The Night Swimmer
by Matt Bondurant
Published by Scribner
288 pages, 2012
Matt Bondurant is passionate about life, writing and open water. His most recent novel follows the hugely successful The Wettest County In the World, now a riveting film called Lawless.
His new novel, The Night Swimmer, is a richly textured journey of a young couple, Fred and Elly. This powerful tale of melancholy, goats and the dark waves off the southern coast of Ireland, caught me up and held me in its net until the very last page.
Matt Bondurant was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. He received his B.A. and M.A. in English from James Madison University, then went on to earn a PhD in English Creative Writing from Florida State University. Bondurant is the author of three novels, The Third Translation (Hyperion 2005), The Wettest County in the World (Scribner 2008), and The Night Swimmer (Scribner 2012), as well as numerous published stories, poems, essays and reviews. The film, Lawless, was made from Bondurant’s second novel, The Wettest Country in the World. Lawless was directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) and stars Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce and is currently in release.
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.
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.
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?
Matt: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 is firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.