Interviews

Peter Matthiessen, The Art of Fiction No. 157

Interviewed by Howard Norman

Not long after the publication of The Tree Where Man Was Born, Peter Matthiessen’s classic account of travels in East Africa, I overheard a restaurant conversation between two well-dressed men on the general topic of midlife. One said, “My wife and my psychiatrist agree that as a human being I’ve atrophied—spiritually. For my fiftieth birthday, she’s arranged a trip to the Serengeti, for God’s sake. ‘Go to a place that might change you,’ she said.” His friend said, “Well?” and the man answered, “Well, I’d rather read Peter Matthiessen. I’ll enjoy his African trip a great deal more.”

Peter Matthiessen’s writing—fiction and nonfiction—does not provide approximations. What it does do with inimitable skill is put a reader at the live heart of life—a powerful, rich sense of immediacy, of being in that moment. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974, he has long been one of our most celebrated writers, best known, perhaps, for his novels At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, his travel journal The Snow Leopard, and his lifelong advocacy of wilderness and wildlife preservation and social justice.

For the past twenty years, Peter Matthiessen has been obsessed by a remarkable trilogy of novels based on the violent life and death of Edgar Watson, a notorious frontier entrepreneur who in 1910 was gunned down by his neighbors in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the western Everglades. Killing Mister Watson, published in 1990, was followed in 1997 by Lost Man’s River, and the final volume, Bone by Bone, narrated by Watson himself, appears this spring.

This interview forms only a small part of an ongoing conversation between this writer and myself pursued for over a decade in locations as varied as northern California; Washington, D.C.; Clarksville, Tennessee; Montauk, Long Island; the Hotel Wales in New York City; and the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales. In all of these discussions, he was, as Conrad put it, “high up on the top rung of honesty as naturally and carefully and unashamedly as a man can climb.” He is a man of tough-minded opinion, deeply earned and forthrightly rendered, with passion and quick humor ringed with what one writer calls a “useful melancholy.”

Born in New York City on May 22, 1927, Matthiessen attended the St. Bernard’s School, then Hotchkiss and Yale. His junior year was spent at the Sorbonne. In 1951 he returned to Paris, where he became a founder of The Paris Review and finished his first novel, Race Rock. In 1953 he moved to the South Fork of Long Island, New York, where his daughter Sara Carey was born. For the next three years Matthiessen worked as a commercial fisherman and as captain of a charter fishing boat off Montauk, pursuing his writing in bad weather and in winter. His second novel, Partisans, was published in 1955. In 1957, he traveled to the farthest corners of America, doing research for his classic study Wildlife in America (1959). In 1961 came his third novel, Raditzer, and also The Cloud Forest, a naturalist’s account of his previous year’s travels through backcountry South America and the first of six books serialized in The New Yorker. The same year, he traveled to Sudan, East Africa, Nepal, and Southeast Asia en route to the Harvard-Peabody Expedition to New Guinea on which Michael Rockefeller disappeared; his innovative account of a stone-age culture, Under the Mountain Wall (1962), would influence Truman Capote’s conception of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. In 1965 his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 1967 came Sal Si Puedes, his account of the California grape strike and the life of Cesar Chavez.

That year Matthiessen set out on the turtle-boat voyage from Grand Cayman Island to the coastal reefs off Nicaragua that eventually led to the novel Far Tortuga (1975), which Thomas Pynchon called “a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum. . . . It’s full of music and strong, haunting visuals, and like everything of his, it’s also a deep declaration of love for the planet.” In 1973 he accompanied zoologist George Schaller on a 250-mile trek across the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau. His account of that journey, The Snow Leopard, won the National Book Award in 1979. Since then, Matthiessen’s books have included In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, his powerful account of the American Indian Movement and the 1975 shoot-out at Pine Ridge in which two FBI agents and a young Indian were killed (Matthiessen remains at the forefront of international advocacy for the release of AIM leader Leonard Peltier); The Wind Birds; Indian Country; Men’s Lives; and the short-story collection On the River Styx.

