Earlier this year, Publishers Weekly mentioned five books that were contenders to the Da Vinci throne. One of those titles was The Third Translation by Matt Bondurant. There were a couple of things that caught my attention about this author and made him stand out in my mind from the usual marketing hyperbole.
First, he has a Ph.D. in creative writing and some prestigious publications in journals such as Glimmertrain and Prairie Schooner and is on the faculty at George Mason University. Oftentimes, novelists are featured in marketing pieces like the PW piece but they really don’t have the literary chops. Bondurant’s credentials show that he does belong.
The second thing, and really the clincher as far as I’m concerned, is that his author photograph was taken by Marion Ettlinger. If the photographer seems like a silly way to judge an author, just think about the fact that Ettlinger photographed Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver for the love of God. I never dreamed of winning Pulitzers or National Book Awards… I’ve always dreamed of having a photograph taken by Ettlinger. So maybe it’s crazy, but that’s a sign of quality in my admittedly demented opinion.
Bondurant was kind enough to spend a lot of time talking to us about Revolutionary War knickers, professional wrestlers, and writing characters that aren’t particularly likeable.
Slushpile: Please tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your favorite toy as a child?
Bondurant: I grew up just south Washington DC, in Alexandria, Virginia, in the area called Mount Vernon. You know, George Washington’s Mount Vernon? It’s right down the street. I worked there a few summers as a waiter in the restaurant, wearing the knickers, stockings, blouse and vest, the whole deal. My mother is roaming around the grounds right now dressed as a colonial woman; she’s a “first-person interpreter,” acts in character, has a historical background, all that sort of thing. Kind of cool that my mom is a storyteller in the most literal sense.
It was a good place to grow up; one of the older middle class suburban neighborhoods with huge, rolling yards, massive old trees, and actual small bits of woods and creeks and things to play in. Northern Virginia is an odd place, geographically part of the south but in so many ways a “northern” area. Nobody around here speaks with an accent, but if you drive an hour south you’ll find “old Virginny” alive and well. I like that aspect. Growing up near DC was great too. My parents took us to the museums or the aquarium or the mall almost every weekend. And then when you are a teenager it was quite exciting to venture into the city to do things you aren’t supposed to do.
I certainly “played” with books more than anything, but that is a lame answer. My favorite toy was likely my collection of what we called “Army Men,” those little plastic military troops complete with a few tanks, artillery, minesweepers. For about four years, maybe about from age six to ten, I was quite the militaristic child. I set up massive battles between various groups, most often based in the Pacific theater of WWII as I had a set of Japanese troops. I did this mostly by myself, for hours, all day long. As I got older I began to incorporate pyrotechnics; firecrackers and bottlerockets, when I could get them, were fantastic for replicating explosions, but often I just used plain old fire to melt down tanks or the unfortunate rifle squad who got caught in the fiery stream of the flamethrower.
I read every book in my elementary school that had anything to do with war, military hardware, or military history. I formed the boys of my six grade class into a military unit, complete with ranks (I was the five-star general of course), insignias, and duties, like forming a battle group during recess to repel (using the Napoleonic shift) the undisciplined attacks of the girls, who were always chasing us around and trying to pinch us.
That turned into a healthy obsession with Dungeons and Dragons and that sort, which I gave up in High School and focused all my creative energies on being popular. I still am fascinated by the military, and military history, even though I?Ĵm about as far from that life as you could get. Now when I point out a plane passing in the sky and say “That’s a C5-A transport plane,” my girlfriend says, “How the hell do you know that? You’re weird.”
Slushpile: When you worked at Mt. Vernon, did the knickers bring you any luck with the girls? I always thought it would be awesome to have a summer job at an amusement park or something like that because you’d get all the girls on vacation coming through. But when I managed to secure jobs like that, I always had to wear some stupid uniform that ruined my chances.
Bondurant: Absolutely none. Chicks don’t dig the colonial garb. A lot of people did take pictures of me though, so that was strange.
Slushpile: You mention a healthy obsession with Dungeons and Dragons. What was your favorite character? Mine was a cleric that I named Siegfried after reading a Thor comic book that was essentially Wagner’s Ring Trilogy in color. In sixth grade, I cried when my dungeon master killed Siegfried off.
Bondurant: I think my longest living character was a Palladin – I like that chivarly idea and that he could employ a bit of magic – like the cleric. I was also fan of the hybrid – I had a half-elf ranger. It always irritated me that magic-users were so soft – not enough offensive weapons. I loved the idea that you could be “chaotic-good” and such combinations.
