In 2012, 77 arsons plagued a small, rural community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the span of five months, Accomack County residents and firefighters could not pin down the culprit, who was widely suspected to be a member of their community.
Later this month, Hollywood releases the movie “Lawless,” based on the real-life story of a notorious Virginia bootlegging family. We get the story behind the story from the family’s grandson who wrote the book upon which the movie is based while working as a professor at a local university.
“Lawless” Official Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. This hour, stories inspired by real life. Later in the broadcast, a name you may know from public radio's "This American Life," comedian Mike Birbiglia on his new film about life as a standup comedian. But first, Matthew Bondurant is making a name for himself in literary circles. He's gone from being a local college writing instructor with a knack for words to a celebrated novelist who's being compared to everyone from John Cheever to Cormack McCarthy.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut long ago, the Bondurant name was better known for something else, moonshine. Matt's grandfather and grand uncles were central players in Franklin County, Virginia's illegal alcohol business, a racket so notorious that the place earned the title of wettest county in the world. Now Hollywood is bringing Bondurant's novel about his family's bootlegging exploits to the screen in the film "Lawless," opening around the country on August 29. Our producer Michael Martinez sat down with Matthew Bondurant, the author of "The Wettest County in the World" recently to talk about his career, his craft and moonshine itself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe started by asking why another writer, the legendary Sherwood Anderson, nicknamed Franklin County the wettest county.
MATTHEW BONDURANTThe nickname the wettest county in the world comes from Sherwood Anderson and he called it that in an article he wrote for Liberty magazine in 1935. And he based that on the amount of people that were involved in making liquor and also the amount of liquor they were producing and shipping out of the county based on various estimates from law enforcement, etcetera. You know, extreme amount of alcohol was flowing out of the state.
MATTHEW BONDURANTFranklin County itself -- you know, I think it's not particularly remarkable on its own geographically or anything like that. Like a lot of the counties at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it has sort of rolling hills, valleys, lots of streams, lots of water, which is an important part of the equation for making liquor. And in that area of the state, there's a lot of limestone. And limestone produces excellent water. The filtration -- that groundwater goes through limestone and makes great water. This is why bourbon is made in Kentucky and also people say why the horses are so strong and fast there, it's 'cause it's the water.
MATTHEW BONDURANTAnd a lot of moonshiners, people over the years always talk about the water and having a good natural source of water is as important as anything else in making moonshine perhaps. Moonshine clearly has been part of sort of an American tradition for a long time. It's in the blood of the citizens to some degree. You hear that over and over again. And a lot of the research I did people talk about how sort of moonshining gets into your blood and it becomes a -- something that's passed down through the generations.
MATTHEW BONDURANTSo it may have just been that a lot of Franklin County became known and popular for it and that just increased as it became -- as other counties, for example, around it to just sort of ceded that the -- or just assumed that Franklin County's where these things are going to happen. And Franklin County residents just sort of took on the mantel of this is our responsibility or something like that. It just became the thing that is done there.
MATTHEW BONDURANTIt's really hard to say, I mean, 'cause I think, for the most part, the citizens of the county, the landscape's not that, you know, unusual. There's nothing really particular you can point to.
MICHAEL MARTINEZYou didn't grow up in Franklin County. You grew up up here near Washington, D.C.
MARTINEZHow did your experience compare to Anderson's when you went to Franklin County and started doing this research and you were coming into it as an outsider?
BONDURANTVery similar. I mean, it felt like a very quiet world that I was having trouble sort of breaking through. I mean, you know, when I was -- my experience was different in that as I'm talking to people about putting together a novel based on this period in the past, there's a small sort of cottage industry built up around the tourist trade in Franklin County these days about its moonshine past. So there's a historical society and there's a lot of places like that that I could go to and people were very willing to talk to me about things, unlike with Sherwood Anderson who was actually investigating things as they were happening.
BONDURANTNow if I'd have been down there and, I mean, asking around for actual moonshiners that are producing now, you know, if I was trying to sort of get inside the trade as it's happening now in the present day I would've met a really blank wall and much more like Anderson. But, you know, that -- Anderson's experience reflects a kind of a cumulative effect over my life my experiences there, not so much that I was constantly felt shut out or something like that but just generally that feeling of being an outsider.
