DALLAS — The young boy looked up on his grandfather's wall and saw a jagged object. It looked dangerous and spoke of family secrets.
"I was old enough to know what they were," University of Texas at Dallas assistant professor Matt Bondurant says of the brass knuckles he spied at his granddad's house in Franklin County, Va. "I was scared to death of them, but I would pull a chair up and I would reach up and feel them."
Franklin County was a bootleg moonshine hotbed during Prohibition, immortalized in Bondurant's 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World. His grandfather and his great-uncles were major players in a brutal game — brutal enough to make those brass knuckles come in handy.
"It made clear to me that my grandfather grew up and lived in a world very much unlike my own," he says.
That world, and that enforcer's weapon, can now be viewed by all in Lawless. The new movie, starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jessica Chastain, is based on Bondurant's book. Opening Wednesday, the film has given Bondurant further occasion to consider his ancestors' trade, a blood-and-booze-soaked business that no one liked to talk about when Bondurant was a swimming-obsessed kid growing up in Alexandria.
"There's a very clear, strong tradition: You don't talk about moonshining," Bondurant said after a recent preview screening in Dallas. "You don't bring it up. It could get you in a lot of trouble. You could get yourself hurt doing that."
And so Bondurant was left to wonder. He heard fragments and legends: about how his great-uncle Forrest (played by Hardy in the film) had his throat cut and claimed to have staggered 12 miles through a snowy night to the hospital. Or the one about the massive shootout in the midst of what came to be known as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935. That one was written about in the newspapers, and court transcripts left a juicy paper trail as well — juicy enough to set Bondurant's imagination whirring.
He knew he didn't have enough concrete information to write a nonfiction account. But that was OK. He was already a fiction writer — his first novel, The Third Translation, was published in 2006. And what do novelists do? They fill in the gaps by making stuff up.
"As a fiction writer I realized the big, blank spaces were the fun parts," says Bondurant, 41, who teaches creative writing and literature. "That's where I get to create these big dramatic narratives that connect things together. It's a constellation of possibilities."
Keeps you from getting hurt, too.
Now that constellation of possibilities has its biggest platform yet, with a young star (LaBeouf) filling the shoes of Bondurant's grandfather, Jack. Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave turn Wettest County into a sort of rural gangster movie, with the sounds of rat-a-tat machine guns, rickety old stills and Hardy's stoic Zen hillbilly mumbling.
But for Hillcoat, who also directed The Road and The Proposition, it all comes back to Bondurant's words.
"What a great writer," says Hillcoat by phone from Romania, where he's shooting, ironically, a whiskey commercial. "I loved the dialogue. I loved the way he illustrated the shock and the power and the scariness of the violence. But most of all I loved the way he explored the moral and philosophical consequences. That was all there in the book."
Lean and bespectacled, Bondurant doesn't look like a tough guy. Instead he looks like a swimmer, which brings us to his latest novel. The Night Swimmer, published earlier this year and now out in paperback, focuses on a woman who throws herself into open-water swimming and encounters trouble between warring tribes when she moves to coastal Ireland with her husband. (It's the rare novel written by a man in a first-person woman's voice.)
Bondurant grew up a competitive swimmer; he actually enrolled at the Division 1 swimming power West Virginia University before burning out on the sport and transferring to James Madison to pursue writing.
For Bondurant, the two disciplines are closely related.
"The skills and challenges of writing are a lot like swimming," he says. "It's a very isolated, discipline-based activity. When you're swimming, you have to spend large amounts of time inside your own head. There's sensory deprivation, like being underwater."
That's one way to get wet. And it's a lot safer than living by the brass knuckles.