There is, to my mind, no writing life more vital and of greater distinction in the second half of our century. Matthiessen’s prodigious and varied works led William Styron to call him “an original and powerful artist . . . who has produced as distinguished a body of work as any writer of our time . . . He has immeasurably enlarged our consciousness.”

 

INTERVIEWER

You are one of the few writers ever nominated for the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. Define yourself.

PETER MATTHIESSEN

I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process—not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him.

INTERVIEWER

And when did you start your first novel?

MATTHIESSEN

Almost at once. It was situated on an island off the New England coast. I had scarcely begun when I realized that what I had here at the very least was the Great American Novel. I sent off the first 150 pages to Bernice and hung around the post office for the next two weeks. At last an answer came. It read as follows: “Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better, Yours, Bernice.” On a later occasion, when as a courtesy I sent her the commission on a short story sold in England, she responded unforgettably: “Dear Peter, I’m awfully glad you were able to get rid of this story in Europe, as I don’t think we’d have had much luck with it here. Yours, Bernice.” Both these communications, quoted in their entirety, are burned into my brain forever—doubtless a salutary experience for a brash young writer. I never heard an encouraging word until the day Bernice retired, when she called me in and barked like a Zen master, “I’ve been tough on you because you’re very, very good.” I wanted to sink down and embrace her knees.

INTERVIEWER

Do you stand by the early novels?

MATTHIESSEN

Well, those first three were a bit green—well-written and well-made, I think, but entirely unremarkable, as were most of the first thirty-odd short stories that are still moldering some place collecting mouse droppings. The third novel, Raditzer, was bolder, but I came of age with At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I like to think that At Play and Far Tortuga, as well as the collected stories and this present trilogy, will endure.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say which writers have influenced your work?

MATTHIESSEN

A terrible confession—none. Try as I might to claim some creditable literary lineage, I find no trace that I can recognize in my writing. I don’t mean to claim that I am sui generis (though one could argue that all truthful writers are sui generis), nor that I came to work fully formed like a hen’s egg or a Buddha. Nor do I seek to be unique or even “different,” far less self-consciously “experimental.” In Far Tortuga, the innovations emerged from the writing process because old familiar novelistic forms simply weren’t working.

Many great writers inspired me, of course, but inspiration is not the same as a direct influence. I was often stirred by the beauty of great prose, the passion and startling intensity of hard-won truths, which leapt from that creative fire. I suppose I became a writer to search out my own thoughts (though I was unaware of that for years; I simply wrote). For the writer, therefore the reader, fresh truth is exhilarating, even painful truth, as in Kafka or Céline. Isn’t that what good writing finally arrives at? The insights and epigrams of Alexander Pope weren’t clichés when he wrote them, any more than those resounding lines in Shakespeare. They only became dog-eared from overuse.

The writers whose perceptions and evocations stirred me most when I first read seriously were probably Conrad and Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy and Gogol, too, of course—I loved all the great Russian writers with a passion, and certain more recent ones, as well, Babel and Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva (though I remain woefully ill-read in poetry, which I regret). And that’s just Russia! There are so many fine writers, including too many—a glum realization at my age—whom I haven’t got to yet. It is very, very exciting to be a reader!

INTERVIEWER

Are there still exemplary figures whose lives or voices are important to you? Conrad? Which writers do you return to now and then?

MATTHIESSEN

I rarely go back to a book, since I never feel sufficiently caught up in my own work. However, a few years ago, on a stalled expedition, I had an opportunity to reread The Idiot, which I’ve always thought of as “my favorite novel” (if such a thing can be; the great ones are no more comparable than the sun and the sky). I wanted to see if that book held up—if it was as heartbreaking and magnificent as I once thought it, and of course it was. Whereas—well, let’s simply say that most modern novels, even the better ones, are pretty dinky in ambition and certainly unworthy of a second reading when one knows that great ones are still out there unread.

INTERVIEWER

How about contemporaries? Are any of them important to your writing life?

