Monday, March 15, 2010

Character sketch: Matt Folds

Professor Matthew Folds grew up a good Catholic boy with a loving mother and a demanding father. He was being steered toward the priesthood from an early age and didn't change his mind until he met Derrick Brown.

Derrick was an openly gay man working at an off-campus coffee house and Matt was interested. Very interested.

Once they drifted together, quite by accident, Matt decided against the priesthood and instead went on to teach religion at a private university. He continued to wear his faith on his sleeve, but kept his sexual identity hidden from the world. It wasn't an easy life for poor Matt.

His knowledge of the Bible and the theology of the End of Times would come in handy in my little theological horror story. It was also helpful that, in the end, Matt would give everything for his God and his friends. His role in The Devil You Don't Know is not only pivotal, but heart-wrenching as well.

The following passage occurs in the first third of the novel and takes a look back at how Matt and Derrick came to become a couple.


Christmas in Door County, Wisconsin, is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives, Matt Folds thought as he and Derrick strolled hand-in-hand down Main Street as a light snow fell. It was dusk and the old-fashioned gaslights had begun to glow, brushing the swirling flakes with copper.

“Shall we get something to eat? Or do you still feel the urge to shop until I drop?” Matt asked, leaning close to his partner since the wool stocking cap Derrick wore was pulled down over his ears, rendering him virtually deaf.

“I’m starving, now that you mention it,” Derrick said, his handsome face lighting up like a child’s. “Let’s go someplace fancy and eat until we pop.”

Matt laughed. It felt good to see Derrick so happy. It had been a while.

They had met in the summer of 1967 while Matt was still in seminary. Derrick Brown had worked as a waiter in the off-campus coffee shop Matt haunted on a regular basis and they had become casual friends whose conversations rarely ran deeper than the weather or folk music. They were both huge Bob Dylan fans and Matt had been impressed to learn that Derrick knew every lyric to every Dylan song by heart.

Derrick had been handsome in a fashionable counterculture sort of way—tight faded blue jeans, zippered boots, gray wool turtleneck sweaters. His brown hair had been a mass of curls and he wore it long like Jim Morrison. His smile was wide and honest, his eyes an intelligent shade of brown and his teeth were whiter than any Matt had ever seen.

Matt, with his crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses, was smitten almost immediately, although he couldn’t admit it since he hadn’t fully accepted the troublesome fact that he was gay. Derrick, on the other hand, was entirely open about his homosexuality. Coming out was easy, Matt figured, when you poured gourmet coffee for a living; not so easy when you were trying to become a priest to satisfy not only your own deeply held religious beliefs but also your construction worker father, who never missed an opportunity to be disappointed in Matt.

But Derrick was so easy to talk to, so easy to like, that Matt soon found himself seated next to the young waiter at a local folk music festival on a beautiful autumn evening, their hands somehow entwined and Derrick leaning so close that Matt could smell the shampoo in his hair.

When they first kissed, later that evening, Matt finally gave up all pretense of being straight. It was more liberating than anything he’d ever done, and he felt as though he were floating—and not just because of the good Jamaican weed they’d been smoking all evening. Within a week, Derrick had moved into Matt’s tiny campus apartment and within two weeks, Matt had dropped out of seminary to pursue a teaching degree in theology.

Matt eventually got an assistant professorship at Bradley, but he remained at war not only with his father, who died a bitter and unhappy man in 1985, but with himself. How could he justify his lifestyle and still remain convicted to his Christian faith? He’d always believed that Christ was a forgiving savior. After all, the Bible was full of passages about women being second-class citizens, children being no more important than cattle and stoning as punishment for such things as petty theft and adultery. If modern society could overcome such archaic beliefs, Matt thought, surely it could come to grips with homosexuality in much the same way. It was the bigotry of people, not the fear of God, which kept Matt in the closet.

So he maintained both his lifestyle and his faith, although he wore one on his sleeve and kept the other hidden from the world. Perhaps it was no accident that Matt had aged beyond his years during the intervening forty years, while Derrick, with the exception of his beautiful silver hair, looked virtually the same as he did when they met.

“Listen,” Derrick said now as they were seated in the restaurant. In the background was a muted instrumental version—what Matt thought of as elevator music—of Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

“It just doesn’t sound the same, does it?” Matt said, opening his menu. “It’s as though the modern world has stripped it of its meaning.”

“I was going to say that I think it’s wonderful,” Derrick said, his eyes sparkling. “It was our song. Don’t you remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” Matt sighed, suddenly feeling very old and very tired. “How could I ever forget?”

IN REAL LIFE: I spent the day running in molasses, so to speak. I'm revising, but it's coming very slowly. The first thing I think I need to do is get some sleep; this fatigue is killing me. It's hard for me to combine my writing and my journalism careers. Something always seems to suffer and this week, it's been the writing. Unfortunately. But I'm optimistic that I will feel better tomorrow and can get the old nose back to the grindstone. It's going to be another short week for me, writing-wise, since I again have to cover the bigger school tournament this weekend. After that, it's smooth sailing until I can get the revisions done.

COMING TOMORROW: Gary K., my favorite character. He's Michael's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and he's a real character. I think you'll like him, too. After that, we're down to the four main characters in the book.


  1. These character sketches are really cool and it's given me reason to really respect fiction writers such as yourself, Terry. The writing I've done and still do is always centered in reality, so I don't have to make anything up. Okay, I embellish slightly now and again, who doesn't? But I don't have to pull and give birth to characters like you do. Amazing work, please don't doubt that this is quality fiction and you will be published.

  2. How long do you marinate with these characters before they come to life for you? Where do you get your ideas for all of these characters?
    Were they hanging around before the story or did the story line come to you first?

    I can't wait 'til tomorrow to meet Gary. Will Michael be after that?

  3. Marty: Thanks. You're an accomplished writer and a role model of mine, so I value your opinions a lot. I'm not sure why I've been so discouraged lately. It's really had a negative impact on my daily work. I need to work through it, something I've been trying to do by doing this daily character sketches (and LOTS of video games!). Unfortunately, its all been done IN PLACE OF actually working on the project. Sigh.

    Gina: You know, I'm not sure I can answer your questions, other than to say the characters just sort of come to me and I work them out as I'm writing. I do SOME character sketching on my legal pad as ideas occur to me, but not much. It's kind of organic, I guess.
    As far as where they come from -- mostly from me and people I've known throughout my life. I've been both blessed and cursed with knowing and working with many "characters" over the years, and eventually they seem to find their way into my fiction -- for better or worse. :)

    Thanks, both of you, for being so supportive and for being such good "virtual" friends. I appreciate it. Your friendship makes me want to roll up my sleeves and get back to work. And that is a good thing.