BONDURANTAnd I think that's really an important part really of any story. I mean, most -- you know, there's only really two stories. There's a strange comes to come and then there's a man goes on a journey and both of them involve putting somebody in a place they don't belong. And so there's always an outsider sort of element that I knew that I wanted to represent that in some way with this story at a very early stage and Anderson just provided just a great opportunity for that.
MARTINEZAnd when it comes to the moonshine itself, I saw an interview where he said, you can be in the middle of Franklin County and it will be everywhere around you and you'll never see it.
BONDURANTRight. Yeah, it's pretty much you have to know somebody or -- and it's not like something people break out at parties or something like that. It's not -- you know, if you know the right people in the right situation, all of a sudden, you know, somebody will invite you out to the parking lot and you're in somebody's trunk of somebody's car and then you're having a sip of it in an opaque cup, you know, usually with some fruit in it or something mixed with it.
BONDURANTAnd it's not something that's -- they take drinking seriously I guess to some degree but it's not social in the way that it is in most places. It's something that's done predominantly almost always by men alone and usually in -- you know, in the woods or in the parking lots or in the back of pickup trucks. You know, you're out hunting or fishing or those kinds of things. So it's an unusual thing. Yeah, you can't just kinda walk around and pick it up or find some or purchase some just being a stranger. You really have to kind of know somebody.
BONDURANTNow of course the trade has diminished significantly from 1930s let's say. In the 1930s, you know, you -- when there was a lot more of it being produced, a lot more money to be made, you know, you might be able to ask around at some point. If you were a serious person somebody might sell you some but these days it's much more of a kind of either a hobby or a tradition or like a boutique kind of thing. And, you know, every -- occasionally they still bust a big still. It's hard to say if there's -- you know, what is particular about Franklin County that separates it from other kinds of moonshine.
BONDURANTNow the clear stuff, you know, what that used to call white lightening, and they still do to some degree, does have bare resemblance to Everclear in terms of how hot it is. But for any kind of moonshine real moonshine, you know, made predominantly with corn has a distinct flavor to it that is certainly much closer to a bourbon whiskey, not as sweet and even hotter, but usually a corn -- strong corn smell and flavor.
BONDURANTBut for the most part in Franklin County, you know, if you're having moonshine, you're having it with fruit in it, most likely. That's most often how it's seen. And basically that's just you take a jar of it -- of the white lightening and you fill it up with fruit. Peaches is probably the most popular and I think is probably the best. And, you know, you let it sit and saturate basically with the fruit in it for a long period of time and it tastes pretty good.
BONDURANTOr there's a lot of mixing. You're mixing with soft drinks. There's a drink called Sun Drop, which is like a traditional thing, every drink of Franklin County, sort of like a Mountain Dew. And that works out pretty well too. Very few people are sitting around just slugging back white lightening by itself, you know. It burns quite a bit and the flavor is -- I wouldn't say it's an -- it's sort of -- I wouldn't say -- I wouldn't describe it as a complex flavor. Some people might disagree with me but I think for the most part -- because moonshine is -- because it's such a simple thing -- I mean, it can be extremely simple and it can be really complex.
BONDURANTBut to get down to it, you know, if you wanted to -- if you're making moonshine, you can make it out of so many different types of products. You can make it in so many different kinds of ways. And if you're using a lot of sugar, for example, you can make it in very sort of simple ways, that the flavor or taste of it can really run a reasonable gamut. If you're having decent Franklin County moonshine, it should be made mostly from corn and it shouldn't have a whole lot of additives to it. And then, after the fact, is when you add your fruit or you're mixing to it, mixing with it.
MARTINEZOr have you ever tried to make it yourself?
