Racing Inexorably Downhill: The Life of Bonnie Parker in Christina Schwarz’s “Bonnie: A Novel”

All I knew about Bonnie and Clyde before reading Christina Schwarz’ fictionalized biography, Bonnie: A Novel, was what I gleaned from watching the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the titular roles. And what I gleaned was a sense that has stayed with me over the years, a sense of the couple’s violence and flair—despite the fact that very little of the movie was historically accurate.

This sense and much more are conveyed in Schwarz’ novel, which, contrary to the film, is both literary and grounded in the real lives and times of Bonnie and Clyde. It depicts the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker as she and Clyde take to the back roads and backwoods of the Central United States during the Great Depression.

Schwarz extrapolates from historical accounts to imagine Bonnie’s upbringing, her psychology, life experiences, and interpersonal relationships in order to answer the question, Who was Bonnie Parker? In Schwarz’ telling she was a girl who wanted desperately to be above notice, to be special, extraordinary even, a girl with dreams that were “grandiose and gaudy” while all around her “life was squeezing in and grinding down.” Tragedies abound in the novel, as they did in real life, but perhaps this glaring mismatch between Bonnie’s dreams and her opportunities is the most tragic of all. Bonnie yearned for fame but in the end achieved only notoriety.

Bonnie is Christina Schwarz’s fifth novel and her first centered on the life and times of a historic figure. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Drowning Ruth, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in September 2000. I had the privilege and pleasure of corresponding with her recently over email.

As I understand it, your agent encouraged you to “write about someone real.” The story of Bonnie and Clyde is very much alive in the public imagination, I think, having been written about and dramatized for the screen. What compelled you to write about Bonnie as opposed to another real person? What is it about Bonnie in particular that drew your interest?

I thought I needed to come up with a historical figure who was well-known enough to attract interest but not so well documented that there would be nothing left for me to make up. Bonnie Parker seemed to fit the bill — she’s famous, but who really knows how she felt?  Even the details of her well-publicized crimes are often sketchy and contradictory, so I felt confident in having plenty of territory to fictionalize. Once I started reading about Parker, I was compelled by her dramatic and emotional personality and her interest in writing. I was convinced that I could present her as self-aware and therefore interestingly conflicted.

By the way, having now written about a historical figure, I would be less worried about tackling someone about whom a great deal is already known. My novels are really about exploring the interior — the motivations, the reactions, the emotions, and thoughts which can never be exhaustively determined and are therefore free and fertile territory for the fiction writer.

You conducted a great deal of research into Bonnie’s life for your novel, even going so far as to visit the locations you depict. Can you talk about the role of research in an author’s process when she ventures to write about a real public figure?

I wanted to present all the facts in the novel as truly as I could. I had to discover as thoroughly as possible what she’d done, if I had any hope of understanding why. I read a lot of primary sources — contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews — so I could form my own opinion of events and personalities. Plus, for me, visiting the locations was essential. I think setting strongly influences outlook and emotion, and I wanted to get as close as I could to experiencing what it must have been like to be Parker. Also, I think I’m a fairly cinematic writer, and I needed to see — and feel and smell and touch — the places I was writing about, so that I could conjure the scenes in words.

You mention that some accounts of Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes are “unreliable and contradictory,” and that when confronted with these different accounts, you chose the most plausible version. When confronted with equally plausible versions, you chose that which best served your story. Can you provide an example from your novel?

One of the most striking examples of conflicting accounts are the newspaper stories surrounding the shooting of two highway patrolmen on Easter Sunday 1934. One quoted a witness describing how a woman had downed an officer with bullets until his head “bounced like a rubber ball,” while other descriptions of the scene made clear that no one had witnessed the actual shooting from any place close enough to make such an observation. The image of the bouncing ball is obviously tailor made for a dramatic chapter. But it conveys a wildly vicious and callous Parker, and this troubled me for a long time. Would the woman about whom I was reading and writing coldly relish committing murder? Certainly, I can imagine Parker murdering in a fury or in a panic. I also think that at times she enjoyed bullying those over whom she’d gained control (I depicted some of those). But, in the end, the dots just didn’t connect. It was either wrench around the story I’d built from lots of other evidence to fit this account or reject the scene as the sort of drama that emerges when an excited interviewee is encouraged by a reporter who wants a good story.  

Your novel puts me in mind of other fictionalized biographies, and even reminds me of the novels of Curtis Sittenfeld, for example, who reimagines the lives of public figures or writes alternate histories of them. Why do you think these kinds of novels — part fiction, part biography — are so appealing to readers?

I appreciate your comparing me with Curtis Sittenfeld. Her novel, American Wife, was one of several I had in mind when I started Bonnie. Others were Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Gore. While I was writing, I was very excited about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Because a novel can take chances — in fact, is required to take chances — with the subject’s thoughts and emotions, it can be so much more intimate than a biography. One of the strengths of a good biography is that the reader is often aware of the biographer in between her and the subject, curating and interpreting, helping the reader to understand this other person. With a novel, on the other hand, the reader is hovering just beside or sometimes even inside the character’s skin. I think that connection — feeling as if you are really there with or even sharing another life — is a compelling and transporting illusion.

I was particularly moved by the relationship you describe between Bonnie and her mother, Emma. It felt psychologically true. Can you comment on how you think that relationship helped and/or hindered Bonnie?

