“When Bondurant explores what it is like to push yourself to the brink, whether with physical activity, drugs and alcohol, or lust, he captures an intensity of experience the reader won’t soon forget.” —- Bookpage
Click thru as we discuss Matt’s education, love of swimming, family ties, his novels, his feelings on the film version ( Lawless – comes out next month) of his 2nd novel, and also about Dallas.
Our Interview with Author Matt Bondurant:
1. What was it like growing up in Alexandria and when did the writing bug first bite you?
I grew up in Mount Vernon, on the south end of Alexandria, a stone’s throw from George Washington’s house and the Potomac River. It was a fairly classic suburban existence in the 1970’s sense, big yards, no fences, the river down the block. In the summers I walked out the door in the morning and didn’t return until dinner time. I spent a lot of my time in the pool, in the river, or in any of the many streams, creeks, and ditches in the area. I was coming home soaking wet all the time.
I remember writing stories in elementary school and I seemed to have a facility for it. I certainly admired and even worshipped writers by the time I was in high school, and in college I wrote a lot of (bad) poetry, but I didn’t seriously consider being a writer – in terms of a life’s vocation – until I was in the last year of my MA program. I wrote a couple things in a workshop that worked okay. I somehow got into FSU and when I showed up in Tallahassee, basically tossed into a lion’s den of talented, driven writers, was when my apprenticeship really began.
2. How did James Madison influence your writing? What pushed you to pursue your Master’s and then was the choice for a PHD, as a good “backup” plan (How did you like FSU)?
I took classes from many excellent professors at JMU. At least I think I did. In truth, I just wasn’t what you would call attentive. Of course there are exceptions, and it is to these moments and the professors who facilitated them that I likely owe much of the life I have now. And yes, I did take a poetry workshop and a fiction workshop as an undergrad. The Poetry workshop was unremarkable to me, save the fact that I remember writing some horrible sonnets about girls I was infatuated with, some of whom were in the class, and that the professor died at the end of the semester when his mattress caught fire one night while he was sleeping. The rumor was that he was drunk and smoking in bed. Poets.
And about my first and only undergraduate fiction workshop, I remember almost nothing, except that I wrote a ridiculous story about a evil serial killer who never actually did anything except sit on a iron bench by the beach, leering at people in his three piece suit. And that the class was taught by a very quiet woman in blue jeans with sad eyes who sat behind a desk. The only thing I remember her saying is one day she wanted to talk about strategies to help us write, and asked us if we had any thoughts on the matter. Of course we were silent. After a while she offered this: “I like to drink a lot of coffee.” That is the only thing that stuck with me.
I guess in undergraduate I did begin to contemplate the possibility of being a writer. Because for the last two years in undergrad I thought I was a poet. Oh yes, a poet. I was the guy who lured girls up to his room in the fraternity house to read them poems I had written, Morrissey wailing in the background, a few candles flickering. I would sleep in the woods at night, drunk out of my mind, clutching a copy of Leaves of Grass. I memorized some Byron, hoping for that opportunity that never came. While working in a restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland one summer I used to lug an old manual typewriter out to the deserted beach at night, perch on the lifeguard stand and hack away at terribly sincere odes to the moon, the ocean, and to all the girls that I fell in love with but who never knew I was alive. I watched firelight, sunrises, and small birds with a serious turn of mind.
Of course it was all horrible, and after messing around a few years after college I was rejected by every MFA program I applied to. I was working at the Associated Press in DC at the time, not a bad job but I was desperate to get back into school, to read more books, take more classes, be surrounded by people like all of you. I was spending my lunch ours in a bookstore on 19th and K street reading the collected works of Langston Hughes, dog-earing the pages so I could find my place the next day. I found myself coming home from work so exhausted that all I wanted to do was eat dinner and do something mindless like watch TV, which is what nearly everybody else in the world does, by the way. The world outside of the university can be strange and cruel for the English major, in more ways than you think.
So I applied to my alma mater, for an MA in English. Somehow, with my mediocre grades and test scores, they let me come back.
So began the second part of my life at JMU. This was the best thing that ever happened to me because in graduate school I re-read all those important books and actually got something from them. And I met some serious, intelligent people who knew a lot more about books than me, and this time I actually paid attention. My graduate school experiences were formed by the small, enthusiastic, and essentially romantic group of peers, and by a handful of professors, but if there was a star around which we grad students orbited, some powerful mass that put off a gravity that was hard to escape, it was Dr. Mark Facknitz. I took several courses from Mark, including the History of Literary Theory, an extremely difficult course, Literature of the Great War, and perhaps most importantly my first graduate level fiction workshop, only the second one I had taken up to that point.
