You've probably heard of Bonnie and Clyde, the American criminals who have been intensely glamorized in movies, books, and art since their hey-day in the early 1930s. But how much do you really know about the real-life couple behind the legend? In order to write her novel, Side by Side, author Jenni L. Walsh rigorously researched the history of Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow, and she shared some of what she discovered with Bustle.
The bank robbers lived hard and fast; both died in an ambush in 1934, when Bonnie was 23 years old and Clyde was 25. The two had met just four years previously, in 1930, while Bonnie was married to an imprisoned murderer. Although Clyde spent a portion of the next four years in prison, the two — along with the Barrow gang — are believed to have committed 13 murders and several robberies during their partnership.
In Side by Side, Walsh transports readers to Texas in 1931, the height of the Great Depression. When Clyde returns from prison, Bonnie knows that it's only a matter of time before the law comes back for him. And she understand that there's only one road for them ahead. I asked Walsh about why she chose to fictionalize the story of Bonnie and Clyde, and how she did it:
Bustle: Can you tell us about the true story that inspired Side by Side and how you discovered it?
Jenni L. Walsh: "Prior to writing Side by Side, when I thought of “Bonnie and Clyde” my mind instantly went to the award-winning 1967 film. It’d been at least a decade since I’d seen the picture, but the element I remembered most clearly was the notion of devotion. While the film was fictionalized in various ways, I found Bonnie’s loyalty to be tried and true. My novel, told through Bonnie’s eyes and in her voice, explores her devotion not only to Clyde, but also to her family, to her friends, and, ultimately, to herself."
What elements from the real story did you incorporate into your novel?
"I hesitate to use the word 'real' because I found quite a bit of “he said/she said” and various accounts during my research. But, I clung closely to a memoir that Blanche Caldwell Barrow (a member of Bonnie and Clyde's gang) wrote, edited by John Neal Phillips. Blanche’s words and sentiments allowed me to see Bonnie in a novel way, and because my opinion of Bonnie was originally based upon the happenings in the 1967 film, I was surprised to learn that Bonnie’s life with Clyde contained a greater deal of depth, including her own imprisonment, a plan to raid a prison, a possible betrayal by her family, and a car crash that left her disabled for the remainder of her life."
"It’d been at least a decade since I’d seen the picture, but the element I remembered most clearly was the notion of devotion."
What's the most challenging part about fictionalizing a story based on a real person?
"There’s a great deal of fear that goes along with writing about a real-life figure. Fear that I’ll depict Bonnie with too much sympathy—or adversely not enough. Fear that I won’t perfect the balance of real and invented to tell the most compelling story possible. Fear that I’ll offend a family member, whether it’s a person related to Bonnie or Clyde, or a relation of those their crime spree affected. As it is, I recently had a heart-pounding online conversation with a woman who ultimately revealed herself to be Bonnie’s great-niece. I’ve sent her a copy of Side by Side, but haven’t yet learned her thoughts!"
What are some misconceptions about Bonnie that you've seen in her portrayals, and did you want to address those in your book?
"Honestly, there were a lot. There are various media sources that depict Bonnie as a ruthless killer, but it’s been documented that Bonnie wasn’t responsible for any deaths—and that she showed remorse about the deaths that resulted from members of the Barrow Gang. In my novel, it was important for me to illustrate the emotions of regret, sympathy, responsibility, and selfishness that went along with being a part of the gang.
It’s been documented that Bonnie wasn’t responsible for any deaths—and that she showed remorse about the deaths that resulted from members of the Barrow Gang.
Also, oftentimes, I believe Bonnie is depicted as a bored, impressionable woman who sought fame above all else. I didn’t see her that way. While I think Bonnie liked going to the pictures and enjoyed music — she sang in her church choir, after all — I didn’t see her own fame as a driving motivation. Largely, I saw Bonnie as a woman who faced poverty and wanted more for herself, though she went about achieving it in the wrong ways and with the wrong people."
Read more about the real-life inspiration behind fiction novels on Bustle's Inspired By Actual Events.