Slushpile: When did you decide you wanted to write? What prompted that decision?
Bondurant: I don’t remember it ever being a clear cut decision. I was a huge reader, and early on it seemed I was able to make up stories rather easily and liked writing them down. In college I was the guy writing poems late at night in the frat house, trying to read Leaves of Grass by moonlight on camping trips, that sort of thing. I kept journals and liked to quote Byron, hopefully to girls. I had a real pretentious streak, but other than that I was just a regular dude in duck boots and sweatshirts, trying to drink beer in a myriad of ways and absentmindedly going to class.
I wrote a lot of poetry back then. A lot of bad poems. One summer in college I lived at the beach with some friends and brought an old typewriter I found in my parent’s garage. I would get drunk at bars and fail miserably to meet any girls, then come home and bang away at the thing late at night, the sea roaring through the window, and pretend I was Yeats or Dylan Thomas. Man, those were some bad poems. I was trying to live out some kind of stupid cliche, and I was aware of it even then. I think I was writing poems based on some silly romantic notion that it would help me get girls, which it did not. I did a few workshops out of curiosity and discovered that people seemed to think I was really good (I wasn’t), and I enjoyed that attention. Because I was a reader from my earliest memories, I certainly entertained notions of being a writer for a long time, probably from the moment I first picked up a book. Doesn’t everyone?
Slushpile: You received a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Is it in fiction or a more standard Ph.D. in literature? If it’s in literature, what was your emphasis?
Bondurant: My Ph.D. was in creative writing fiction. I liked the program in part because it was quite close to a “standard” literature Ph.D. in that you take most the same classes. The only real difference is that your electives are workshops, and then you have the option to do a creative dissertation, like a novel or collection of poems. I did the Ph.D. because I wanted to take more literature classes; unlike some writers I loved those classes and would take more if I could. I don’t think as a writer you can ever read enough.
I did get an M.A. in literature at James Madison University, and back then my emphasis was on 19th century Romantics; Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, etc. That is still probably my favorite area, back when America was just figuring out who it was in terms of literature.
Slushpile: Speaking of Florida State, I just have to ask this… if quarterback Wyatt Sexton is God, as he was murmuring the other day, wouldn’t he have a higher completion percentage than 55%?
Bondurant: It’s not unusual for an FSU player to think or proclaim that he is the almighty. Nor is it unusual for them to get arrested.
Slushpile: You have some pretty prestigious publications in journals such as Glimmertrain and Prairie Schooner. Can you tell us about the stories that appeared in those two publications?
Bondurant: The Prairie Schooner story was my first big publication. I was at Bread Loaf on a waiter-scholarship when I met the editor, also on a scholarship. She said: “Oh, I know you. We are publishing your story, The Queen of Sparta.” I almost lost my mind that night. I was so excited. That story was the first in what I consider my “adult” style, the style that I write in now. Before that I was all over the place, writing Raymond Carver rip-offs, trying to do Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, Fitzgerald and of course Hemingway. It was the story where I think I found my voice, if I have one.
This is actually an interesting story. I mean the story behind this story, and what happened afterwards. In 2000 I was reading about Alan Turing and his random number theories, and also thinking a lot about gambling. I was also reading a history of the ancient civilization of Sparta, which had some amazing cultural practices. I wrote a story about two mathematics students from Cornell who become part of a semi-secret organization dedicated to the theories of Turing, and by applying his mathematical theories make large amounts of money playing blackjack. They count cards; they can hold massive numbers in their head and access them. The organization sends teams of guys around the country hitting all the casinos. They’ve been doing it for years. Any of this sound familiar?
So it’s a sort of classic buddy story, and our two guys go to Vegas and do well, then get threatened by shady casino guys, meet a hooker called “The Queen of Sparta,” get drunk and generally screw things up. It was the first story where I was able to merge all this interesting stuff I was thinking about into a forward-moving narrative, to meld it with the plot. Oh yeah, I made the whole thing up, from start to finish, total fiction, no basis in reality. Prairie Schooner accepted it and published it in December of 2001.
Imagine my surprise when I walk in a bookstore and see this Bringing Down the House book, which is the exact fucking story, even with some of the more minor plot points, like the buddy system and a low-betting loser who is counting signaling his partner when the deck is hot, but this time presented as a “true story.” This book is a blockbuster hit. How is it possible that I totally made up a story that turns out to be true?
