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The Literary Life and How To Live It
     Michael Neff

An Interview with Matt Bondurant

Matt Bondurant received his PhD from Florida State University, where he was a Kingsbury Fellow. He has been a two-time Bread Loaf waiter and staff member, and his short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The New England Review, Prairie Schooner, The Hawaii Review, and others. In the past he worked for the Associated Press National Broadcast Office in Washington DC, an NPR station in Virginia, and the British Museum in London, England. He currently teaches at George Mason University in Virginia. The Third Translation is his first novel.

MN: Matt, hi. Just to acquaint you with our readers, please tell us something about your writing life, from embryo to present adulthood.

MB: I was always a massive reader before I understood anything about literature or writing. My mother's influence - she took us to the library every week and I tried to match the tall stacks of books she always checked out. Very early on I was trying to read great works, many of which I barely understood at the time. In many ways graduate school was a chance to re-read those books.

In college I was the guy writing poems late at night in the frat house, trying to read Leaves of Grass by moonlight on camping trips, that sort of thing. I kept journals and liked to quote Byron, hopefully to girls. I had a real pretentious streak, but other than that I was just a regular dude in duck boots and sweatshirts, trying to drink beer in a myriad of ways and absentmindedly going to class.

I sort of figured myself a poet, and I was miserably wrong about that. I failed at poetry for a long time before I figured out that with prose I had more chances to do it well, that there was more space to work in and a person of lesser talent could still produce a decent story. I applied to MFA programs in poetry a year out of college and was rejected by every one, and rightly so. I was personally rejected by Larry Levis at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I keep his letter taped to my wall as I reminder of that humiliation, that one of the greatest poets of the second half of the twentieth century actually read my ridiculous poems. I love Larry Levis, he informs my work always. I still read a decent amount of poetry, and consider it the highest of the literary arts. Just out of my reach. But I hope there is a drop of poetry in my prose, at least that is what I'm shooting for.

Instead I got an MA in Literature at JMU, which was a great idea. I met some great people, had an excellent peer group, and got to read (and reread), and discuss so many great books. I was lucky enough to get accepted to Florida State for their PhD program, but that was back when it was still a medium-level program. I'd never get in there now; the place is a powerhouse with amazing writers and I'm so fortunate to have been there. I love the academic world. I feel comfortable there, and you meet so many seriously interesting people with the most madcap and thoughtful ideas. But I also have a life outside of it.

There are those who claim that creative writing within the academy is ridiculous, a waste of time, or worse, a destructive force in American letters. I strongly disagree with the last bit, as at worst it may produce people writing so-called "workshop stories" - but that is just a current style that will come and go and all that has really been done is some average writers have been taught how to do this style fairly well. Despite the academies influence, so many amazing and brilliant authors keep showing up. I think for some people it is a waste of time; workshopping and all that is only for certain kinds of people. It certainly helped me, because I like lots of interaction, discussion, and debate going on wherever I am, on whatever I'm working on. Though at a point I think you sort of graduate from the necessity, and become a writer more on your own. I'm struggling with that now.

MN: What drives Matt Bondurant to write?

MB: It's difficult to answer this without employing the usual clichés. It's pretty simple: I like stories, reading them, hearing them, and telling them. I like words, the simple arrangement of them. I love the way a string of these abstract symbols can invoke such amazing reactions, in me and other people I've never met. I like inhabiting other worlds than my own. I think I'm such a fan of the well-told story, whether in a novel or at a cocktail party, that I am simply moved to emulation. Like everyone, I have ideas, I think things that no one else knows. Some of those things I think are interesting and others might like to hear them. I like the look on people's faces when I am telling them a story that they find genuinely interesting, or when you can actually see them imagining the world you have just conjured up, and wanting it to continue. I imagine my readers always in the same way.

Certainly when writing I then must continue to pursue my first and most passionate avocation, and that is reading. I get to do all kinds of amazing research, read wonderful novels, poetry, philosophy. Writing is a great excuse to read everything, because it all contributes, it's all helpful to you as a writer, right? I can lie on the floor all day reading novels, science books, history texts, and then when someone calls on the phone and asks "what did you do all day?" - I can say "Oh, research. You know, working on my writing." And I'm not lying. It's the best job in the world in this way.

I never understand how some writers barely read anything. It seems natural to me that a writer should be a reader first and a writer second. That's like playing a sport you don't even watch? I don't get that. When I'm teaching I get young students asking me what they can do to become a writer and my advice is always: read. Read everything great and everything else until you are so moved by it all that you must write, you must try to participate in the conversation. You watched the game enough, and now you want to play.

MN: How long did you work on The Third Translation, and how many drafts did it take you? Did you have any editorial assistance? Our writing audience wants to know.

MB: It took me about three and a half years to write the novel. That's including research and everything. I had a complete draft maybe two and a half years in, then did loads of revision and more research. I workshopped a draft of the first 100 pages at FSU, which was certainly helpful, mostly in terms of the most general things, as in: "does this even remotely sound like a real novel?" They said it did, so I kept going.