But I remember many things about Mark Facknitz’ class. As he was in all of his classes, he was tough, deliver skillful critiques always couched in sound and reasonable discussion of narrative craft. He also required us to read a lot, something that I do as well. He introduced me to a lot of writers, but none more important than John Cheever. I also remember very clearly one of the few straight compliments that Mark gave to me, a comment about how he liked a line about the lines of a woman’s shoulders, the smooth hollows of her collar bone, something like that. I can still see his face as he said it, the stillness in the room, the slow drip of exhilaration in my chest, building to a torrent. When I left the class that day I was vibrating. This is also something I try to keep in my with my own teaching, sometimes, if they are paying attention or care or whatever, students really are hanging on your words, and just the smallest bit of praise can potentially change a life.
FSU was like a dream program for me. When I got there in 1998 there already was a strong fiction writing tradition and in the next couple years it just escalated. My main student mentor/idol was Adam Johnson (The Orphan Master’s Son, the best book of 2012), and after he left I was supposed to be “the next Adam Johnson.” I carried that weight around for a couple years, until I published my first book, really. That might have been a burden or a negative thing for some people, but for me it was wonderful. I like having such weights upon me, and I seem to thrive when large pressures are present. The faculty was just ridiculously good: Mark Winegardner, Robert Olen Butler, Bob Shacochis, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. That equals a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, NYT Bestsellers, regulars in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Esquire, etc. I put myself at the feet of these people (and my peers like Adam Johnson) and learned a great deal. Plus there are some really excellent beaches like 45 minutes away. I like the beach.
3. Post FSU you ventured across the pond and worked at a Museum. What elements were you most wanting to showcase of your time in London, in The Third Translation? How did your Hyperion deal come about?
I wanted to write a sort of sordid, sad, love song to London, my favorite and least-favorite city in the world. I was fortunate to live there for a year before I started writing the book and it was one of the most affecting experiences of my life. I also fell in love with the British Museum, and Egyptology. Ancient languages have always fascinated me, and hieroglyphics and their pictographic nature I find the most intriguing. I was thinking about just who is down the bowels of the museum, staring at these three-thousand year old puzzles, trying to decipher them. It seemed like a bizarre life, and one that I wanted to explore.
I was lucky to have an agent express interest in me after the publication of one of my short stories in a literary magazine (Prairie Schooner) and when I got the novel together he sent it out and Hyperion took it early. It was a real shock to me. At the time I was teaching composition at George Mason and my belongings could all fit in my Volkswagen. I was contemplating alternate careers, like the merchant marines.
4. You ventured to George Mason in he mid 2000s and while there worked on The Wettest County, which has direct ties to your own family. What was it about your family’s past you were most trying to invoke with the novel? Was their a particular childhood tale that influenced the spark to write? Were you afraid of offending any of your family with such an open look into the family’s history?
When I was young, a few times a year my family would make the drive down to Snow Creek, four hours from Alexandria, to visit my grandparents. My father’s brothers and sisters all lived in the area as well, so the gatherings usually bloomed into full scale Bondurant family reunions each time we came to visit; all the uncles, aunts, cousins, and others crowding into my grandfathers old farmhouse for giant breakfasts and long, slow talks before the woodstove in which very little was ever actually said. I spent most of the time wrestling in hay-filled barns with my giant cousins, riding tractors in the early morning along muddy creek beds, and grabbing electric cattle fences because they dared me to. My grandfather died in his late eighties; he had just bought a new truck the day before and was building a new house.
I have many important memories of my time there, and of my grandfather; his quiet, hawk-like face, early rides in the pickup to feed the cattle, the staggering stoicism of this man. I also remembered the back utility room where he had a gun rack up on the wall. This wasn’t so unusual; in those days in Franklin County shotguns and rifles hung from nearly any flat surface, and in many houses they still do. What struck me about this particular gun rack was the pair of rusty brass knuckles hanging from a nail just below the gun rack. As a young boy the idea of a man putting on the heavy, metal implement, purely designed to crush another man’s face, was a thrilling prospect and I spent long periods of time gazing at those brass knuckles. To me they represented something remarkably primal, hanging there below the guns, as if to say: if you are still alive when I run out of bullets I will pull this hunk of metal off the wall and pummel you into unconsciousness. Back at the dinner table my grandfather’s heavy, placid face would take on a whole new light. I was terrified of him and fascinated about the life he had led.
I didn’t know of his true past and involvement in the events of the early 1930’s until much later, just a few years before his death. My father didn’t even know he had been shot until a few years before my grandfather’s death, when as part of his genealogical research he came across a series of newspaper article documenting the events at Maggodee Creek in December of 1930. When asked about the shooting my grandfather merely said: oh yeah, shot me through here, and raised his shirt to show my father the entry wound under his arm. Not much more was said about it after that, which is the way my father’s family communicated about such things. This was almost twenty years ago, and it is fair to say I’ve been working on the novel ever since.