MATTHIESSEN

I admire many of my contemporaries, especially those who risk something or bring some new element to their work. I won’t discriminate between my own contemporaries, but among subelders, I try to keep up with pretty much everything in the fiction, good and bad (for in very good writers, the intention remains interesting even when a certain work seems less so), of V.S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, and a few others. Of course, there are single novels that are excellent, but what interests me most is the working through from book to book of some recurrent obsession or at least preoccupation, a reverberation from within, which may burst the work wide at any moment, though it often seems half-hidden from the writer. What I’m trying to describe, I guess, is conflagration, a life burning up, as lives do in Dostoyevsky. Obsession that isn’t crazed or criminal is always enthralling. I learned a lot about obsession from too much time spent in the mind of Mister Watson.

INTERVIEWER

Obsession or not, you have great faith in this Lost Man’s River trilogy.

MATTHIESSEN

I do. One has to be mad or have great faith—if these are different—to devote a third of one’s writing life to a single project, as to my great horror I discovered I had done, when I came across my early notes not long ago. A twenty-year obsession. I’m just emerging.

INTERVIEWER

Twenty years! I can’t think of another project sustained for so long. Do you feel your fiction has been obscured by your nonfiction?

MATTHIESSEN

Let’s just say that books such as The Snow Leopard made certain less adventurous reviewers imprint on the idea that Matthiessen is essentially a travel writer, trying his hand at the novel, as so many ill-advised nonfiction writers have done—usually just once. Others have me pigeonholed as a nature writer, an anthropological writer, a writer of social advocacy. They’re like those blind men who discovered a large elephant and described it on the basis of the part that each first touched. But in fact I had written three novels and at least ten short stories before I tried nonfiction, and even then, I only did it to support a new, young family, eking things out with commercial fishing.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say precisely why you prefer writing fiction?

MATTHIESSEN

Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet. It can be elegant and very beautiful but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts—or predetermined forms—it cannot fly. Excepting those masters who transcend their craft—great medieval and Renaissance artisans, for example, or nameless artisans of traditional cultures as far back as the caves who were also spontaneous unselfconscious artists.

As in fiction, the nonfiction writer is telling a story, and when that story is well-made, the placement of details and events is never random. The parts are not strung out in a line but come around full circle, like a necklace, to set off the others. They resonate, rekindle one another, stirring the reader with a cumulative effect. A good essay or article can and should have all the attributes of a good short story, including structure and design, pacing and effective placement of its parts—almost all the attributes of fiction except the creative imagination, which can never be permitted to enliven fact. The writer of nonfiction is stuck with objective reality, or should be; how his facts are arranged and presented is where his craft appears, and it can be dazzling when the writer is a good one. The best nonfiction has many, many virtues, among which simple truthfulness is perhaps foremost, yet its fidelity to the known facts is its fatal constraint.

Like anything that one makes well with one’s own hands, writing good nonfiction prose can be profoundly satisfying. Yet after a day of arranging my research, my set of facts, I feel stale and drained, whereas I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy.

INTERVIEWER

It’s not unlike what athletes refer to as “being in the zone.” How do you reach that state?

MATTHIESSEN

By writing. I learned early that you can’t get there drunk or smoking dope or hanging about waiting for your muse. Starting each day is like priming the pump, in my experience; it’s plain hard labor, hunting the right way to express that thought that had seemed so penetrating, even beautiful, before you had to reduce it into words. I liken the donkey work of the first draft to the booster apparatus of a rocket—the terrible labor of those energies lifting this reluctant mass against the force of gravity, slowly, slowly, until marvelously—on the better days—the thing achieves its own momentum, and the dead weight of its booster falls away. Effortless, it enters into orbit—in short, “the zone”—sailing free and clear and light and sun-filled, opened wide to the flow of imagination, unobstructed.

Only rarely, in my experience, is nonfiction exhilarating in that same way. I scarcely recall ever entering that zone except in isolated passages. Perhaps that is why, for many years, I discounted my nonfiction books as worthy in their way, yet somehow inferior to my fiction. Finally an insightful friend, a painter, pointed out that my fiction and nonfiction in their various forms were only different facets of a single immense work—the same rage about injustice, the same despair over our lunatic destruction of our own habitat and that of other creatures. An evocation of our splendid earth and an elegy to the land and life that is being lost—both lie at the heart of my fiction and nonfiction.