Then later my agent, Alex Glass, went over it for me with some suggestions. I believe Alex has my best interests in mind and understands what I'm trying to do very well, but at the same time as an agent, his suggestions have a bit to do with putting the book in a form he can sell, and I understand that. I remember he drew a big fat line through almost forty pages! I didn't take that suggestion. I think he helped me tighten the book. Mostly the same thing at Hyperion, and with my editor Peternelle Van Arsdale, who I also think really gets what I'm trying to do. I trust her too, but I didn't take many of her suggestions, and she was cool with that. That's one thing I can say about the book - that good or bad it is my book, it is the book that I wrote and no one else is responsible for that text between the covers but me.

MN: Was the success of the Da Vinci Code an influence in your writing of this novel?

MB: I came back from London for the last time in 2002 with a full draft of the book. A bit later in 2003 I'm living in Texas, selling computers of all things because I couldn't get a job, going over the draft with my agent via mail, and someone who knew a bit about my book told me that there was this book called The Da Vinci Code that sounded sort of like it. I was interested so I went to a book store in Austin and read the first twenty pages or so. I thought it was terribly written, that first scene so cheesy and cliché I was hoping it was ironic. Since I was broke I didn't buy it. I asked my mother about it and she said she couldn't get past the first fifty pages. This is from a woman who reads everything. I still haven't read it. I didn't think any thing of it, back then. I'd actually like to read it, the concepts do sound cool, and I'd like to participate in the current dialogue going on, but right now I'm finishing Tony Early's Jim the Boy, a wonderful little book, as well as the new Murakami novel, a biography of Odysseus, and the collected letters of Sherwood Anderson. I've got a stack of other books behind those. Maybe I'll get to it eventually.

So, no influence on the writing of it, but it certainly had a bit to do with the sale and marketing of my book. In that regard I certainly owe something to Dan Brown, but I think he's doing fine all by himself. I respect what the guy does - clearly millions of people love his work. But it wasn't and isn't the kind of thing I'm trying to do. I am going by what others have told me about it, what I have read, so I must withhold final evaluation because I have not actually read the entire book, but any similarities are coincidental and probably represent a failure on my part to do really great work. Yes, my standards are high and I have a seriously critical take on literature, my own most of all.

MN: How was Umberto Eco an influence in your work?

MB: Focault's Pendulum changed my world. It was one of those books, like Lolita, that after you read it, you walk outside and notice the sky is a completely different color than it has ever been before. It read like a mind going full-bore, a sweaty all-night session, the zany, cracked quality of it all. And the erudition! Such a brilliant, prolific mind made manifest on the page. So much of that book went totally over my head, and I loved it.

I try to teach my students about Keat's theory of "Negative Capability" - the ability to exist within a pleasurable state of unknowing without any irritable reaching for reason - and I think Eco puts us all in that state. Like how a poem, Dickinson does this for me a lot, that you feel you are just on the brink of understanding and it hits you like a thunderbolt as you stand with your toes on the edge of the abyss. I can't always tell you exactly what it means, but man, I believe it. If you let go it is a glorious, mystifying, awesome experience. A lot of young people seem to have this pleasurable aspect of literary experience beat out of them by the time they get to college.

Martin Amis does it for me too, and Salman Rushdie. It's not just about the esoteric and the obscure; more about a dedication to a certain kind of quiet scholarship, with underground meanings profound beyond our dreams. And then the language takes over. Walter Rothschild certainly springs from this territory.

MN: There appears to be some controversy over the marketing of The Third Translation. Thriller or no? In terms of genre, how would you classify it?

MB: From the beginning I was trying to write a "literary" novel. I've read a few thrillers, but not many. I wouldn't even know how to do that. My book has a "mystery" in the same sense that I think all literary novels have mysteries at their core: how will this character survive/get out of this/succeed? I like plot, always have, and a bit of mystery. Will Jay Gatsby get away with it? Will Ahab ever get the white whale? I think because something is stolen and an attempt is made to retrieve it that it gets lumped into the "thriller" category. Many writers I love have this kind of component in their books, from Amis to T.C. Boyle to Delillo. I think I probably just didn't do quite a good enough job in some way to be classified with those books.

But we would be foolish not to note the role Dan Brown's book plays in all this. Hyperion wanted to catch a ride on that gravy train, and because of the similarities they tried to market it as such. I don't blame them at all. Like I said, it is the book that I wrote, inside the covers, and it will be judged on its merits accordingly. I think the only negative result is that some thriller/mystery/Da Vinci Code lovers may feel disappointed or misled, or that some literary novel readers may not give it a chance. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.

MN: Since Egyptology plays a big role in your novel, what kind of research did you do in preparation for writing it? Anything controversial in the results? Have any Egyptologists been banging down your door with issues?

MB: I have always had a strong interest in ancient cultures. An unapologetic dilettante, I had more than a passing interest in ancient Egypt and considered myself reasonably informed. I didn't really "prepare" for writing it as I did the writing and research at the same time, mixing the two as I went along.