BONDURANTNo, I've never tried to make it myself and I'm pretty sure I never will. I -- occasionally I'll have a friend who will say, hey we have this farm. We can -- you know, let's make a little still, you know, just to see what -- just to make it, not to sell anything or like -- just for fun, you know. You know, I think they often say it's kinda like making your own beer or wine, which I've done both, but making moonshine is a far more dangerous prospect. You're dealing with high-pressure contents of flammable -- you know, high pressure so it could, you know, literally explode.
BONDURANTAnd then also if you're not doing it correctly, you know, you can produce something that'll make you go blind. I mean it's a very dangerous -- it's a dangerous thing. And most likely on your first shot at it -- your first ten shots at it you're gonna produce something that's gonna taste pretty hard, pretty awful, you know. Like, it's not going to be very tasty. So it's nothing really that I would want to take part in.
BONDURANTI've met some people that were making, that were -- you know, that had made. I've seen stills. I've seen stills in operation but I've only seen stills that were in operation that were like reproductions for example, that were being used for historical purposes. You know, a real illegal still hidden in the woods or in a barn or something like that, I was not given that kind of access. And that would be pretty much unheard of, although I know there's a TV show supposedly about this called -- you know, that show on Discovery Channel. But most people agree that that's -- you know, that's essentially a -- I won't comment on it.
BONDURANTBut anyway it's not something that you -- a real moonshiner who's actually doing it for profit is not going to allow some guy from Washington, D.C. to come in and take a look. You know, just -- even if they're related to me, which they aren't, you know. The Bondurant's are no longer involved in making this kind of liquor. That's the official line.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue the conversation between author Matt Bondurant and our producer Michael Martinez.
NNAMDIYou're listening to a conversation between our producer Michael Martinez and Matthew Bondurant, a novelist and author of "The Wettest County in the World," which has been adapted into the major motion picture "Lawless."
MARTINEZYour father and his brothers actually testified in the great 1935 racketeering trial that people called the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy.
BONDURANTRight. My grandfather and his...
MARTINEZYour grandfather, sorry.
BONDURANT...yeah, my grandfather and his brothers. Yeah, they did come to testify in that trial. That's 1935 so that's after the principle events of the book. And one of the things I tried to do in the book was, you know, to create this dramatic narrative connecting a series of events that we know that happened. And the culmination comes in 1930 really with the shootout at Maggoty Creek Bridge in December of 1930.
BONDURANTAnd so the Moonshine Conspiracy trial is sorta like the aftermath in 1935 when essentially the racketeering scheme, the bribery set up that the commonwealth attorney had put into place and was being forced by all the Sheriff's deputies which the Bondurants were rebelling against, came to be known on the federal level. And so charges were brought against Carter Lee, the commonwealth attorney and the deputies. You know, so they were being brought up on these massive charges for conspiracy and racketeering.
BONDURANTAnd so they ended up bringing in all these moonshiners to testify for the prosecution. It was a very unusual position for most of these moonshiners. I mean, you know, many of them had been arrested and had been on the other side, you know. They had been on the defense but here they were being used for the prosecution to indict the commonwealth attorney and his deputies.
BONDURANTYou know, so what was the incentive for them to testify is unsure. I know that, you know, their involvement in things as far as we can kinda tell fell off after -- you know, in those years. They weren't operating in the same way. Certainly they had plenty of grudges against these people, including, you know, Carter Lee and Deputy Charlie Rakes who tried to kill my grandfather and his brother. Shot them both and -- well, tried to kill all three brothers but was unsuccessful in doing that.
BONDURANTSo they took the stand for the prosecution. Of course Charlie Rakes died mysteriously a couple days before he was due to take the stand himself against his former boss, and then as did other sheriff's deputies, most famously another deputy who ended up getting shot at night in his car about 30 times. And so essentially Carter Lee cleaned up all the loose ends and he was actually acquitted. He wasn't -- he got away with it.
BONDURANTBut what that allowed me to do in these transcripts -- the court -- the grand jury testimony transcripts was to hear my father and his brothers comment on, for example, the shooting in 1930 and other -- 'cause they were asking about this bribery, extortion, etcetera, racketeering that the deputies were doing, and hearing them comment on -- give their version of some of these events. So there was a really invaluable resource to help me recreate these scenes of how they things went down.