INTERVIEWER

Your travels in remote regions are often perilous—New Guinea and the great white shark, wilderness, rivers and wild peoples in South America and Africa. There were larger literary risks, as well, as in The Snow Leopard.

MATTHIESSEN

I dislike risk and I never seek it out, but one can’t always anticipate what may occur off the beaten track. The physical risks on that journey across the Himalayas were minor, as things turned out, and as for literary risks, I understood that if that journey was to have any validity, I would have to deal with very personal matters, such as my wife’s recent death. Being a rather private person, this was sometimes difficult, but I decided to stand by what I had written at high altitude, which tends to air out inhibitions.

INTERVIEWER

In The Snow Leopard you write: “In the snow mountains . . . I feel open, clear, and childlike once again. I am bathed by feelings.” Then: “Simultaneously I am myself, the child I was, the old man I will be.” There are these explosions of transcendent feeling.

MATTHIESSEN

Or altered realities, perhaps, induced by altitude and exhaustion. And there were peculiar time shifts as we headed northward, ever higher and farther north toward the Tibetan Plateau, walking out of the present into the past—the Middle Ages, finally. First, time dissolved, then space. It’s broad daylight, good visibility, yet mountains move. You perceive that the so-called permanence of the mountains is illusory, and that all phenomena are mere wisps of the cosmos, ever changing. It is its very evanescence that makes life beautiful, isn’t that true? If we were doomed to live forever, we would scarcely be aware of the beauty around us. Beauty always has that element of transience that is spoiled when we draw clumsy attention to it. The great haiku poet Bashō wrote, “How blessed is he who sees the cherry blossoms fall and does not say, ‘Ah, time is passing.’” He has let go of all such concepts as time passing in order to enter deeply into this moment. I tried to capture some of that immediacy in Far Tortuga and The Snow Leopard, too. The first draft of that journal was written in the Himalayas as a Zen practice of close observation, and perhaps that gave it a meditative quality that otherwise it might have lacked.

INTERVIEWER

The relationship between you and the zoologist George Schaller—both of you men who seem to need a lot of space—struck me as not only sharply drawn but humorous and affectionate. For all the abrasions of such a long, hard journey, the friendship turned out to be honest and moving.

MATTHIESSEN

George and I were—and are—content in our own company. We had no compulsion to be sociable beyond a point. A few friendly words over coffee and breakfast, then go our way. Even on the way to the Crystal Mountain—and in the end, we walked up and down mountains for 250 miles to get where we were going—we would often be several hundred yards apart, even a half mile. We rarely talked except at meals, and even then it wasn’t very noisy. Neither of us like to chatter very much. There’s a wonderful Zen story about a young monk who has had an enlightenment experience. To celebrate, his teacher takes him up Mount Fuji. All the way up this snow volcano, this young monk is crying out, “Oh, Roshi! Do you hear the birds? I’ve never heard the birds before! How beautiful!” The teacher scarcely grunts, won’t say a word, just thumps his stave. On and on the fellow goes, ecstatic. “Oh, the snow, the clouds!” Finally they near the top of the mountain. “Oh, Roshi,” he cries. “Do you see how the wind blows snow across the cone of the volcano? How the clouds drift past on the wind? There is no separation between us and the wind and the great earth!” The roshi hisses, “Yes! Yes, true! But what a pity to say so!”

Schaller and I felt a bit like that old roshi. Both of us had this lifelong love of animals and remote landscapes. Yes, we had walked away from civilization through mythic mountains and ancient villages in clear October light—but what a pity to say that to each other! What I did say was, “If I can’t write an interesting book about an experience like this, I ought to be taken out and shot.”

INTERVIEWER

The Sherpa Tukten still strikes me as one of the more remarkable characters in your work, fiction or nonfiction.

