion, which is so much at odds with the fragmented shape technology increasingly gives our lives.
As for the work of capturing the passage of so much time, I think that was probably the biggest challenge of writing Hide. So much of the book is about the inevitable passage of time, about how Frank and Wendell change and how they stay the same, about how nothing beautiful lasts long, no matter how you try to hold onto it, and how you have to try to hold onto it anyway.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted two narrative threads, one in the present, looking at the men when they’re older and facing mortality, and one starting when they’re young and bringing us up to that present. But at the time I also felt very suspicious of the notion of causality, both in fiction and in life; this idea that one thing leads to another in a clear chain of action and choice. That’s not how I’ve experienced the world. So during the first draft, the only thing that mattered to me was to capture how it felt to be Wendell at any particular moment. I thought that if I could do that – really capture how it felt to be a particular person at a particular second – that it would be enough. As a result, I wrote the whole thing out of order, entering into these men’s lives in flashes as they occurred to me, and it wasn’t until subsequent drafts that I started putting all those moments together to try to understand some broader arc of time, to see how its passage had changed them. But that seemed appropriate, somehow – we never understand the trajectory of a life, to the extent that it has one (of which I am still as skeptical as ever), when we’re experiencing it. The shape only appears in retrospect.
One thing that became important to me, the longer I worked on it, was that I wanted the sections taking place in the past to have what I thought of as the compressed intensity of memory, to feel intense and charged and lyrical and brief in a way that reflects the sensation of remembering. In that way, those sections, although they have their own narrative, are also in tension with the present, where Wendell’s struggling with the very real prospect of Frank’s declining health. Because of that, even the parts of the past that were difficult for them at the time feel suffused with beauty in retrospect and in contrast to the looming mortality of the present. I hoped that would help tie those different strains of time together.
There was also the challenge of capturing the broader passing of history, and the way social attitudes, particularly towards gay people, changed during the twentieth century. In some ways, reflecting that was easier because, as you noted, a lot of the book is about refuge. Since Frank and Wendell have secluded themselves, the major social upheavals of the twentieth century could sort of pass in the background, rather muted, until they find themselves in the present in a world that would be totally unrecognizable to the men they were when they met.
That was one of the most beautiful things about your book – this idea of time passing between people, but also that particular sense of living outside of time that comes from spending years with someone. This is the wonderful and terrible parallax of love – from within, everything seems the same, but from without time is still rushing by, as normal. I feel this sometimes: when you don’t have children, and you’re holed up all the time, say, working on a novel, it’s difficult to know that you are actually aging, and that your partner is aging, that you are in fact, not exempt from time, and ever-young. And then, of course, I look at photographs of myself from a decade ago and try to stave off the doom. This is to say nothing of the notion of the outside world changing so radically. There is a brilliant duality in your book between outside and inside – hiding out in order to live freely and privately. By the time Obergefell vs Hodges verdict was announced in June 2015, you were, I’m sure, long done with the book. I wonder, did the fast pace of all the social change alter the book at all?
You’re right, I was done with the book by the time the Supreme Court ruling came down – I’d actually just returned the first set of proofs – but I started working on it in early 2011, and in the years after that I could really feel the change coming, and oddly enough I think it actually sharpened my sense of Wendell and Frank’s alienation. Because I would find myself trying to imagine what they would think of it all, and I realized they would be absolutely bewildered by the change, and also a little distrustful and unsettled, maybe even resentful, the way I was when we were in Iowa and the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage there. On the one hand, I was jubilant, but on the other, when people asked me if my nowhusband and I were going to get married, I was always quick to say no. I’d spent my whole life thinking marriage wasn’t an option for me, so I’d learned to envision myself and my relationships as outside of it, and all of a sudden I had to re-evaluate that paradigm and decide if marriage was something I wanted to be a part of. It took a while for me to think of my life differently, and I was only twenty-five.
All of that, and the rapidity of the change that happened afterward, was really helpful in imagining how Frank and Wendell, who’ve had isolation and shame ingrained in them for nearly 60 years, would respond to social change in their own lifetime, even if it was slower – that in a way those changes might, instead of producing a sense of liberation, actually produce nervousness and anger at the world becoming this thing they don’t recognize and forcing them to reconsider the choices they’ve made. And that they would in response retreat more deeply into the world they’ve made for themselves.
That period also sort of freed me from feeling any burden of making an explicit political statement, because I knew it would soon be obsolete. Although even in the earliest drafts I tended to avoid that. There are so many devastating real-life stories of the effects that not being able to marry had on people, so many partners barred from their loved ones’ hospital beds, but as soon as I scribbled down the words ‘Power of Attorney’ it was like my whole brain shut down. I couldn’t find the poetry in those words, or in the legal technicalities they embody, and so that drove me more deeply into exploring the internal consequences of Frank and Wendell’s isolation and secrecy, the psychological and emotional ravages, instead of those more external ones.
