Virginia writer whom I’ll feature in this series; no doubt he is also the youngest (born 1971). Besides, he is the writer with whom I have had most personal contact. He was a student of mine in an Edgar Allen Poe seminar that I frequently taught at JMU. About ten years ago, Matt returned to JMU as a speaker invited by Sigma Tau Delta, the international honorary society for English majors. He recalled his time in the Poe class and, unlike me, he remembers that I had actually read one of his essays to the class as an example of excellence.
Recently, he wrote to me, “When you read my paper on ‘M.S. Found in a Bottle’ to the class , , , it really changed things for me–for the first time I thought: Hey, maybe I’m good at this? Maybe I could do this? I am forever grateful for that kindness; it literally changed my life.” An English major, Matt went on to graduate with both B.A. and M.A. degrees from JMU; he later earned a Ph. D in English-Creative Writing from Florida State University.
Bondurant was born in Alexandria, Virginia, but his family was originally from Franklin Country, Virginia. Matt says that his father was the only Bondurant to leave the area: he joined the Navy during the Korean War and later graduated from VPI and earned a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Syracuse. In the DC area, he worked for the government as a civilian engineer. During Matt’s early years, his father told stories about his grandfather Jack Bondourant and his brothers who were notorious blockaders during the prohibition period and beyond. Matt was also a reader from an early age: “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. . .. 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 was was doing something of importance.”
During his years after college, Matt held various jobs: in 1999, as a graduate student, he was living in the West End of London, teaching, in his worlds, “Shakespeare to a group of sullen American undergraduates.” In London, he also worked as a Steward at the British Museum. He held other jobs at the Associated Press National Broadcast Office in Washington DC and as an announcer and producer at an NPR station in Virginia While in the United Kingdom he developed a particular love for rural Ireland, the setting of his third novel. After earning the Ph.D., he held teaching positions at George Mason University, SUNY Plattsburgh, and the University of Texas, Dallas. Currently, an Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi, Bondurant serves as Director of the MFA Program.
To date, Bondurant has published three novels: The Third Translation (2005), The Wettest County in the World (2008), and The Night Swimmer (2012). His fourth novel, Oleander City is due out in June of this year. Matt does not consider himself to be either a Virginia or Southern writer: he set his first novel in London, his second in Franklin Country, Virginia, his third in Ireland, and his most recent in Texas. He is, in fact, modest about calling himself a writer at all. In an interview, he lists John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Dom De Lillo as writers and asserts, “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 . . . lightly.”
All of Bondurant’s novels achieved strong readership, but his second novel, The Wettest County in the World brought him most success, though the other two were also international best sellers. The Wettest County in the World was a New Times Editors’ Pick and included in San Francisco Chronicle Best 50 Books of the Year. Director John Hillcoat also adapted the book as a feature film, Lawless, starring Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gard Oldman, and Guy Pearce.
Bondurant family stories form the basis of The Wettest County in the World.. Jack Bondurant, his grandfather, and two of his great-uncles ran a highly success blockading (moonshining) operation in the mountains of Southwest, Virginia and lived through considerable violence. Matt says that during his lifetime, his grandfather was close-mouthed about his family’s adventures but did show a scar, the result of his being shot by a Federal Agent. Matt also recalls that the family talked about one his great uncle’s having his throat cut. After Jack Bondurant died, Matt and his father began to research the history of the Bondurant connection in the illegal whiskey trade; Matt’s book was the ultimate result.
The Wettest County in the World exemplifies what Truman Capote termed a “nonfiction novel”. The Bondurant brothers (by name) are central characters in the book that intertwines family stories with fiction. An interesting addition to the novel, as a character, is Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, who, having settled in Marion, Virginia in the 1920s, wrote in the Thirties an article about the moonshine trade in Southwest Virginia. Bondurant says, “To me Sherwood was a catalyst, a key to opening up the story; he was the outsider, coming into the area trying to find answers, trying to tell the story–much as I was.” Anderson gave Bondurant his title, having termed Franklin County the “wettest county in the world.” Overall the novel, offers both factual and anecdotal data about this era of Virginia history; besides, it is a gripping, highly readable novel.