I did struggle a lot with this question of writing about my family’s history and the potential for offended some people. But ultimately I had to shut out the argument in my head and just write the story the best way I could. I figured I would clean it all up in revision, and that did happen to some degree. In terms of a historical record there are a ton of gaps in my family’s story. These people didn’t keep journals, write letters, and they barely took any pictures. My basic strategy was to take the handful of actual historical truths that we had knowledge of, things that were documented in newspapers and court transcripts for example, and then use them as sort of points in constellation, connecting the dots to other events, trying to account for the space between in a dramatically interesting, historically plausible way.
Look, Faulkner said that a good story is worth any number of old ladies. This is a good story.
5. How has teaching influenced and inspired your writing?
It is hard to say, other than I find that I am often inspired and motivated by the conversations and workshops I have with my students. It is also a time-suck and a mental burden as well, but generally I like teaching and I think I will always teach in some capacity. Like most writers who teach, I would just rather teach less. When I teach literature courses I tend to do a lot of research and preparation which is always fun and often funnels into my writing.
6. What has your relationship with Scribner been like and were they always the front runners for your 2nd book?
There was an auction for The Wettest County in the World, and they won it. My relationship with them has been stellar. My editor, Alexis Gargagliano is so gracious, smart, and sensitive, and she really seems to understand what I’m trying to do. Her editing/revision advice is almost always right on.
7. Obviously the movie has changed sections or left out elements of your book. Is there anything in the book you wished to have seen on the big screen?
When my father gave me the stack of newspapers articles and other documents that he had collected on the “Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy” of 1935, including reports of his father and uncles involvement in the trial. One page was a short piece of reporting by Sherwood Anderson that was printed in Liberty Magazine, a sort of a personal take on the trial and the people involved. I certainly was familiar with Anderson, specifically Winesburg, Ohio, but from this moment I became a student of Anderson, and over the next decade I read everything that he wrote and much of what was written about him. The idea of incorporating him in the novel struck me straightaway; I have always been a fan of such writers as DeLillo or Banks who include actual historic personages in their novels, and to include someone like Anderson, a writer who I greatly admire, in a story about my family, was like a dream. He was there in the courtroom with my grandfather in 1935, watching him take the stand! His last novel, Kit Brandon, was heavily influenced by his experiences during the trial and one of the fun things I did in The Wettest County In The World was to set up a variety of characters and situations – such as Maggie, who was a real person and was involved with my uncle Forrest – in such a way that they seem to be the inspiration for some of what Anderson does in Kit Brandon. If you read Kit Brandon, which is unfortunately a rather mediocre novel, like much of his later work, you will see what I mean. So, not only do I get to work with Anderson as a character, I get to lay the groundwork for his last novel! Yes, this kind of postmodern shit entertains me to no end.
But Anderson was vital for several reasons other than this, including the parallel you mention. His story is such a classic American tragedy that it seems ripped directly from one of his own stories. But he also functioned as the outsider presence that I felt was necessary to explore Franklin County. My father was born and raised there, but I was not, and though I’ve spent a lot of time there I am still an outsider. I needed a perspective to represent that, personally, and many of Anderson’s thoughts on the place and its people are my own. I also wanted the general outsider perspective, to provide the context of the rest of the world at this time. My grandfather said that the Great Depression didn’t mean much to people in Franklin County; they were poor before, poor during, and poor after. But the rest of the world was going on around this isolated community, and I wanted to acknowledge that somehow.
Regrettably, Anderson did not make the movie cut. It figures.
8. Looking at your most recent novel, The Night Swimmer, how much of your own love of swimming inspired this tale? Had you been to Ireland prior to the inspiration of the novel? The “Night Swimmer” in the story is the wife rather then the husband, what inspired you to make your lead character a woman? How has writing for a women’s voice change you as a writer? Is the couple an image of you and your wife?
I have always wanted to do a story about a swimmer. It has been such a large part of my life and I figured I could likely do the particular perspective of a swimmer justice. As the book is also an homage to John Cheever, this also plays a role here (“The Swimmer”).
I discovered Cape Clear Island when I was living in London and went on a holiday for a week, trying to find the most remote empty place I could. Ireland is good for this. I went back the next year, and the frame of the story started to take shape. I have been back three more times since.
I’d wanted for a long time to write from the female perspective mostly because I had done so little of that. In most of my work, even in third person narration, most of my characters have been decidedly “male,” in a general sort of way. In The Third Translation and The Wettest Country in the World, the female characters are more secondary, and they’re developed to some degree, but they don’t drive the story the way that the male characters do.
I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or one of these male writers who only wrote about other guys, but I put it off because I still don’t really know or understand women in the same way I understand men. I don’t think that’s even possible. But I was terrified even of trying it because I didn’t want to write one of those terrible books, be one of those guys trying to write from a woman’s perspective.