MATTHIESSEN

I think of him often—that disreputable little catlike man the others were so afraid of. Even George distrusted him. But when I left, he led me down out of those mountains, and I saw how he was treated in every village we passed through—the wary reverence—as if he were some sort of shaman. Over and over again, his actions seemed uncanny, as when he thrust at me a stave he had just cut, only minutes before I was attacked by a horrible mastiff at the outskirts of a village.

After our journey, we were supposed to meet at the great stupa at Bodhinath, east of Kathmandu. He never showed up—what we call a “silent teaching” in the Zen tradition, unless he just got drunk—that’s teaching, too. So much for Tukten. We never met again, but I was happy to have traveled with him. I was through with him, but Tukten was not through with me. Perhaps six months after I got home, I had a phone call from a distressed woman in New York who was embarrassed by this intrusion on a perfect stranger. “You see, my story sounds so crazy that it’s hard to tell it. I’ve just come from Nepal. We were at Muktinath when a strange Sherpa came into camp who knew our Sherpas. He had this object wrapped in greasy brown paper. He said, ‘You America?’ When I said yes, he forced this thing into my hand. ‘Give Massin,’ he demanded.” She gathered that “Massin” must be someone in America, and tried to tell him that America was a big place where not everyone was acquainted with everybody else. He dismissed all this, in fact got cranky, so certain was he that she would find me. “Massin,” he insisted forcefully. Finally she accepted the thing and carried it back home, where her daughter said, “Guess what? While you were away, there was a series of articles about Nepal in The New Yorker by somebody named Matthiessen.” Finally she got up her nerve to call. She asked, “Would such a thing mean anything to you?” I told her to send it, which she did. It was a lama’s ceremonial crescent knife with a dorje bell handle used to cut away delusions—just what my teacher Tukten would have sent me.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes you’ve regretted having to write a new book of nonfiction.

MATTHIESSEN

Twice. One of those books was Sand Rivers, which was only written because I wanted to reach a very remote and roadless part of Tanzania, the south Selous. There was no way of traveling there without mounting a full safari, which is very expensive. Then some Englishmen turned up, offering to underwrite such a safari on the condition that the photographer and I do a book about it to defray expenses. The photographer was Hugo van Lawick, who always had longed to go to the Selous as much as I did. We had to sing for our supper. Blue Meridian, a book about a diving expedition to film the great white shark, was also in that category. I wanted to see the white shark so badly that the book was worth it.

The Indian books and the book about Cesar Chavez were written for a cause. I don’t regret them. So was Men’s Lives, a book about the traditional commercial fishermen I used to work with on the east end of Long Island, though that was a book I had always known I would do eventually. These men are being pushed off their own home territory by the tourist economy, and I wanted Men’s Lives to be published in a hurry to help them out. All of these advocacy books contain good stuff, but I had to work on them especially hard because, from a literary point of view, they came from the wrong place. Advocacy can only rarely be great writing.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about fictional characters. Where did you get the missionary characters in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, for instance?

MATTHIESSEN

Going to South America in 1958, I traveled with a missionary on a small freighter for forty-one days from New York throughout the Caribbean and all the way up the Amazon. At the end of that, I had quite a feel for the missionary character. Subsequently, I traveled to mission stations in Brazil and Peru, acquainting myself with missionary activity, which was generally disastrous. A typical tribe contacted by the missions is said to have an average life of approximately fifty years before it vanishes entirely. I’m talking about fundamentalist Protestant missions from the United States, not the Catholic missions, which are—or were—much less intrusive, more respectful of the Indians, adapting their Christian teachings to the Indian culture, not despising it. A few years later, with stone-age people in the highlands of New Guinea, trying to discover the origins of war, our expedition had problems with missionaries, too. Because we had made a difficult contact before they did, they accused us of encouraging these tribal people to go to war, which we did not do. Even had we been capable of that, there was no need. They went to war gladly of their own accord, about once a week.

