MaryAnne Kolton: Was there anything specific in your childhood that encouraged you to be a writer? Tell us a bit about your life before you became Doctor Bondurant?
Matt Bondurant: I developed a serious reading habit at a very young age, mostly due to my mother’s relationship with books. We went to the library every week, each time taking home an armload of books, more than we could possibly read. I still have yet to encounter a book written before about 1950 that my mother hasn’t read.
My parents also ran an antique stall on the weekends, and in those days [1970s] you could just leave your eight-year-old kid at a used bookstall for the entire afternoon. From grades four 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. I developed the essential habits of quiet isolation, becoming very comfortable with spending whole days alone. I was an ostensibly normal child for the most part, playing sports, friends, and the rest of it. I just read a lot of books.
I also think some time in my early teens I developed a strong case of unearned self-importance. I wanted to be someone of note, someone who knew things. I dreamed of being a serious intellectual, an impressive figure to whom others deferred. I did things like read Moby Dick when I was 12 years-old. Essentially I was a pretentious twat, a Holden Caulfield-type (though mostly internalized) in the suburbs of Washington DC. I read the classics at an age when I wasn’t prepared for them, not in the slightest, and yet while I understood very little I felt as if I was doing something of importance.
I cannot overestimate the role of a single book from my childhood: The Children’s Anthology of Folktales, Myths, and Legends. I read this book nearly every night for a decade, tales of Odin and Loki, Robin Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, I read them all over and over again. I think it affected the way that I understand story and the elemental aspects of storytelling. There are only after all a handful of stories, and the great legends and myths are the best archetypes of narrative, distilled over the centuries.
But throughout all of this time 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, DeLillo, those are writers. I’m just a dude who has written a few things. I try to write. I hold the title “writer” in high esteem, and I do not think it should be used so lightly.
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 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. 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 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. That set me on the right path, and I continued on with the PhD because I wasn’t done reading. I’m still not.
Ah, The Children’s Anthology of Folktales, Myths, and Legends. Now I see where the scrim of magical realism comes from in The Night Swimmer. Blind goat herders, the strange vision on the hill and Sebastian. Next, perhaps you might try to explain what compels people like you and your character, Elly, to throw yourselves into icy cold, open water and swim until your limbs are numb and painful...
One of the things that got me started on this book was that very question. Through my research on open water swimming and swimmers I have some theories, but let’s be clear: I’m not compelled to throw myself into icy cold water and to swim until I’m hypothermic. I have a very strong urge to jump in nearly any body of water I find, and I often will, but while I’m not particularly averse to cold water I probably have only a slightly better than average capacity for it. This June I’m participating in an English Channel swim training camp for Outside Magazine and believe me, the thought of getting in the North Atlantic at six am, water temp about 58 degrees, does not fill me with joy. It seems really unpleasant, and it likely will be. I am plan on suffering through it as much as I can in order to do the article. Races like Alcatraz and other open water swims I’ve done are fun because I like a challenge and I like to compete, especially if it is all over in less than two to three hours. I can do nearly anything for about two hours I’ve learned. That is about my psychological limit, though I’m not sure if it is the physical pain or mental exhaustion that shuts things down at this point. It’s not like I’m not afraid of sharks and other marine denizens, either.
Elly, like a lot of real open water swimmers and English Channel swimmers, actually enjoys the whole thing, the cold, the deep water, the pain and suffering, all of it. She feels completely at home, safe, content, free, more than she does on land. Some people are really like this. If you read any of Lynn Cox’s books [the greatest female long distance swimmer ever] they are these ecstatic hymns to the beauty of swimming in the ocean and the great joy that it brings to her. It isn’t like a religious experience -- it is a religious experience. And this is when she’s swimming in 40-degree water for six hours across a lake or Norway or something. It is just something that we mortals will never understand. There are physical aspects, like body-fat ratios, chemical compositions, nerve arrangement and sensitivity, but I think that most of it is mental. I spent three years on this question and I cannot answer it.
I’ve met people like Elly and Lynn and tried to talk to them about it but of course they have a very hard time explaining what it is that drives them. All of my books have begun this way: an exploration of some aspect of a startling, often esoteric human capacity. In my first book I wanted to know how an expert in cryptographic hieroglyphic translations could pore over a piece and sort the symbols in his mind all day, and what made them fall into line and mean something. With the second I wanted to know what an 18 year-old man (my grandfather) in 1930 Franklin County, Virginia wanted out of life, how he wooed a girl, and how he could end up getting shot with a carload of moonshine one snowy afternoon in December.
