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Interview: Lawless’ Matt Bondurant, Author of The Wettest County in the World

In 2008, author Matt Bondurant published his second novel, The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized historical account of his own grandfather and grand uncles’ real-life experiences as rural-Virginia moonshiners in the early 1930s.

Bondurant based the novel on family stories and historical records from Franklin County, Virginia, about his grandfather Jack Bondurant and Jack’s older brothers Forrest and Howard’s often violent run-ins with the law and rival bootleggers.

The Wettest County in the World is now the motion picture Lawless, adapted from Bondurant’s novel by songwriter/author/screenwriter Nick Cave (The Proposition) and directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road). It stars Shia LaBeouf as young, cocksure Jack; Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code, Public Enemies) as Howard; and Tom Hardy (Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises) as the tough and taciturn Forrest.

Rich with Hillcoat’s dusty period existentialism and Cave’s propensity for near-Bibilical levels of violence and brutality, Lawless also stars Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter) Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right, Jane Eyre), Gary Oldman, and Guy Pearce.

I sat down with Matt Bondurant in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about his notion of “parallel history” through fiction, how he put himself inside the thoughts of a young man running moonshine during the Depression, and how “Jack” went from his real-life grandfather to a novel character to being played by Shia LaBeouf on the big screen.

Lawless opens today in theaters nationwide.

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How connected were you to the film, once it got into production?

Matt Bondurant: I was closely aligned with the film throughout the process. I didn’t have any contractual obligations or responsibilities, but they were just generous enough to keep me in the loop. I had conversations with Hillcoat and a few of the actors when they had historical questions about things.

Your novel follows historical events and real people, but you created much of their inner lives and motivations. Explain your idea of “parallel history” when writing historical fiction like this.

Bondurant: Parallel history is an attempt to recreate a story or an event that occurred in the past and that takes either a different approach to the general narrative overall or attempts to fill in the gaps and the holes and the blank spaces and tries to explore those spaces. For example Don Dellio’s Libra and Oswald or Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde and Monroe. It’s an attempt to fill in these areas about these characters in a way that we don’t know anything about—it’s a suggestion, a possibility.

I do think that even as these things are fabrications of the mind of the writer, if that writer is acting with sincerity and trying to stay true as much as possible to what we do know, what they’re presenting us with is a great and interesting possibility that overall enlarges our sense of those people, even if what we’re coming up with is not exactly what they thought or said. I think it still adds to the patchwork quilt of what we know about historical people in an interesting, nuanced way. Every history is a parallel history to some degree—any time somebody tells a story, every time something is witnessed and retold it goes though a level of imagination.

And when you take that parallel history onto film you add a whole new layer of “artificial truth.”

Bondurant: The story has gone through several permutations as I was thinking about it and writing it, and the film is just another level of that transformation. You have Nick Cave and John Hillcoat and the actors applying their vision to it.

A lot of it comes down to shortening and cutting and amplification. For example using Ralph Stanley’s version of Lou Reed’s “White Light, White Heat” is a way of setting up tone and mood that’s not necessarily concerned with historical accuracy. Film is unique in that way—it has its limitations, great limitations compared to the novel, but it can do that and people accept it. It allows viewers to relate to something within their modern context.

Along those lines, we are watching Shia LaBeouf play a movie version of your novel’s character who is a fictionalized take on your grandfather. By that point, when you watch Lawless do you have any emotional sense of that being your grandfather up on the screen?

Bondurant: I don’t really immediately connect him to my grandfather–it has reached that level of separation. I’ve consciously tried to distance myself to some degree, even though I trust these guys, they’re talented and wonderful film makers and artists. But you prepare yourself, to separate yourself, to put up a psychic distance. There are obviously emotional connections, but for the most part I can view it objectively it as a separate piece of art, and Shia is playing a character. But I lived with the image of these characters in my head for more than five years, so a couple months of a film being out doesn’t replace that.

You drew much of the narrative elements of your novel from historical county records of the era, but how do you go about getting inside these Depression-era characters’ heads?

Bondurant: That’s the most difficult part—it was scary for me, knowing I would have to inhabit the psychology of these young people at this time. One of the keys when I was trying to think of these young men, came when I was asking my father, “What is an 18 year old thinking about in 1935?” And he said, “The same things they’re thinking about now: they want money, and a girl, and a car. They want to be seen as somebody, they want to be feared a little.” That was my approach, that their consciousness was very much like ours, just operating in a different context.

I read a lot of WPA, Depression-era accounts of people’s daily lives, their thoughts, the things they said, and historical accounts of Virginia during this period. I looked at photos of the period—there were very few of my actual grandfather or grand uncles, but I used photos from that time to generate thoughts and ideas.

And there were a couple small things. For example my grandfather told my dad that in 1930 he wanted this pair of boots he saw in the window of a store, but they cost two dollars and it took him a long time to save up that money. And that struck me and became a thing for Jack in the novel; wanting and desiring things like boots and clothes. And I read a Franklin County account of this young woman and how she and her friends used to walk through the leaves in the forest and pretend the sound of the leaves was their big skirts they were wearing on the way to a fancy dress ball. They were people much like teenagers now, imagining and dreaming things.

A sense of place and landscape is as important as the sense of the time period in your novel. Was Lawless shot in Virginia?

Bondurant: No, it was shot outside Atlanta, but they did a fine job getting the sense of it, the feel, while working with the budget they had—there were scenes in the book set at night or in the snow that Hillcoat just didn’t have the budget to shoot.

But the level of historical detail they went into as far as the objects and materials was fantastic. My dad and I visited the set, and he was very impressed—he couldn’t believe they’d recreated it all. He saw a car on the set that was the same car he learned to drive in. Hillcoat does that so well—he’s known for his depictions of violence, but he really has a strong touch with landscape, just look at The Road.

Landscape’s very important to me—it’s one of the principle things that I’m concerned with. I seem to be drawn to it in all of my books; my first one [The Third Translation] takes place in London in the British Museum, and my third book The Night Swimmer that just came out in January is set in a little town on the coast of Ireland. They’re all esoteric, dramatic worlds. I’m greatly affected by geography and topography because I think it does set tone.

How did you feel about Hillcoat and Cave adapting your novel?

Bondurant: When they became attached to this film early on, The Road was out and I loved that film, so here was the guy who translated Cormac McCarthy into film, and he’s going to translate my book into film? That’s win-win. And when I saw The Proposition, my respect for Hillcoat enlarged and I knew this guy could do my story quite well.

And when I saw Nick Cave’s first script, it was clear he knew what he was doing, both in adapting my book well and adding little flairs and flourishes of his own that were sharp.

I was very lucky early on because it was a smaller, independent film and so the producers and everyone involved with it from the beginning were all very sincere in their respect for the book and in declaring how they wanted to bring it to the screen and reflect the spirit of it as a great American story. I felt confident and taken care of by them. I never had any doubts that it would be good.