However, South America seemed a stronger setting for a novel. I knew New Guinea but I felt South America—the jungle, the flora and fauna and the Indians, all dimly familiar. I was stirred by the enormous thickness and extent of that great forest, the claustrophobia, and the long history of violence by civilized man against wild peoples. Also, a pervasive torpor and brutality in the river settlements, the mindless cruelty to dogs and other creatures. Cruelty and humorlessness pervade the miasmal atmosphere in backcountry South America—perhaps a reverberation of the Spanish conquests and the genocides of the rubber days when the Indians were enslaved. There’s a settlement up the Amazon known formerly as Remate de Males—Culmination of Evils. And the creatures themselves—the insects, the mosquitoes, the poisonous snakes like the bushmaster and fer-de-lance, the piranhas, and that little sliver of a fish called the candiru, which enters every human orifice without exception. The cloud forest and the high Andes above the rivers, the legends of El Dorado, Machu Picchu and the Inca—all of it has a surreal, fabulous quality, so wonderfully rendered by García Márquez.

INTERVIEWER

How did the character of the half-breed Lewis Moon develop?

MATTHIESSEN

Lewis Moon was drawn from at least three people. The first was a young Navaho hitchhiker I picked up in New Mexico when I was traveling the Southwest doing research for Wildlife in America. We wandered together across Arizona, and I dropped him off somewhere in the empty desert country of southern Nevada. In all those miles, over two or three days, we spoke scarcely a word. He seemed to have no destination—an enormously alienated, sullen, angry guy. Since then I have spent a lot of time with Indian people, and I realize now that part of his alienation and anger was that he was a traditional from the remote mesas who scarcely spoke English and was ashamed of that. He might have feared I’d think him stupid or backward, which is how some of the acculturated Indians treat these traditionals. Though I’d carried him hundreds of miles and fed him, too, he could not even say thanks when he got out. He just rapped the window, looking straight ahead, and I dropped him off on the road shoulder at this desolate place in the desert buttes without a sign of human habitation. Maybe our culture clash was just too much for him, and he wanted out right then. I only hope he knew where he was going. He was nineteen or twenty, all tied up in anger, as I had been myself at that same age.

I met the second guy in a bar in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon. He was a French-Canadian ship’s carpenter who’d been shunted off a freighter’s stern off Trinidad when the deck lumber cargo shifted in high seas. It was night, nobody saw this, and he swam and floated in the ocean for eight hours before he was miraculously spotted. We talked all evening. He told me about the strange places he had been since—a man consumed with wandering. He showed me the small kit that he kept with him, everything he owned in life, pared down almost to nothing—a waterproof packet containing a map, a cutoff razor, a change of underwear, and very little else. He said, “It’s easier to throw away stuff and replace it. I’m always ready. I don’t stay put and I owe nothing, so if a guy tells me he’s headed somewhere, and there’s a seat, I go.” As a merchant seaman, he had made good money and, when he was picked up out of the sea more dead than alive, he understood something about life and death. He had a family in Canada, and he wrote his wife, “I love you, but I won’t be home again. I’ll send money when I make any. You’re welcome to the house.” A solitary and indifferent figure, cryptic and memorable.

This man and that young Navaho were joined in Lewis Moon. The third man, inevitably, was me. I brought with me as much as I understood back then about loneliness and anger, which was quite a lot.

INTERVIEWER

In your interview in this magazine about Far Tortuga,* form as much as character was on your mind. You felt constrained by the conventional novel form, to put it simply.

MATTHIESSEN

The inception of that book was a nonfiction piece for The New Yorker about a Grand Cayman turtle-fishing schooner still under sail off the reefs of Nicaragua. On that voyage, I was struck by the simplicity of those lives, the spareness—the bareness—of their ship and gear. Everything was faded and worn bare. In those heavy trade winds, on unmarked reefs, they had no life jackets and the radio did not work. Somehow this simplicity was very moving, and I knew from the first day at sea that I would do a novel. I also knew that the rich metaphoric prose I’d used in At Play would not work here. The prose had to reflect the spareness of those lives. I began by throwing out most of the furniture of novel writing, from simile and complex sentences right down to the he said and the she said. I don’t mean minimalism, however that’s defined. That’s not what I was after, nor economy either. I was after spareness, in both prose and feeling. A sense of the spareness and the fleeting quality of our existence.