You first asked what drew me to Bonnie, and her relationship with Emma was among the most attractive elements for me. You could even argue that the novel hinges on it. Even so, when a psychologist friend read an early draft, she thought the relationship seemed hazy. Bringing it into focus was extremely rewarding, and I’m happy that you think I succeeded. Ultimately, Emma remained a grounded center for Bonnie, in a life that was increasingly and intolerably out of Bonnie’s control and purposeless. In this way, I think Emma helped to preserve Bonnie’s humanity and hope.

The character I created for Emma, however, was also weak. She dangerously encouraged Bonnie’s romanticism — in part because she shared it and in part because it formed a link between mother and daughter. And she couldn’t stand up to Bonnie’s will. I don’t know what would have happened, if Emma had vigorously opposed Bonnie. Perhaps Bonnie would have changed course, but maybe Emma would have lost her connection with her daughter, and certainly the character that I created wasn’t willing to risk that.

The novel is a thrilling read. Can you comment on how you worked to maintain suspense, despite the fact that many of your readers are undoubtedly familiar with Bonnie’s fate?

Again, thank you for your kind words. The short answer is I cut. At one point the book was more than 700 pages long. One of my faults as a writer is that, unless I check myself, I tend to get caught up slogging through a scene moment by moment, registering subtle shifts, testing thoughts and details. Some degree of this is unavoidable — I think as I write and sometimes (often!) I can’t figure out what I want to do with a scene until I can read it on the page. This slogging — like crawling uphill through sand! — is probably the hardest part of writing for me.

Working on a novel about a historical figure compounded the problem. After all, the events existed; I didn’t even need to make them up. Plus, I wanted to convey the tedium of Barrow and Parker’s lives. So I wrote every argument, every robbery, every stop in every town. Of course, the goal was to convey tedium without actually being tedious! And my husband kept groaning and claiming he couldn’t bear to read any farther, which was a helpful sign that I had a lot of work to do.

At first, figuring out what to cut and how to shape what remained was fairly agonizing. Eventually, however, I reached a point — as I always do — when what had emerged began to dictate what I needed to do next. That is one of the most gratifying stages of writing, when it gets better and better before my eyes, so I can happily work hard for 14 hours a day.

I think the pacing helps create suspense — the book starts slowly, builds speed, and by the end feels, I hope, that it’s racing inexorably downhill. Also, I think that knowing what’s going to happen actually adds to the suspense. It’s like waiting for the overinflated balloon to pop. You know it can’t last, but the end stretches it out a little at a time. At one point I even refer to the final scene and then pull back and say, “Not yet.” But one of my strengths as a writer is that creating suspense comes pretty naturally to me. I don’t have to figure it out or plan for it; I just do it.

Can you comment on how you used Bonnie’s poetry to enhance the story? What did you think of her poetry?

Bonnie Parker’s real poetry was mostly ballads with some version of herself as the main character. It’s lively, dramatic, and clever — like Bonnie herself — but it cloaks her emotions. I loved how seriously she worked on her poetry and I wanted to show that, but with one exception, I wrote the verse that appears in the book. I tried to echo her rhythms and rhyme schemes in lines that I hope bring the reader closer to what the character — and perhaps the real young woman — might have felt.  

As a reader, I found myself contemplating how Bonnie’s personality and temperament might have interacted with her environment to shape her into an outlaw. She had a flair for the dramatic, she was raised in reduced circumstances, as a woman she had fewer opportunities, and she became infatuated with Clyde Barrow. Do you think there was a tipping point in her life, without which she might not have entered into a “life of crime”?

Your summary astutely captures the influences that I hoped readers would glean from the novel — thank you! I would add the Great Depression, which started much sooner in Texas than elsewhere in the country, and which intensified the other contributing factors. I’ve thought hard about this question, and I’ve decided that the answer is “no.” To my mind, it’s the concatenation of personality and circumstances and an accretion of events that made Bonnie’s path inevitable.

Did anything surprise you about Bonnie, either based on your research or as you imaginatively filled in the gaps in her life? Did anything give you a different perspective on why she might have done the things she did?

Although I know enough to distrust a movie version, until I started work on the novel, I had nothing with which to replace the impressions I’d formed from the 1960s film, which I saw about 40 years ago in college and, once I’d started the novel, deliberately did not watch again. Therefore, so many aspects of the “real” Parker surprised me! Her relationship with her family, her early academic success, her poetry writing, the sheer number of hours she spent in cars. You’re right to include in this category all of the attitudes and emotions and behaviors that emerged from my imagination. My Bonnie Parker is more needy and conflicted and less confident than I would have supposed before I started writing. I think that lack of confidence in her own agency contributed a lot to her attraction to and dependence on Barrow.

Do you think Bonnie’s life and downfall can enlighten us about the world in which we live today?

Many elements of Parker’s story are specific to her time, but that many people feel that their opportunities will never match their ambitions might be even more true today than it was in the 1930s.

Can you talk about your next project? Do you plan on novelizing the life of another public figure or returning to a wholly fictional story?

I’m toying with a kind of hybrid, creating a fictional character that draws on characteristics and experiences of several different historical figures. It’s set in the Middle Ages, so entirely new territory for me and one I can’t hope to visit, which presents a challenge for me. I’m expecting that the biggest and also most interesting challenge, however, will be to stay true to the attitudes of the time.

Bonnie: A Novel
By Christina Schwarz
Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Published February 09, 2021