January 15, 2010
JC: Matt Bondurant is the author of two fine novels. His first book, The Third Translation, is the story of a soused cryptologist in the British Museum is a funny and smart romp through the streets of London, and made me think of Harry Crews writing with an English accent. His most recent novel, The Wettest County in the World, is recently out in paperback. It’s the Depression-era story of the Bondurant family, bootleggers in Franklin County, VA, as revealed through the three brothers personalities and the outsider observations of Sherwood Anderson. It’s a rugged and riveting read that I highly recommend.
Here is what Matt had to say about the books that made him a lifetime reader and writer:
Matt Bondurant: As a youngster I was heavily invested in reading. My mother took us to the library every week and I always took home a pile of books. A common babysitting method was to drop me at a bookstore, library, or even a flea market (in the bookstall) where I would while away the hours without much concern. In the 70’s and 80’s you could apparently do that kind of thing and not worry about child abductions and the like. From grades 4 to my senior year in high school I spent most of my time in school trying to conceal a book under my desk. I would bring several so I had spares when they were confiscated.
The problem is that I remember so little about what I was reading or even which books. There were several powerfully affective books, such as The Hobbit or Watership Down that I lived in for a good span of time. I remember being ten years old trying to find “important” books at the library. I read Moby Dick before I was in high school but I had little idea what was going on. I was not a writer. I was a reader.
I still don’t consider myself a writer. John Updike is a writer. Margaret Atwood is a writer. Pynchon, McCarthy, Dellilo, those are writers. I’m just a dude who has written a few things. I try to write.
But there was a kind of moment when I began to contemplate the possibility of being a writer. Or, at least someone who tries to write fiction. Because in college I thought I was a poet. Oh yes, a poet. I was the guy who lured girls up to his room in the frat house to read them poems I had written, Morrissey wailing in the background, a few candles. 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. 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 so I went back to school for my M.A. in literature. This was the best thing that ever happened to me and it is the reason I try to write 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.
The summer of my first year of graduate school I was introduced to the two writers who had more to do with my decision to try writing some things. I followed a girl I was in love with to Paris, and when I arrived she informed me that she was in love with someone else. I moped around Paris, broke and not sure what to do until her new lover, a fifty-year old Albanian art dealer, gave me something like five hundred bucks and told me to get the hell out of town (I tended to lurk about her apartment, where she worked, etc.). Before I left I bought a used copy of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and a few days later I was in San Rafael, on the Mediterranean coast, staying in the same hotel Fitzgerald stayed in when he wrote the book. I lay on that same beach and imagined Dick Diver swimming out to sea, sat in café’s at night, smoking cigarettes and watching the couples promenading with something like real loneliness. I was old enough to know what hypocrisy meant, and what genius sounded like, and that summer I began to experience the beginning of an actual objective glimpse of my true self operating in the world. I think I began to understand character. Before I left France I had read everything Fitzgerald wrote and he became and remains a central point of light in my writing constellation.
My second year of graduate school, a teacher of mine (Dr. Facknitz, James Madison University, a towering intellect, a scholar and a gentleman ), after looking over some ridiculous short story I had written, recommended that I read John Cheever. The dutiful student I was I immediately went out and read everything by Cheever, including the Journals of John Cheever, which turned out to be the single most affecting book in my life up to this point. I literally carried that book with me for a year, underlining and dog-earing and re-reading. It is the kind of book you can open at random and be guaranteed to find greatness. In my opinion there is no better prose stylist that Cheever, and all of his themes, his longings, his pains, are my own. Except the homosexual stuff. I have either adopted them, or discovered them, or made them up, it doesn’t matter. It is hard to explain the connection I have with that work. I have no need of a biographer because that book exists.
I am under no illusion that I actually write anything like either of these guys. In fact, very little I do resembles them at all, in content or style. I tend to do soft postmodern hijinks involving drugs, gritty violence, absurd situations, sprinkled with esoteric research. Lorrie Moore said in her brilliant work Self-Help that after all the introspection and speculation a writer really has no fucking idea what they are doing. Yep.
I have the Journals of John Cheever on my desk right now. Since 1996 I have had three things taped to the wall above my desk no matter where I have lived: A scrap of paper that has wait scribbled on it (I heard once that Chekov had this over his desk; it may be untrue but I don’t care – I’m still waiting), a picture of F.S. Fitzgerald, and a picture of John Cheever. They are both wearing houndstooth jackets and uncomfortable facial expressions.