For a long time, Matt Bondurant didn’t really consider a career as a writer. Not when he was growing up in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County, not as an undergraduate or even as a graduate English student at James Madison University.
As a doctoral student of creative writing, though, he found his voice and his style, and his third novel, “The Night Swimmer,” was recently published. But his second novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” based on his family’s exploits in the bootlegging business in southwestern Virginia, might be the one that catapults him to fame.
“The Wettest County” was optioned for a movie even before the book hit the shelves. It has been made into a major independent film named “Lawless,” which debuted recently at the Cannes Film Festival and will hit U.S. screens in August. It stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman; the screenplay was written by rock musician Nick Cave, and the soundtrack features songs by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Ralph Stanley, who does a bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”
Bondurant wrote “The Wettest County” while he was teaching English at George Mason University in Fairfax between 2003 and 2007, and it was published in 2008 to glowing reviews. While living in Del Ray in Alexandria, Bondurant would trek down to his grandfather’s stamping grounds in the hills south of Roanoke to compile the remarkable detail that infuses the scenes and characters, when they aren’t punching or shooting each other or driving crazily on the back roads to avoid the law.
Bondurant, 41, was born at Inova Fairfax Hospital and grew up in the Alexandria section of Fairfax with his parents and older brother and sister. His father was a civilian engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, and his mother was a Fairfax schoolteacher. He attended Washington Mill Elementary School, Whitman Intermediate School and Mount Vernon High, from which he graduated in 1989.
Bondurant does not have fond memories of life at Mount Vernon High in the 1980s, where he said teachers were more concerned with maintaining order than teaching. But he loved reading, and he brought books to read under the desk. He wrote a little poetry, anchored a dominant swim team and worked as photo editor of the high school yearbook.
It wasn’t until he reached JMU, and encountered a bit more academic rigor, that he realized there might be something to this literature stuff. Mark Facknitz, a professor whom Bondurant acknowledged in his recent book, “taught me ways of looking at books in a serious way.” He immersed himself in Edgar Allan Poe for a long stretch, and Poe’s dark influence is evident in his writing.
Still not a great student, he graduated and kicked around the country for a time, dabbled in journalism briefly and realized that he loved college. He was accepted into a master’s program in English at JMU, and “I began comprehending for the first time,” he said.
Bondurant still didn’t see writing as a vocation. Writers were “like somebody from another planet,” he said. But with encouragement from professors such as Facknitz, “I started to consider the possibility.”
After receiving his master’s, he was accepted into a highly regarded doctoral creative-writing program at Florida State University. He figured that if he couldn’t make it as a writer, he’d have a doctorate and could teach.
“I spent the first couple years there flailing around,” Bondurant said. “These people were all in. I thought, ‘I want to be like that.’ ”
He wrote short stories, piled up the rejections and learned how to craft narratives and characters. One of his short stories eventually was published, a young agent recruited him and soon he began working on something longer.
After Florida State, he spent some time as a steward at the British Museum in London, which provided the inspiration for his first novel, “The Third Translation,” published by Hyperion in 2005. By then, he was teaching freshman composition classes at George Mason and working on “The Wettest County,” which was published by Scribner in 2008.
“Bondurant is a nimble writer, especially when it comes to depicting gore and guts,” Louisa Thomas wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “His descriptions of the warped and wounded . . . can leave a reader queasy, but the liveliness of his writing makes it hard for even the most lily-livered to look away.”
The book focuses on Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant, as well as the moonshine culture of Franklin County during and after Prohibition. Matt Bondurant made regular trips to Franklin growing up, where his grandfather Jack and great uncles lived, where he first tasted moonshine and where he became intrigued by the family history.
A 1935 racketeering trial called the “Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy” provided much of the detail that Bondurant used to fill in the gaps of the story, but the trial itself does not figure in the book.
Bondurant is not overly impressed with his work. “I’m never satisfied,” Bondurant said of his writing. “I’ll read a page in one of my books and say, ‘This is terrible.’ When I’m doing a reading, sometimes I’ll skip a line I don’t like. You always feel like you can do better. I tell my students: ‘The revision process is everything.’ ”
Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the book before it was published, and director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) and LaBeouf (“Transformers”) promptly signed on. The project languished in turnaround, then was picked up by Sony Red Wagon, and took off in 2011 when rising star Hardy (“Inception,” the new “Mad Max”) became available. It was filmed outside of Atlanta last year, where Bondurant spent some time on the set.
He said screenwriter Cave never spoke to him about the script.
At Cannes, according to the Los Angeles Times, Cave said at a news conference: “I didn’t have that much interest in when it was actually set. It was more the flavor of that book that took me . . . the excessive violence. That’s what titillates me — sentimentality and excessive violence.”
Bondurant has seen “Lawless” twice at screenings in Los Angeles but did not go to Cannes because his wife was in Washington receiving a doctorate from George Washington University.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said of the film. He said that he spent the first viewing thinking about the choices Cave had made with his story and dialogue, but that in the end, he thinks it works. The finer points of the story, and the use of novelist Sherwood Anderson as an observer, are gone. “All the action’s still in there,” Bondurant said.
Hillcoat, the director, told the Wall Street Journal: “When I read the book, I thought, here’s a fresh way of looking at a gangster film. I also love westerns, and this seemed to straddle both since the outlaws are in the Appalachian countryside.”
Bondurant lives in Dallas and teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas. His lifelong interest in swimming, dating to his days at the Lee Rec Center in Franconia and for the renowned Curl-Burke Swim Club, led to his latest well-received book, “The Night Swimmer,” and he is heading to Ireland soon to research a piece on English Channel swimmers for Outside magazine.
In the meantime, Scribner is going to rerelease “The Wettest County” book as “Lawless,” and the trailers should start dominating televisions about a month before the Aug. 31 movie release date.