What am I saying here? Did Mezrich steal my story? Hell, I don’t know, but it sure is a weird coincidence, isn’t it?
The Glimmertrain story is the last one I wrote, and the only one that my agent submitted for me. It’s about a short-wave radio junkie living in a small town in Virginia who takes on a job as muscle for the gay mafia that owns half the town. I think it is kind of funny and sweet. It is due out this summer I believe. Maybe Mezrich will do a book about the “true story” of this one in a few years.
Slushpile: So in some Jungian collective unconscious way, you “predicted” the story behind Bringing Down the House. What other novel or story would you like to take away from the writer and claim as your own?
Bondurant I’ll take Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I love that story. Though he based that on another novel. Hell, I’ll go big and claim Moby Dick.
Slushpile: What is your worst rejection story?
Bondurant: I went through several drafts of a story with Walter Kirn at The Atlantic Monthly, who in the end finally passed on it. Man, that was a real bitch getting that close to one of the holy grails of short story publications. Over the years I’ve had tons of rejections. I have them all in a file. Every once in a while when I’m feeling good I’ll take them out and remind myself what a sorry writer I really am.
My best story: I applied to MFA programs in poetry a year out of college and was rejected by every one, and rightly so. I was personally rejected by Larry Levis at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I keep his letter taped to my wall as I reminder of that humiliation, that one of the greatest poets of the second half of the twentieth century actually read my ridiculous poems. He died shortly thereafter. I’m serious! My terrible poems killed Larry Levis! Yeah, he was a longtime drunk, with multiple health problems, but I can just picture him there at his cluttered desk, glass of whisky in his hand, reading my poems and thinking that the world really was just too devastatingly trite to go on living in it.
I love Larry Levis, he informs my work always. I still read a decent amount of poetry, and consider it the highest of the literary arts. Just out of my reach. But I hope there is a drop of poetry in my prose, at least that is what I?Ĵm shooting for.
Slushpile: At one point, you were employed at the British Museum and you arranged some viewings of the collection with curators in the Egyptian area. What began your interest in Egyptian history?
Bondurant: I’ve been interested in ancient cultures forever. We had a subscription to National Geographic growing up, so ancient Egypt was always a part of my world. I love history, of all kinds.
When I lived in London I was lucky enough to be just down the street from the British Museum, who has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the western world. It’s also always free. I spent a lot of time there.
Slushpile: The Third Translation is your first published novel. Is it the first one you attempted to write? If you have worked on other novel ideas, can you tell us about them? If you have worked on other novel ideas, can you tell us what caused you to abandon those projects?
Bondurant: It is the first novel I ever seriously attempted to write. I mean, I started a few other novels at one time or another, but they never made it past twenty or so pages. They are all too stupid to mention. I abandoned them because they clearly had no arc, no superstructure. They weren’t going anywhere. After a while you realize you are just writing words. Sometimes you begin with the greatest idea, life-like characters, a sense of generous plot, and it still won’t work. It is pointless to continue. I’m not sure if I can break it down any better than these vague notions. Lorrie Moore once said in a story that writers have no idea what they are really doing. When I try to answer a question like this I think she is right.
Slushpile: How long did it take to write The Third Translation?
Bondurant: It took me about three and a half years to complete.
Slushpile: You are represented by Mr. Alex Glass at Trident Media Group. How did you get Mr. Glass to represent you? Were you working with him based on your short fiction or did you get his attention with The Third Translation?
Bondurant: Alex saw the previously mentioned story in Prairie Schooner and emailed me. Of course he wanted to know if I had a novel, which I didn’t at the time. It was the first actual contact I ever had with an agent. He kept in touch with me over the next year or so and then when I started the novel he was excited about it. He was just starting out (he is younger than I am) and I don’t think he actually had any clients yet. By the time I had a full draft a few other agents had contacted me as well I think they all had seen my short stories somewhere. I then submitted the novel to maybe ten “top agents” for fun, just to see who I could get, and maybe half of them expressed interest. But in the end, I went with Alex, the guy who had been there all along.
There is that old quandary: do you go with the established, famous agent who can get you on the desk of any editor pronto, but who because of their already established career, doesn’t need to/want to work too hard for you, fledgling writer that you are? Or do you go with the young agent, just starting out, who doesn’t know any editors personally or have the clout, but, because they need to create their career essentially with your work, they work extra hard, bang on doors, make the calls, to make you a success? I went with the latter. I’m glad I did.