How were you thinking about time and its passage in The Inseparables? The primary storyline is very compressed, with the main action spanning just a few days, so everything feels really urgent and present, but the narrative also pulls in a lot of the past to encompass almost the whole of the characters’ lives. How did you reach that structure? Was it also in response to wanting to do something different from what you did in Wise Men?
I love what you wrote about trying to find the poetry in a phrase like ‘Power of Attorney’. It’s really so true how a single phrase like that can stop the wheels moving, even if so much of the work depends on what those words mean. But yes – time: I wrote and rewrote and threw away countless drafts of this book over the four years it took me to finish it. I’d never struggled to finish something as much as I struggled with this book. I was moving constantly during those years, and I found myself working on this book in all these disparate places, in all these new rooms. This book felt different to me everywhere I worked on it. So much of what I found myself doing was creating a sense of continuity for myself, making it so that every time I went back to the work I felt good about it, or at least moderately good about it. Initially I was writing with a much larger cast: another sister, a brother, Harold was alive. I spent an inordinate and embarrassing amount of time trying to work some orphans into the book. I have no real clear idea why I wanted this so badly, but I had become very consumed with writing about orphans for some reason. Finally, I couldn’t find a home for them, and I had to abandon all these poor children. The one thing, though, that I knew I wanted was this compressed timeline – one day, two days, no more than a week. I’m sure that some of this had to do with the enormous span of time in Wise Men. After a book like that, where I was eliding so many decades, I was attracted to the idea of urgency, and the way that both the reader and the characters could experience this urgency. I was also interested in the practical impossibility of the true present moment, which is to say, a moment free from anxiety and regret and absence, a moment divorced from time. In the book, Oona and her husband are inveterate self-help readers, mostly because she is unhappy and overworked and very often soaking in her very large and expensive bathtub, and because her husband is constantly on drugs, and because, together, they are unhappy with what’s happened to their marriage. There is this idea that the present moment, the mythic now, is the real moment that we need to aspire to. I suppose I was, and am, fascinated by the ramifications of agreeing to this idea. If this is true, and if getting to this moment is a process we very rarely succeed in doing, then we need either to agree that we are doing it all wrong – living, I guess – or we need to become comfortable with moments as they exist typically: fragmented by regret and hope and bliss and shame and worry and absence. In this way, even though the book spans a few days in the life of Henrietta and Oona and Lydia, it also spans so much of their past. I was reading a lot of Bellow while I was working on this book, and this is something he does so wonderfully in Herzog – this accumulation of then and now, this fragmentation of the present. All of this got me thinking about how we’ve begun collectively to photograph ourselves constantly. How photography has become a stand-in for physical relationships. How, in Lydia’s case, it’s become a weapon against her. How you can allow yourself the illusion that you’re trapping time with your phone.
This makes me think about the taxidermy in your book. Taxidermy is this sort of primitive time-trapping device: here is the animal, suspended in time, frozen before death, or quasi-animated in death. I lived in New York for a long time in my twenties, and I both loved and hated going up to 81st Street to see the taxidermy there. The history buff in me thrilled at the proximity of history in that place. The animal lover in me hated the idea of all those beautiful animals having been poached, some by Teddy Roosevelt himself. This is a long winded way of saying that we need to talk about the animal hides in your book.
I always like to preface talking about the taxidermy in the book by telling people I’m vegan, which is probably the only time anyone has ever been grateful or relieved to hear somebody else say that. The initial impulse behind all these animal hides showing up in the novel was mostly just my own macabre curiosity, which always overrides my politics, but also taxidermy seemed like the kind of job Wendell could occupy in seclusion, without having to deal with coworkers who’d want to know him better, or even with customers trying to befriend him. But once I got into it, it really worked thematically with everything else happening in the book. As you said, taxidermy is at its heart a sort of primitive selfie, another way of fooling yourself into thinking you can stop time. It’s about trying to preserve some semblance of life in an animal from which that life has already gone. There’s a beauty to it – some of these taxidermists do really unbelievable work – but also a kind of futility. And that combination felt like the perfect corollary to Wendell’s struggle throughout the book to keep Frank healthy, to hold on to the man he loved, while that man inevitably slips away.
One of the things I was thinking about a lot and really wanted to convey in the book was the sheer wonder of being in a body, of physically existing at all. The mystery of how anything exists, much less myself, sometimes when I think about it for more than a second gives me what I think is probably a mild panic attack. Shallow breathing, fluttering heart, all that. But of course the mystery also makes the fact of physical existence even more glorious, and I really wanted to capture that, the profundity of sensation – the way a particular angle of light can flood you with some remembered emotion, the feeling of proximity to the body of someone you love, how early on you can physically feel a kind of pressure from it even when you aren’t touching. (And, again, the passage of time, how it weathers those things, how the old glorious sensations dull or turn to aches.)
And so taxidermy was also a way to access a different part of the marvel and the reality of physical existence. Because all those disgusting things about the body that are revealed when you dismantle it – as you have to if you want to preserve any part of it at all – the blood and the guts and the gross membranes that look like wet toilet paper, all that stuff we associate with death or at least maiming, all of that is the real stuff of life, the bulk of our existence, the source of sensation and emotion. And it’s all so soft and fragile and so easily, easily taken apart. Maybe that’s where the terror lies. Meanwhile, the skin is just this thin crust over everything, which brings us back to the illusion of it all – the part we see of a person is barely or not at all indicative of what’s underneath, both literally and metaphorically, and the only thing you can preserve is the appearance of life, not the living of it.
