In 2005, Matt Bondurant published The Third Translation, a book that blended the study of Egypt, professional wrestling thugs, cults, London musuems, extensive research, and hieroglyphic puzzles. The debut novel received critical acclaim and was published in a number of countries around the world.
Now, Bondurant is back with a dramatically different tale. Based on the author’s grandfather, The Wettest County in the World introduces a world of moonshine, mountain stills, violence, and family ties in rural Virginia. The movie rights have already been sold and the positive reviews are rolling in with praise for Bondurant’s engaging method of interweaving a side-story about Sherwood Anderson into the harsh and brutal world of bootleggers.
Bondurant was kind enough to talk to me about basing fiction on family tales, the difference in book deal experiences, and brass knuckles.
Slushpile: Creative writing teachers often complain that their students are too committed to how things “really happened” and that they need to go further with their imagination. In our 2005 interview, you said “Accept the basic fact that your own story is uninteresting to other people.” Given that, how did you have the confidence that your grandfather’s tale was suitable for a viable novel?
Bondurant: It really just seemed apparent to me from the beginning. Also, I tried it out on a lot of people, usually in later hours after many cocktails, and it was always quite a hit (note: I do not recommend this method, in fact it is best to keep these stories to yourself – I was just unsure). I think also after my first novel and the various stories I’ve published I’ve gotten more confident in my “built-in bullshit detector”, as Hemingway called it. I’m getting better at discerning what makes a good story.
Slushpile: Did you ever question that decision and think, “This is just a family story that should be shared over holiday meals. Why am I writing a novel about it?”
Bondurant: No, and it was never shared over holiday meals. Nobody ever talked about it. That was part of the draw. Nobody still talks about it. It is a kind of strange, dark period in our family history.
Slushpile: In the Acknowledgments, you mention a couple of books you used for reference materials on moonshine as well as historical materials related to the trial of your grandfather and his gang. And your first book, The Third Translation, required extensive research.
Some authors can bog themselves down while researching. They spend all their time scrounging for some esoteric detail instead of writing. How do you balance the need to research for historical accuracy but also continuing to make progress with actually writing the book?
Bondurant: I don’t really balance it at all; I get completely bogged down and sidetracked in my research all the time. But I think that is one of the things that drives me to write in that it satisfies my natural dilettante urge. I love research, particularly scattered, confused, and unorganized research. I get to read about all the things that interest me. Right now on my desk I have books about the islands of Ireland, nautical charts, seasonal temperatures in the North Atlantic, articles on goat farming, books and articles on long distance open water swimming, Spinoza’s Ethics, the Journals of John Cheever, scholarly articles on The Tempest, pictures of rocks, lists of types of seaweed, plus pages and pages of my own journals and notes, often scratched out on tiny scraps of paper I carry in my pockets. I sit down and sift through it and find something interesting. Some days I add things to the pile. My progress in the actual writing comes in fits and starts, and sometimes it seems to me a miracle that I get anything done at all. One day I sit down and realize I’ve got 300 pages written and it comes as a kind of shock.
Slushpile: Your first novel was sold in February, 2004 to Hyperion. The Wettest County in the World sold in April 2007 to Scribner. How were these two experiences of submitting a novel different?
Bondurant: They were both similar in that my excellent agent (Alex Glass of Trident Media) was quite confident and put together a solid proposal package, including plenty of revision and editing attention to the manuscript itself. We came up with a list of possible publishers and submitted it when I felt it was ready. I was terrified both times, and not nearly as confident as he was. Hyperion came in with a “pre-empt” offer on the first book, while Scribner and Viking went to an auction for the second, so that was different, but that existed in the world of phone calls and meetings between my agent in NYC and editors, so I was just kind of waiting around for a call to tell me what was happening. So much of this stuff (the buying/selling/contracts/etc.) goes on in a parallel universe that I am barely privy to, and I prefer it that way. I really just want to write the things.