MARTINEZHow did the image of your grandfather that emerged when you were reading those transcripts compare to the guy who you knew and grew up with?
BONDURANTThat's an interesting question. You know, when I was growing up and I was a young -- I was just a young kid and he was this older man and so he was always kind of a frightening and kind of intimidating in that old man kind of way. And he certainly commanded a kind of respect. I think actually the testimony and the newspaper accounts and things that I heard made him actually more vulnerable. Made him seem a bit more of a guy he was scrambling to -- hustling as they say, you know, trying to make things happen, trying to get some money together he -- you know, in the way that an 18-year-old or 20-year-old guy would.
BONDURANTAnd that helped sort of the formulation of his character I think as the younger brother and as the one that is not quite cut out for the business in the way that Forrest and Howard -- and maybe it's the way also Forrest and Howard talked in those testimonies. And the things that were said about them added to the sense that they were two guys that were more sort of cut out for this line of business more so than Jack. And Jack is the one that has to sort of struggle.
BONDURANTSo to some degree, but, you know, he was always, you know, he always commanded a lot of respect in the county. And so I always saw him as a formidable person.
MARTINEZThis is a guy who kept a pair of brass -- or set of brass knuckles next to a gun rack or under a gun rack?
BONDURANTYeah. Yeah, and, you know -- but, you know, one of the things, you know, I did is in the book I sort of passed those knuckles onto Forrest as the person that would be most likely to use them. You know, Jack was somebody that -- I mean, he might have those on his wall but he wasn't the kind of guy that necessarily wanted to wield those on people. And Forrest -- in my family Forrest Bondurant was a different sort of character. You know, he was known to have a lot of dealings with moonshine and bootlegging.
BONDURANTYou know, he had his throat cut from ear to ear at his restaurant and survived that. And he was shot in the stomach and survived that. And later on he had a load of lumber dropped on him by somebody and he survived that too. You know, he was never married until after he died and then it was discovered he was secretly married to this woman named Maggie that nobody really knows anything about at all. He had no children. He led a very unusual life.
BONDURANTHe was a tough character throughout. Even as a young child the recollections that everybody -- that anybody that knew him at all, he was a tough kid and was always kind of somebody not to be trifled with. And that's what helped his sort of story emerge, whereas Howard -- very little information about Howard too, even less so at that time. Howard went on to be a family man and upstanding citizen soon after these incidents related in the book. There's so little evidence at the time of what he was doing, you know, I had to go on with what I had.
BONDURANTAnd one of the things that we know is that during that shootout in 1930 he showed up on the scene late and apparently very drunk. And he's the oldest brother and it's also clear that Forrest was, you know, the ringleader of this group, the Bondurant Boys, this sort of gang. And so it got me to thinking as a fiction writer, what would cause, you know, that sort of scenario. Why would the oldest brother not be in charge and what would that do to the oldest brother to not be in charge. What are the things that might lead him...
MARTINEZAnd your grandfather was the youngest.
BONDURANTMy grandfather's the youngest -- so what were the things that would lead, you know, to -- you know, and Howard is the guy who shows up late and drunk, right. And so then the younger brother -- you know, and the same thing with jack the youngest. You know, what are the pressures being youngest, you know, and what are the things -- and I know that my grandfather was a guy that, you know, he liked to be known, he liked to command respect. He wanted to be popular, let's say.
BONDURANTYou know, he wasn't necessarily flashy but, you know, if you look at the pictures that exist of him at the time, which is only a handful of them, they all consist of him posing on top of a car wearing the best clothes he had, you know, with a cigar in a very kinda flashy fashion. So that helped form, you know, his character for me as a young man. You know, he wanted these things but he was the youngest -- you know, he was the more inexperienced. He wasn't quite cut out for the kind of violence and stuff the way that Forrest and Howard were. So this is what made him struggle a little more, you know.
MARTINEZAnd when it comes to the violence, you don’t have to get very far into this book to learn that you have a particular gift for gore. And I read that you were actually spending a lot of time reading Edgar Allan Poe when you were pulling this book together and writing it.