The first time I went to Cape Clear was 11 years ago. I had all this stuff written about the island, the setting, the weather, the locals, the history. Then about 6 years ago the character of Elly emerged in part from my visualizing her coming out of the water. I watched her walk toward me, and her whole being came together very quickly. That’s how my characters usually come to me, as images. And then the voice came next, the actual sound of it, and for the next couple of years, every time I thought about this book it was always this woman’s voice talking. I started off in first person and then stopped and did a bunch in third person and went back and forth for a while. I talked to my editor and my wife about it and their early insight was helpful. I was very, very worried about it but I couldn’t seem to separate the story from the voice and ultimately they both seemed to think yeah, it’s good, we need to tweak some things about it, but it’s solid. Now, Elly is an unusual woman with certain characteristics about her that might have made it easier for me. For instance, there’s the great love of swimming. Her sensibility about endurance sports and the Cheever stuff, so we share some very powerful loves. She’s straightforward and blunt, but there are other sections where she’s more classically feminine. At one point, my wife was pointing out some things I needed to change. I’d used the word “crotch” and “armpit,” I think? And my wife said, “No, no, she wouldn’t say armpit. She would say ‘underarms.’”
It’s not without its flaws, still. I wanted to write about this place in Ireland, but my primary goal was to write a love story and a book that my wife would love. I usually seem to have an ideal reader, an actual singular person in mind when I’m writing, and this time it was my wife. I am often moved by powerful love stories and I wanted to do that as well. I wanted to write about a relationship that people would consider emotionally affecting. If the book does not move you to tears then I have failed you somehow, in my estimation.
My wife finished reading the full final draft a couple months ago and when she walked into the kitchen, her face wet with tears, I knew I had done something. Stacy is a serious reader of literary fiction, and she had been hearing about this story, all the aspects of it, for years, so its not like she was surprised by anything. We hugged and she cried and told me it was beautiful. That moment was my greatest achievement as a writer so far, and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
9. The last few months you’ve done some amazing swims yourself? What was it like swimming around Alcatraz? I’ve personally fallen into the North Sea (While on vacation in Scotland), what was it like swimming around Ireland? Do you plan on more swims, if so where would be your most ideal location to swim?
Alcatraz was great fun, the waves and current a little rougher than I expected but it was rather short and over quickly. I was fortunate to be able to spend 10 days in June swimming on the coast of Ireland as part of a English Channel training camp (for an article for Outside Magazine) and I loved it all. I still think that the south harbor of Cape Clear Island is very close to an ideal ocean swimming spot. I might like the water a few degrees warmer, but not much. Once you start doing cold water swimming it sort of gets into your system and you crave it. Swimming in pools here in Texas is like jumping into a bowl of urine.
10. Since I’m Dallas based, I’ve got tons of questions about your time here in our fair city. Feelings on the literary community of Dallas? Food wise how did you take to our Southern cuisine? Favorite parts of the city (Arts District, Sports, Suburb fun)? How does Dallas compare to other parts of the US (and abroad) that you’ve lived?
I’m still getting the feel of Dallas. Okay, I’m going to be honest here. Place is vitally important to my writing, perhaps more than anything. I love extreme environments, and will happily write about them for the rest of my life. I have lived in Dallas for almost three years and so far it is hard to formulate my feelings about it as a place. On one hand it is one of the most un-extreme or mundane locations I’ve ever lived in. No, it is the most non-location I’ve ever lived. As you know, it is a giant stretch of flat concrete filled with highways and suburbs, for nearly an hour in every direction. It has little in terms of defining characteristics, nothing to separate it from any other urban sprawl anywhere in the country. But then perhaps this is what is so unusual about it? Or maybe not. If Dallas has a living, breathing, personality, I don’t think I want to know it or write about – apologies to those who love Dallas and call it home. To be honest, I’m here because I needed a job and my wife’s family lives in Austin. That’s about it. I think in general geographical features, topography, lakes and rivers, are very important to me. There is no texture to the land in the Dallas area that isn’t man-made. Even the crappy little lakes are just man-made pots for ducks to shit in. But the kids love the zoo and the arboretum and we are starting to get out and see more things downtown. I’m still open to the possibility of falling for Dallas.
I moved to Austin in 2001 for six months and I gained 20 lbs (that I still have). That is all I need to say about the food around here. The holy trinity: BBQ, Mexican, Homestyle. Love it. I’m a man of large appetites.
11. Since all your books obviously come directly from your own life, may I ask what your working on next?
I do know that I rarely write about a place until I have left it. My next novel takes place in northern New York, on the border of Canada, a fictionalized version of a town where I lived from 2006-2008. I need to get some perspective on a place, to get away from it, before I can write about it.
For more information on this wonderful writer please visit his website.