My reaction to the offer was different in that for the first book I was ecstatic that it actually happened, that someone would want to publish my work, that I had a real shot at being a writer. The second book had different pressures and a different reaction, mostly intense relief. The sophomore effort is worse in many ways – so they say, and I agree – and I think every writer probably fears that they may have just gotten lucky with that first one. The second one is a kind of ratification.
Slushpile: This novel is dramatically different than your first book. Did you encounter any resistance from prospective editors about your new direction?
Bondurant: None. My new editor, Alexis Gargagliano at Scribner, had never read my first book. Probably a good thing, for this reason.
Slushpile: The Wettest County in the World begins with a pretty explicit scene. While it’s not that shocking to many of us who grew up on farms way out in the boonies, it may be a lot for more urban (or squeamish readers) to take. Why start the novel in this manner?
Bondurant: I wanted to quickly impress upon the reader the kind of world they were going to inhabit for the rest of the novel. I also wanted to set up Jack and his brothers as, at least in part, creatures of a specific place and culture. One of the big questions for me when I started this novel was a matter of motivations and compulsions. I had to come up with reasons why these guys would do the things they did in adulthood. It isn’t just childhood experiences of course, but that had something to do with it, as it always does.
Slushpile: Whatever happened to your grandfather’s brass knuckles that fascinated you as a child? Where are they now?
Bondurant: My uncle Bobby Joe has them. He managed to snag them after my grandfather died. I’m a little bitter about that. I’ll have them eventually, somehow.
Slushpile: How has your family felt about the novel and your depiction of the Bondurant brothers?
Bondurant: I would describe it as guarded skepticism, which, if you have read the book, you will recognize as a strong Bondurant family trait. The jury is still out. Most are excited for me of course, but I doubt many will tell me what they really feel. I’m doing a reading down in Franklin County in a week, which will be attended by not my relatives but relatives of other characters in the book. That should be interesting. I would be surprised if there wasn’t some negative feelings. In fact I would feel like I failed if there weren’t some sore spots, somewhere.
Slushpile: I’m assuming you kind of knew how this book would end, based on at least some level of historical fact. Did having that kind of general outline help in the writing of the book? How was that different from writing a book that is complete fiction and maybe you have no clue where the work will take you?
Bondurant: It did help in some ways, in that a broad outline was there for me in the form of the historical record. But then working within that framework was frustrating, as I couldn’t just do whatever I wanted; I struggled constantly, particularly in terms of time and logistics, to make it conform to actuality. I was also under the pressure to do the true story justice. I was afraid of screwing up this amazing story which was essentially handed to me by my family.
My first novel, The Third Translation, despite having loads of research, was wholly fabricated in terms of character and plot which was much more liberating in most ways; having no clue what will happen next is exhilarating and sometimes relaxing. But it also felt like I was wandering in space, with no direction sometimes, and I often felt like a fool for concocting such hair-brained scenes and ideas.
Slushpile: In our last interview, you mentioned that you were working on this novel. So this time around, have you already started a new project?
Bondurant: Yes, and this one is also heavily researched and quasi-true, but nothing like The Wettest County in the World. I doubt I’ll ever do a novel like that again, one that has such a definite connection to historical record (and my family). Not to mention writing from the perspective of young men in 1930 is a built difficult. My new project is present day, in Ireland, dealing with open-ocean swimming, goat herding, physics, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s more of the postmodern-light style that I worked with in The Third Translation. I’m well into it, but still not absolutely certain it will work. I think I will know soon though.
Slushpile: Here are a couple of repeat questions, but all Slushpile.net interviews end this way. And maybe your thoughts on these topics have changed since our last chat.
What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Bondurant: Read everything you can. Realize that your own life experiences and thoughts are not as interesting to other people as you may think. Make shit up.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print.
Bondurant: Forget about quantity, Focus on quality – write one excellent short story and get it published in the best place. Then do it again, and again. Agents, publishing, everything else will work itself out.