BONDURANTWhen I was an undergraduate I took a class on Edgar Allan Poe. And of course I knew who Poe was but, you know, I basically immersed myself in Poe for a semester. And I was, you know, a 21-year-old man and that -- my sense of my own esthetic principles were being just established. And so I think Poe made an early deep impression upon me, let's say. And through graduate school the first couple of years I remained, you know, a strong -- you know, I had a very close relationship with Poe I guess and his work. But that fell away and I don't think about Poe really on a...
MARTINEZ...on this book (unintelligible) ?
BONDURANTNo. His influence has diminished as it's been supplanted by other people. I feel like a major influence for this book certainly was the work of McCormick McCarthy, which, you know, has kind of a dark gothic aspect to it, much -- which, you know, if you talk about gothic it's arising in part from Poe. He's one of the -- he's sort of on the ground level of what we think of when we talk about gothic or even horror or fiction. Or any of those things, you know, really come from Poe and a handful of other people in the early 19th century.
BONDURANTSo, yeah, there's a debt to him, but I think that people like McCormick McCarthy in particular in his depictions of violence. Because Poe had some gruesome situations, but he wasn't so -- he wasn't so direct and naked in his depictions of violence in the way that someone like McCarthy is. McCarthy -- one of the things I always admired about him was his ability to look directly at the violence with a sort of naked unblinking eye and to describe it often in terms that are kind of poetic but also in a very direct fashion. And that's something that I think is laudable.
BONDURANTIt's something that I think writers strive for is to look directly at the most difficult thing to look directly at and that's what art's supposed to do. And so I tried at a very -- all through my career, the three books that I've written, all try to, I think, look directly at the most difficult or uncomfortable thing, whatever it may be that's occurring in the scene. And that could be violence or it could be an emotional reaction of somebody. But to look -- you know, to sort of fasten the eyes of the reader directly on it was kind of a goal for me.
MARTINEZAnd you teach writing and it's my understanding you were teaching at George Mason in Fairfax when you were putting together "The Wettest County."
BONDURANTI was, yeah.
MARTINEZHow does teaching other people to write affect your own craft?
BONDURANTThat's a good question. On one hand I think it keeps you honest and -- because it keeps you -- you're constantly aware of the basic principles that you're constantly talking to your students about. Like for example, the principle of looking directly at the most -- the hardest thing to look at. So I think maybe it keeps a lot of that stuff fresh in your mind, the craft elements of writing, you know, reading other people's work, commenting on it, trying to figure out problems with, you know, point of view or a voice or something like that.
BONDURANTI'm sure for me assists me in my own work and that it keeps me sort of attentive and careful and guarded about it maybe. On the other hand, it could be a real distraction. It can be something that takes up a lot of mental energy, spiritual energy too, and keeps you from using that for your own work. It might be constructing in that you are paying too much attention to, for example, the kinds of rules let's say that you lay down for an entry level writing course or something like that that may be -- it's a double-edge sword.
BONDURANTI like teaching a lot. I enjoy, you know, the students. I enjoy working with them. I enjoy talking about their work with them. I enjoy talking about, you know, literature with them in general. I think a lot of writers who teach would like to continue to teach. I think most of us would like to teach less, you know. That's what every writer wants, I think, is to teach, you know, a class.
MARTINEZNow the film "Lawless," which is based on your book "The Wettest County in the World" was actually filmed in Georgia. How did you think that Georgia served standing in for the place that you got to know so well in Virginia?
BONDURANTI think it did a reasonable job. There's a distinct lack of topography in this area. It's right outside Atlanta too. And the reasons why this location was chosen had to do with tax reasons as well as the location so close to the Atlanta airport. Because, you know, there are people in Franklin County, including myself, who were pushing it to be filmed on site in Franklin County. But you have, you know, these actors coming in from -- these international actors -- I mean, half of them are Australian or English and so they're flying in and, you know, you just have to fly in a lot of people. And so it's just better and closer to, you know, being near an airport.