When I lived in London for the first time in 1999, I spent a lot of time at the British Museum, especially because it was a few blocks from my flat and always free. The germ of the idea was created then. When I came back in 2000 I spent even more time, particularly in the Ancient Near East section. I could feel the character brewing, and when I saw the Stela of Paser for the first time it began to come together. I purchased a few books, and back in the states I started collecting some basic texts on hieroglyphics, cryptography, and Egyptology in general. Then in 2002 I was able to go back with a student visa for six months and was extremely lucky in landing a job at the British Museum as a steward. I worked there part time, and much of the rest of my time was spent at the British Library, checking out every standard Egyptology text as well as anything that seemed particularly interesting. I read a fabulous, ancient copy of Canterbury Tales, a few books on Kierkegaard, and loads of ancient Egyptian translations. I tried to teach myself hieroglyphics, with vague success. Spent a good amount of time in pubs, too. Research, you know.

I expected a bit of controversy when I tackled a real piece of Egyptology and its unknown translation as the physical centerpiece to the book. But not much has come up, and I like to think that has to do with the soundness of my research. I tried to keep everything "real" and historically correct whenever possible. There were a few places where I "created" a translation of my own to fit the narrative, and shuffled a minor location, name, or date. I have received I think three emails, not necessarily from Egyptologists (or at least they didn't identify themselves as such) who pointed out inaccuracies. For example one time I transposed the ancient city of Karnak with Armana, which was just a inadvertent mistake. I think those will all be corrected in the paperback version.

In the acknowledgements I list my sources, all extremely reputable (most of my facts come straight from the British Museum itself and its publications) and I am very confident that I am correct more than 90 percent of the time. I welcome those who think otherwise to contact me. I did write the book expecting, and hoping, that true Egyptologists would read it and enjoy the way I integrated the Egyptology elements into the story. I'm more concerned that I got the essence and character of London right, actually, as that to me is the most important research feature.

MN: Some reviewers have referred to your work as existential and/or a novel that "tunnels deep into our individual and collective ancient past in search of meaning." Is this an accurate assessment? If so, why?

MB: I think the existential tag is at least on the surface applied because I have a lot of postmodern elements in the novel, from style to themes. I love the postmodern style, as performed by Amis or Delillo or Roth, and certainly the existential dilemma of modern living is at the root of these writers work. At the same time I am troubled by this clear association, that the modern artistic sensibility, in terms of writing, seems dominated by such a dreary and misanthropic philosophy. I hope that I have achieved equal amounts of "sweetness and light" in my book, and perhaps it is in this conflict that I am most interested.

I love the positive magic of such books like Life of Pi by Yann Martel, an amazing achievement. He was able to meld the postmodern with the transcendental, creating a depiction of the world as isolated and alone but with the hope and real possibility for something better. Another great example is Charles Baxter's Feast of Love, a brilliant book that is ultimately so generous, and loving it makes your heart hurt in the best way, and yet it is clearly postmodern. In this way I am sometimes drawn to such "conservative" writers as Matthew Arnold (who I worshipped for a year in graduate school) and even Harold Bloom, in that they so often write about the beauty and majesty of art, its powers of connection, of making us feel god-like and loved. I like that idea. But this is the world we are in, right? The place where we inhabit individual spheres, our soundproof cubicles of thought, our private emotional foxholes. How do you reconcile that?

I am fascinated by the things we share with our ancestors, of all cultures. I'm not just talking about our family tree. I believe that Jung was right, that we do share some kind of collective unconscious, and I hope that archetypes stride about the pages of my book. I believe this theory is best illustrated by the genius of Emerson and his world-soul, the wonderful metaphor he creates using nature as the fabric of the deity, the beauty of the divine made manifest for our senses. Of course the mythologies of ancient religions also provide interesting representations.

But why? And why this and not the other? And in the face of all this ever-going ever-ness, how do we understand our personal role in this continuous drama? Where is the script? Where is my mark? Hell, I hope it is an accurate assessment. I tried anyway.

MN: Though you clearly have a defined plot point (the theft of the artifact) that begins the second act of this novel, it still feels like a character-driven work on the whole rather than plot-driven. What is your assessment?

MB: I think I answered most of this already in a previous question, but I'll say that I sure tried to make it a character-driven book. Somebody asked me once if I was obsessed with the Stela of Paser and it occurred to me then that I certainly wasn't; I am obsessed with Walter Rothschild, that guy. Like many of the writers I admire, I like a plot that really moves with some serious momentum. Eco was great at this, while at the same time piling on the esoteric minutiae, which contributes in some way to the momentum, like tumbling before an overloaded horse cart rolling down a hill. That was a sensation I was going for, as it is what I like to read.

MN: What types of projects are you working on now?

MB: My second book is a bit of a radical shift; it takes place in the 1920's and 30's in rural Virginia. Very different kind of research. I will say that it is based on true events that members of my family were involved in, and it is a great story. I just have to do it right, do it justice.

About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com.

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