Slushpile: Have you worked with any other agents? If so, who?
Slushpile: Can you tell us the story of how Mr. Glass secured a book deal for The Third Translation? What is the process for an agent shopping around a first novel? How long did it take to have a deal?
Bondurant: He came up with a list of publishing houses, maybe a dozen. We were going with the big ones first, which I believe is the way you should do everything. We sent a proposal I wrote up and complete drafts I think. It happened awfully fast, and I don’t think my experience is quite normal. A few places passed on it, and then Hyperion jumped on it. Maybe a couple months? Not long at all. I was extremely lucky.
Slushpile: Was The Third Translation sold as a pre-empt or at an auction?
Slushpile: Publishers Weekly named your novel as one of five titles “most likely to win over the Da Vinci faithful” and it has certainly been marketed as such. As an author, do you have any input on how a book is marketed?
Bondurant: Very little. A tiny bit. Almost none. Well, they sometimes pretend like I do. It has been a learning process, this book.
But really, I don’t want to have much to do with the marketing and such anyway. I’m trying to write the second book. Sure, I’d like it to sell, but it’s not stuff I want to deal with. I just want to do the writing part.
Slushpile: A question that we’ve asked some of the other writers mentioned in that Publishers Weekly article is if you mind having the financial details of your book contract publicized. Does it bother you that your contract details are reported in the press?
Bondurant: Yeah, I’d rather they didn’t do that. Because I know some people, like myself, get bitter about that kind of stuff. Like when talking with other writers you never discuss actual numbers when it comes to advances (at least that is what I’ve been told and experienced) just because it isn’t cool. We are competing with one another in some respect. Like I said, I’m very lucky.
Slushpile: Given the amount of research involved in writing this novel, it’s probably safe to assume you started working on this book before the Da Vinci phenomenon became so powerful so it’s not like you were trying to cash in on the craze. But do you think being caught up in the wake of Dan Brown’s juggernaut helped The Third Translation secure a bigger audience, a bigger advance, or a bigger marketing budget?
Bondurant: I came back from London for the last time in 2002 with a full draft of the book. A bit later in 2003 I’m living in Texas, selling computers of all things because I couldn’t get a job, going over the draft with my agent via mail, and someone who knew a bit about my book told me that there was this book called The Da Vinci Code that sounded sort of like it. I was interested so I went to a book store in Austin and read the first twenty pages or so. I thought it was terribly written, that first scene so cheesy and cliche I was hoping it was ironic. Since I was broke I didn’t buy it. I asked my mother about it and she said she couldn’t get past the first fifty pages. This is from a woman who reads everything. I still haven’t read it.
No doubt that The Da Vinci Code had a lot to do with Hyperion’s pre-empt offer, the marketing, and a bigger audience as well. Every publisher out there is trying to cash in on this craze, not just Hyperion. It’s been a strange thing, seeing my book marketed this way, being mentioned in articles like that USA Today piece. I never would have thought that would happen.
Despite the negative aspects of being associated with his book, which are few and have more to do with my own overly inflated sense of self-importance and certain literary pretensions, the bottom line is that it is putting my book in more people’s hands, and despite the marketing or anything else, between the covers it is my book, the book that I wrote. Hopefully it will be judged on the merits of the writing itself. So I have to thank Dan Brown for all that. Plus I was able to pay off all my debts I accrued over the years, especially from living in London, which is like the most expensive city in the world. I probably dropped a grand in pubs alone.
Slushpile: You mentioned the advance from this book helped you pay off the debts you accrued over the years. What is the craziest big ticket item you bought that got paid off? Was there something that you looked back upon and thought, “geez, why did I buy that thing” that you were able to pay off with the advance money?
Bondurant: I’m actually a frugal dude. I paid off my debts, invested the rest. I bought a car in cash, but it was a used VW Golf. If I didn’t sell the book, I would have been pissed about all the money I blew in England and Europe. Though it was a great time.
Slushpile: So when authors sign a book deal, big or small, how long does it take for the check to arrive? When do you actually get the cash?
Bondurant: A lot longer than you think, and longer than they say. I got half when I signed the contract and half when I delivered the final draft.
Slushpile: Given the see-through dust jacket, the esoteric subject matter, and the beginning where the narrator is looking back on the part he played in someone’s death, I couldn’t help think of Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History. Are you a fan of that work at all?