I’m also of the philosophy that, in the scheme of things, humans have no more right to this world and no more intrinsic meaning to our existence than animals do. Maybe this is unsurprising vegan propaganda. We create beautiful meaning for ourselves, and I care frantically enough about my own life to want to preserve it at the cost of that of other species, but in the bigger scheme of things, I don’t think I am any more important to this universe than my Border collie is. And, of course, humans are animals. Our bodies differ from the bodies of other animals in what seem to me only superficial ways. So the taxidermy – the bodies of the animals, what happens to them after death – was also a way to look squarely into human mortality, for both Wendell and myself to face the reality of Frank’s impending death and what it would mean.
Animals and their lives and the meaning of their deaths are all pretty significant in The Inseparables, too. Harold takes wonderful care of the animals he cooks and has close personal relationships to a lot of them, and there’s this great scene, as his restaurant is failing, when he has a major meltdown over wasting the life of an animal when the kitchen staff ruins some food.
There’s a short passage in The French Laundry Cookbook where Thomas Keller writes about his first time killing a rabbit, which he botched, and how rabbits will scream when they are in great pain. This is not something I knew beforehand, this thing about rabbits screaming, and rather than make me hungry for rabbit, which is, I guess, what that passage is intended to do, it made me feel close to them, because if someone was after me with the hope of skinning me, blanching me, tossing me with hot oil and folding my meat into a dumpling, I think I’d probably fucking scream too. Also, it made think about how, during the spring in Iowa, the rabbits seem to invade the earth in droves, as if the fictional world of Watership Down has merged with our own world. Before I wrote this scene, I’d been thinking a good deal about how the word ‘foodie’ had entered the culture. It’s a strange and lazy word. To my ears, it invokes a certain sense of gluttony, perfect for the America that invented it: give me my food, for I am a foodie. I wrote about this is in the book, but I’ve become convinced that our collective obsession with food is evidence of a certain pathological late-empire behavior. When future civilizations track down our ruins, what will they make of the fact that we all watched so many cooking competitions – food that we watched being prepared, but which we could not ever taste or smell or touch?
The one thing I knew from the start was that, in the old European manner, Harold distrusted people’s enthusiasm for food: in a good restaurant, the customer is never right, the chef is right. This is not the way it works any longer. We’re all activists for our own pleasure now. The difference between great cooking, where the food is art, and the kind of cooking I might do at home, where the food is merely a product of my needing not to die from starvation, seems obviously to me a matter of skill (they have it, and I do not) but also a matter of care and sensitivity and appreciation. Great chefs know the animals they cook were animals. In Bill Buford’s incomparably great book Heat, he talks about how Mario Batali’s palate is such that he can taste what the pig ate before it was slaughtered. At Blue Hill Farm, Dan Barber grows the carrots and raises the lamb, and people flock from across the globe to worship this notion that we’ve estranged ourselves from: food actually comes from somewhere. Of course, Harold is not Dan Barber. No one eats at Harold’s restaurant any longer, even though, as he says in the book, he’s long been doing the same thing that Dan Barber does. Harold has fallen out of favor. His is the vacant shop you walk by at night, where, inside, all the waitstaff are looking out imploringly. This seemed so interesting to me. What happens in that empty restaurant? On some level, this is just a variation on this idea of failure that I’d been thinking about throughout the book – his restaurant, Oona’s marriage, Henrietta’s book. Failure fascinates me, not simply because people are terrified of it, but because it so frequently exists as the consequence of trying too hard.
That’s such a horrible conundrum, isn’t it? We should all be proportionally rewarded for our earnestness and effort and good intentions. It seems to me that when you’re trying to create something great, whether it’s a book or a restaurant or a relationship, you really have to give it everything you’ve got, stretch yourself beyond what you’re capable of, and at the same time, every little extra bit of effort you put in ratchets up the possibility that you’re headed for a disaster – that you’ll produce an overwrought melodrama or be blinded by your own culinary vision or come off like an overbearing, codependent creep.
Though the flip side of this is as bad or worse – to construct some perfectly-crafted but cold novel, to hold yourself back in civility from the people you love. That, too, is a failure. (As they say on The Bachelor: ‘You’ve got to be vulnerable for this process to work!’) I try to remind myself when I write that I would rather be over the top than a coward, rather fail at greatness than succeed at mediocrity. And the good thing with writing is that at least, when you fail, you can tell yourself it’s just part of the process, steal your best sentences, and use them elsewhere. Not that any of that’s a comfort when you, say, toil at a novel for five years only to realize it is an utter failure of the tried-too-hard variety.
Nothing’s a comfort in the end, I guess. Failure’s always pressing in on every side. But you just keep trying, right? There’s beauty in the trying.