BONDURANTNot -- so there's not as many hills or mountains in that area but they did find some slightly hilly places. They found some nice woods, some rivers, some scenes -- some sections that looked pretty good. I know they also used other footage from other sites that they visited and did some sort of stock -- they sort of filmed some footage in other places so they spliced that in to give it a bit more of the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains sort of set up. And then they constructed some sets down there though that worked out pretty well.
BONDURANTAnd one of the reasons they also liked this area is they were able to locate a small town, you know, that was mostly abandoned that they were able to sort of go in and recreate a 1930s Rocky Mount main street kind of thing. And so that -- you know, so there were various reasons why it was important -- overhaul, I mean, the look of it now, you know, as somebody who was on the set, I thought the set was really impressive but the look of it on the film I think is very solid. It looks good.
MARTINEZYou also seem to have a really deep appreciation for the culture that comes from Appalachia, the music, the food, the sounds. Are those things that you feel are harder to capture on camera than they are to capture with your own words? Things that can only come from being there and seeing it and smelling it yourself?
BONDURANTSure. I think it's definitely harder to capture on film raw and just with the visuals. That was something I wanted to certainly portray in the book was a complete picture of the county in this time and place, you know, food, music, all the sensory experiences. The way people talked, the way they sound, all those kinds of things. And that's a lot -- that's a very difficult thing to try to compress into a two-hour film.
BONDURANTI think that the filmmakers did an excellent job of trying to stay true to it as much as possible. They had their -- you know, they had the book to work from and I consulted with them on several things. They were very inclusive with me, which was great but they also -- you know, they have their own historical researchers and teams. And, you know, they were diligent in trying to replicate the time and place as best they could. And I think they did, you know, a very good job with that. It's a difficult thing to try to cover all that.
BONDURANTThis is one of the things that, you know, fiction can do that the film medium has, you know, a little harder time doing.
MARTINEZHow do you think people from Franklin County are ultimately going to react to the film and what kind of a window do you think it's going to have -- or going to give the rest of the world into the place that you got to know so well as a writer?
BONDURANTI think Franklin County -- people in Franklin County are very excited about it right now and I think a lot of them are going to react very well. I think there might be some that are a little bit bothered by the violence, even though it's very well established that these kinds of violent events did happen in Franklin County during this time.
BONDURANTYou know, some people may feel it's that dirty laundry sort of thing and this is not what we want Franklin County to be known for. I think there might be a small signet population that feels that way. For the most part people are very enthusiastic about it. I think most people understand the -- my intentions and also the vehicle. But, you know, the fact that this is a novel, not a nonfiction piece, that I'm not, you know, proposing that this is actually the way everything happened, you know, something that would be impossible to do because there wasn't enough information to even do that if you wanted to.
BONDURANTSo that it's a fictionalized attempt to bring us closer to some sense of how things went and how things could've gone or might've gone, things like that. And I think with the movies, just for further extension of that, it's another iteration of the same kind of idea so I think most people understand that that's what it is. And also just the way movie, in general, have to compress and accent and exaggerate things in order to get them across. And people understand that, I think, as far as movies go.
BONDURANTThere's actually a small tourist industry around moonshine and I think the people in Franklin County, they're excited for the attention that it might bring. And I'm happy to play a part in that. I'm glad that that might do something for the county. They've been known as the wettest county in the world for a long time, but not nationwide or not, you know, internationally. And this is a bit of notoriety that the county can now enjoy and, you know, hopefully they'll enjoy it and appreciate it.
MARTINEZMatt Bondurant, thanks so much for joining us.
BONDURANTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhat a fascinating conversation between our producer Michael Martinez and the novelist Matthew Bondurant whose novel "The Wettest County in the World" has been adopted into the film "Lawless," which hits screens throughout the country on August 29. I am Kojo Nnamdi and it's party time. Starting Monday we will explore the politics, protests and pop culture of the Republican National Convention, even braving the possible rain and humidity to find out who did and who didn't make the guest list at the after parties. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" in Tampa starting Monday, August 27 on WAMU 88.5. For more information go to wamu.org/conventions.
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