Bondurant: Bob Shacochis compared my book to hers in his blurb, and you know I haven’t read it. I have no idea what it is about; I’d only heard of it in passing years ago. I’ll have to check it out.
Slushpile: There is a tremendous amount of Egyptian historical information in The Third Translation. As a writer, what was your approach to doling out the information the reader needed to know, but not becoming too bogged down in the minutiae that would interesting only to archaeologists and grad students?
Bondurant: My approach was to resist at every turn my urge to fill the thing chock full of information and gee-whiz facts. I love that stuff. I wanted to do what Eco does; his books are completely bogged down with esoteric minutiae, and yet they still work. How does he do it? I’m not sure, but I can’t do what he does. I’m doing Eco-light.
Slushpile: How did you pace the subject matter between historical information that needs to be communicated with the more fictional aspects of the plot itself?
Bondurant: It was tricky, a quite a bit was done in revision; moving around blocks of information to places where it didn’t drag the narrative down. I wanted the thing to move, for it to have momentum, like reading downhill. I tried to keep focused on that as I was writing and revising. Some of it was quite tedious work, and boring to talk about.
Slushpile: The narrator, Walter Rothschild, is an American Egyptologist living in London. To say that he is obsessive about his studies is an understatement. When faced with a beautiful woman at a bar, Rothschild starts doodling Egyptian scripts on cocktail napkins. A bathroom attendant is “like a shriveled one-eyed Horus, years after Seth tore out his falcon eye, the wedjat, the eye of truth” When he’s in a heavy metal/punk bar, he meets a pair of men: one with a mohawk and piercings and one with a bald head covered in tattoos and Rothschild says “Anton and Gunnar stared at me with expectant grins, their pupils deep and wide as the eddying pools of the Nile. I thought of Seth emerging from the marsh reeds.” When telling his estranged daughter of his crisis, he says “I thought about The Instruction of Any, a New Kingdom instructional text.” When Rothschild watches a life-and-death struggle between his friend and one of his tormentors, he says “I thought of the struggles of Seth, anarchy versus order, the protector of the badlands, the outlying territories, the defender of the endless sands of Egypt.”
Now, The Third Translation is narrated in the past tense, from a remove of time passed, of time for introspection, of time for reshaping memories. But in your effort to show Rothschild’s obsession, did you fear that you might make him an unlikable character? What techniques did you use to illustrate his obsession without making the reader just get sick of hearing him talk about Egypt?
Bondurant: I wasn’t afraid of making him an unlikable character I think he naturally is unlikable in many ways. The guy is sort of a jerk; he means well but has little sense of responsibility or perspective and behind the facade of bumbling academic is a very self-obsessed person, something Penelope saw through right away. I was afraid of making him too likable. Name one great literary character who is completely likable? Now think of all the unlikable ones.
I think many readers may get sick of hearing him talk about Egypt I get sick of hearing it from him. But that forms the template for his understanding the world. It is his metaphorical palette. The rest of us have a more varied store of things to compare our sensory experience to, but Walter doesn’t. I tried to edit it down a bit, but I couldn’t stop him entirely. I was just following him around and listening. It was a good time.
Slushpile: Some readers felt like The Third Translation was mis-marketed. They expected it to be one way, and it turned out to be another and some even felt as though they had been misled by the publisher. Other reviews view this as a strength of the book. The Washington City Paper points out that “it doesn’t read like the latest Grisham” and compared it to DeLillo and Pynchon. How do you perceive your novel? Do you consider it a “thriller” or a “literary” novel? How would you categorize it?
Bondurant: From the beginning I was trying to write a “literary” novel. I’ve read a few thrillers, but not many. I wouldn’t even know how to do that. My book has a “mystery” in the same sense that I think all literary novels have mysteries at their core: how will this character survive/get out of this/succeed? I like plot, always have, and a bit of mystery. Will Jay Gatsby get away with it? Will Ahab ever get the white whale?
I think because something is stolen and an attempt is made to retrieve it that it gets lumped into the “thriller” category. Many writers I love have this kind of component in their books, from Amis to T.C. Boyle to Delillo. I think I probably just didn’t do quite a good enough job in some way to be classified with those books, but perhaps among a lesser category of literary fiction.