The poet David Kirby said: “Only charlatans and shallow begin with perfect knowledge of what it is they want to say. An honest writer begins in ignorance and writes toward the truth.”
I don’t know anything about people or this world.
I'm thinking the fact that Elly is married to Fred might provide a portion of the motivation for her love of deep-water swimming. A way to escape his melancholy. Your description of long distance swimming as a self-motivating sport -- almost a religious experience -- puts a whole different spin on the activity. Makes it a lot more understandable.
The reference to the poet David Kirby reminded me of your memorable, deftly lyrical, descriptions of Ireland, the tiny village of Baltimore, and Cape Clear. The Night Swimmer is full of richly textured portraits of place and people. It would appear you have spent a great deal of time there. Were you in Ireland to swim, to do research for the book, or have you always had a passion for the southern coast of the Emerald Isle?
In the fall of 1999 I was a graduate student living in the West End of London, teaching Shakespeare to a group of sullen American undergraduates. I was in a sixth floor walk-up flat that I shared with five other guys, just a couple blocks from the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, one of the busiest intersections in the world.
London is my favorite city, ever, but it is also extremely crowded, filthy, noisy, and expensive, and so after a couple months I was determined to find the quietest, most remote corner of Europe I could find.
I started heading west, to Wales, then Ireland seemed a likely candidate, so I crossed at Swansea, took a train west to Cork and just kept going.
When the bus line ended I hitchhiked to Baltimore, a coastal town I’d heard about from some locals, and then I learned of a couple islands offshore to the west, even further away from humanity, so I caught a ferry to Cape Clear, the last hunk of rock in Europe before the Atlantic takes over. I ended up staying the whole week, most of that time spent with a blind goatherd on his farm, tending the animals, tramping the fields, climbing around the rocky coastline, checking out Bronze Age burial sites. I learned a lot about the island, and how to milk, feed, and breed British Alpine goats, which might come in handy someday.
It was also clearly a place full of story possibilities, and characters abounded. Like much of Ireland, it is a richly textured land, and I wanted to write about it.
I came back twice in the next couple years, and by this point I was setting up the basic elements of the book, mostly just in my head. Then when work on The Wettest County in the World wrapped up in 2007 I came back again for a week, and then a last time in 2009 with my wife. By this time I certainly had a passion for the southern coast of Ireland and Cork County, but at first I was merely trying to find some quiet grassy spot to watch the sea.
You mentioned The Wettest County in the World. The film version, Lawless, is out, getting rave reviews, and is full to overflowing with heavy hitting stars. Did your participation in the production whet your appetite for screen writing?
Not particularly. Reading the screenplays that Nick Cave produced actually made me very aware of how ruthlessly you have to cut down a novel to make it fit the format, and how often you have to reach for exaggerated displays of narrative information and character building. Everything is simplified and amplified, and I think that would be a hard thing to do to a story that you had any personal investment in. I like a new challenge and I'll try anything once, but I'm also sure that I will always have the novel form at the center of my creative efforts.
Getting back to The Night Swimmer, what are your thoughts on the comparisons made to John Cheever's The Swimmer?
Well, since my narrator is basically obsessed with John Cheever, and since she is a devoted swimmer who holds many things in common with Neddy Merrill, and because the novel is littered with quotes from John Cheever's journals, and there are obviously scenes, expressions, lines, etc., that are certainly inspired by that story, and because I as a writer try to emulate Cheever's prose style (unsuccessfully), modes of description, themes, and just about anything else the guy ever created on the page, then I would say I clearly welcome such comparisons. As a writer I'm not fit to rinse Cheever's highball glass, but he is the great starry image I look up to with longing. The book is in many ways an homage to Cheever, my favorite American prose stylist.
The trailer for the movie Lawless is stunning. You must be very proud. Cannes Film Festival and the Weinstein’s, no less.
Yep. And I certainly am proud. It is a very odd thing to experience. | September 2012
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize. Her work has appeared most recently in Her Circle, The Literarian/City Center, January Magazine and The Los Angeles Review of Books. MaryAnne’s public email firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.