But we would be foolish not to note the role Dan Brown’s book plays in all this. Hyperion wanted to catch a ride on that gravy train, and because of the similarities they tried to market it as such. I don’t blame them at all. Like I said, it is the book that I wrote, inside the covers, and it will be judged on its merits accordingly. I think the only negative result is that some thriller/mystery/Da Vinci Code lovers may feel disappointed or misled, or that some literary novel readers may not give it a chance. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Slushpile: Rothschild is obsessed not only with Egypt, but also with preserving his place in history. Towards the end of the novel, one of his colleagues in the adventure writes an elaborate way that Rothschild can preserve his body for future generations to find. Do you think that writers have a similar obsession with history? Is our writing a way of preserving our place in the world?
Bondurant: Of course. More than the biological imperative, it is a supremely arrogant enterprise, writing. To earnestly believe that thousands of people will want to read this absurd story I just made up, some figment of my imagination? I don’t believe that we ever write just for ourselves, even in our diaries. I’m writing this only for me. That is just a lie we tell ourselves so we don’t have to confront our own obsession with immortality. It is the part of ourselves we hope to leave behind, how we will be known, a monument to our accepted greatness. It is the innermost part of us crying for attention, really. I find it embarrassing even to think about.
Slushpile: You teach at George Mason University in Virginia. Do you teach creative writing or literature courses? If you teach creative writing, what kind of work do you see in your classes? Overall, how would you rate the quality of student fiction?
Bondurant: I do a little of everything at GMU. I’m not tenured and I’m still a sort of junior faculty member there, so I have to do whatever they give me. I do some composition, some literature, some writing. But I’m glad to have the job, and GMU has been very good to me. I actually like teaching literature best. I am a fan of literature first and foremost. The highlight of my teaching career was teaching Shakespeare in London. My ultimate teaching job would be teaching Shakespeare, a revolving literature class, and a workshop.
The student fiction I’ve seen in my career varies as greatly as the personalities of the students themselves. I think most undergraduate fiction, the vast majority of it, is quite terrible, as it should be. Occasionally there will be a prodigy of some kind, but mostly it is just far too early to have the tools and wisdom to present a fabricated vision of the world that is compelling to others. That is a lot to ask.
You have to also understand that a portion of your undergraduate class is there purely because they understand it is a class that will be easy to pass and get an A in. I’m amazed how many teachers won’t admit that. So they are blowing it off. Then you have a group that is emulating someone so closely it is more of a parody, like Hemingway, King, or Bukowski. Man, so many young English majors love Bukowski. A lot of graduate level writing sucks too, let’s be honest. But that is where you should be feeling yourself out, finding your voice, so that’s cool too.
Slushpile: There are some great stories floating around about creative writing teachers and their classes; Barry Hannah and the gun being one of the most retold legends. What is the most outlandish thing you’ve ever done in a class? What is the most outlandish thing you’ve ever thought about doing in a class?
Bondurant: I’ve got nothing compared to that. I need a few more years to get real cranky and a bit insane. Maybe start showing up drunk too.
Slushpile: What is the one suggestion you find yourself making to most students?
Bondurant: Read. Most college student writers I’ve come across haven’t read anything. They don’t even know what a story is supposed to look like, or have any notion of the divergent styles.
I never understand how some writers barely read anything. It seems natural to me that a writer should be a reader first and a writer second. That’s like playing a sport you don’t even watch. I don’t get that.
The creative writing major, as offered at GMU and many other universities, is a big joke and I think a real detriment to the students; they take a bunch of workshops instead of actually reading great literature and developing the apparatus to understand it. They don’t learn how to read well and make critical and aesthetic choices. Creative writing majors are often my worst students; instead of immersing themselves in the apprenticeship of reading, which is how one’s literary aesthetics are formed, they just write a bunch of crap in workshops, tell each other it is cool, and get A’s. I always advise good students to go with the straight English major; you can take a few workshops if you want anyway.
Read Read Read Read. Read everything great and everything else until you are so moved by it all that you must write.
Slushpile: What do you think is your biggest weakness in your writing? What do you want to work on to improve?
Bondurant: I have a hard time doing dialogue, though people seem to think it is okay. I have a weakness for getting all windy and poetic (I?Ĵm channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald!) and it comes out just plain silly. I have a real penchant for melodrama, something I must check always, as I hate to read the crap. The “built in bullshit detector” as Hemingway said all writers must have, sometimes it doesn’t work so well.
Slushpile: Of all the bad guys in literature, of all the mercenary types to provide the muscle, what prompted you to pick professional wrestlers?
Bondurant: First, I just thought it was kind of funny. I used to be a fan as a kid. When I was getting my MA my friends and I watched it regularly and did a sort of dramatic/literary/cultural theory commentary. Deconstructing the display. You know the bit in The Third Translation about it being basically the equivalent of Elizabethan theater? Not too far off if you think of it. Contrary to what many think, it is a testament to our progress as a civilized people, instead of the Roman arena or horrible practices like bear baiting in Elizabethan England (Shakespeare’s biggest competition) we have fake violence. There is a level of safety, while still allowing us to revel in our natural inclination for bloodlust.
It was a lot of fun. And they are larger than life figures, beyond stereotypes moving into archetypes, almost mythological in a sense. Kind of like the figures that inhabit ancient mythologies, and so it made sense that Walter Rothschild, who tends to view everyone in this context (massive, striding gods, shriveled demons, etc.) would come up against them. And I always wanted to make up my own wrestler persona.
Slushpile: It’s kind of silly really, because the only connection is pro wrestling, but I couldn’t help but remember Tony Early’s short story Charlotte when I was reading the exploits of Gigantica and the other wrestlers. Do you remember that piece?
Bondurant: Yes! I’m amazed you picked up on that. I love that story! I was totally influenced by that story, definitely. I love Tony Early’s work.
Slushpile: Rothschild is able to lose hours, even days, when working on his translations and his research. What is your writing style? Do you find yourself disappearing into your work the way Rothschild does?
Bondurant: Unfortunately, my process is not much like that at all. I wish it was. I wish I was as obsessed with writing as Walter is about Egyptology. Occasionally I find myself in the thrall of creation and find time has flown a bit, but mostly not. I’m often too hyper-aware of my self and surroundings, too many distractions, all that. I am not a disciplined writer by any means; my work habits are spotty. I have too many other hobbies and interests, which is the problem. I’ve often wished I wasn’t such a dilettante as I would get a lot more work done. The fact is I have other things in my life. I should be working on the second novel instead of doing this interview! But if I’m not working on something, getting some writing done, I’m generally an unhappy bastard. I always feel like I should be writing. I just don’t always do it.
Slushpile: What is the most useless obsession that you have? For example, I’m fascinated by guitars and collect the instruments. But I can’t play a note. Do you have something that takes up all your time but is kind of useless in your life except to give you some enjoyment?
Bondurant: Man, that last statement covers just about everything I do.
Slushpile: What are you working on now?
Bondurant: The second novel. It is a far different thing from The Third Translation; it takes place in the 1920-30’s in rural Virginia. It is based on a true story of some events my family was involved in. It is an awesome story. I just have to do it right.
Slushpile: What are you reading now?
Bondurant: I just finished Charming Billy (which I should have read years ago) which was amazing. I am always so impressed by writers that can write a whole book with such scant information, meaning detail, description, scene, etc. and instead concentrate on the inner story, the dialogue, emotions, the moments of being, and make the whole thing just as fleshed out in your mind. Kaye Gibbons does this too. I’m also reading The Selected Letters of Sherwood Anderson, Jill McCorkle’s Final Vinyl Days, a biography of Odysseus, and I’m going to start Charles Baxter’s (whom I adore) Saul and Patsy and that new Murakami novel soon.
Slushpile: One aspect of rap music that I would like to incorporate in the literary world is the posse phenomenon. Emimen makes it big and he brings along D12, 50 Cent, etc. According to The Fabulous Life on VH1, some rappers even employ homies for nothing else but carrying the jewelry. If you could, what writers would you bring along with you, to enjoy higher levels of success? Who would be in your posse?
Bondurant: I would take my buddy Adam Johnshon, a big freaky, brilliant writer. Richard Bausch for the stories and jokes, Charles Baxter because he’s a quality guy and a genius, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis & Hanif Kurieshi to supply the madness, Pynchon for the mystery, and we’d dig up the corpse of John Cheever and bear him around on our shoulders, a cocktail in his bony fist.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Bondurant: Besides reading everything, I think good advice is to write away from yourself as often as possible. Write from the viewpoint of or about someone you do not know and does not in any way resemble you or your life.
Accept the basic fact that your own story is uninteresting to other people; the sooner you do that the better off you will be.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip for aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Bondurant: I can only go with what I know here. Focus on one thing: write a good story and send it to only “top” journals. Everything else will take care of itself.
Buy The Third Translation here.