INTERVIEWER

So there was a lot of experimenting in Far Tortuga?

MATTHIESSEN

I suppose so. If I hadn’t decided I was overworking it and doing the book harm, I would have spent another eight years gladly. I didn’t want to stop. It was the most exhilarating book I’ve ever written, fun, but also very exciting that other writers seemed to be excited by it. I was fascinated by the problems of how to present that tropical world, the hazed sunlight, the strong trade winds, the old ship, the sea, the almost Chaucerian language of those turtlemen, unchanged for centuries. I wanted to experiment with silences and space—I mean quite literally the extent of white space on the page between incidents, monologues, songs, wind gusts, squabbles, the shudder of the hull in the rough weather, everything. More than anything I’ve done, perhaps, Far Tortuga was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky. When you fix each moment in all its astonishing detail, see its miracle in a fresh light, no similes, no images are needed. They become “literary,” superfluous. Aesthetic clutter.

INTERVIEWER

Stravinsky said a wonderful thing: “I was for a period of time obssessed with the weight of interval.” He meant, of course, the anticipation, even the anxiety, about what’s immediately going to follow.

MATTHIESSEN

That’s it exactly. Setting up the tension of expectancy.

INTERVIEWER

Did you record those Caribbean voices to inform your dialogue in the novel?

MATTHIESSEN

When I first went to Grand Cayman, I could scarcely understand a thing those men were saying. I couldn’t write the book I wanted until I spoke that archaic tongue and heard it truly—until I could think and reason in it—so I made several trips to the Cayman Islands before I sailed south on that turtle voyage. By the time I returned, writing Far Tortuga was like speaking directly onto the page—not that I thought I had solved all of its problems. At the same time I had to evoke the reefs and birds and sea and light and the solitude of that doomed schooner and the self-deprecating courage of those turtlemen, who bitched and cursed but went out every day to do a dangerous job and do it well. But I don’t think I solved every last problem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you mean?

MATTHIESSEN

I had an instinct, the whisper of an idea that I failed to work through in my head, and by the time I did so, it was too late. All those white spaces—Stravinsky’s intervals—were indicated in the manuscript, but of course in the actual printed text, my precious spaces came out truncated, half at the bottom of one page, for example, and half at the top of the next. In the end, the dance of the white spaces was mostly lost.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s concentrate on this vast trilogy you have just finished. When did you first hear about the infamous Ed Watson?

MATTHIESSEN

Well, my father loved boats and he loved Florida, especially the fishing. I was a bird and snake fanatic from an early age, so I was enchanted by the Everglades. When I saw my first swallow-tailed kite hawking back and forth over the Tamiami Trail, I almost caused a car wreck. I jumped out, I couldn’t stop yelling; they couldn’t get me back into the car! When I was sixteen or seventeen, we went north by boat from the Keys up the west coast of Florida to Captiva Island. Off the Ten Thousand Islands of the western Everglades, still a wild region today, my father showed me Chatham River on the chart. He said there was a house a few miles up that river—the only house left in the Everglades that had formerly belonged to a man named Watson, who had killed many people before he was finally shot to pieces by his own neighbors. That solitary house, and a man killed by his neighbors—I was intrigued. Though I did not act on it for thirty years, I never forgot it.

INTERVIEWER

Was Watson a real person? A historical figure?

MATTHIESSEN

Yes and no. There was a real man and also a mythic figure. He was a highly regarded planter, loved by three wives and seven lawful children; he is said to have been friendly with Napolean Broward, who became governor of Florida, and his oldest daughter, Carrie Watson, married the first president of the First National Bank in Fort Myers. But his notoriety was spreading long before his death, and it spread far. My daughter-in-law, who was raised in Brooklyn, told me that when she wouldn’t go to bed, her mother would warn her, “If you don’t get in bed right now, Mister Watson will get you!” She had no idea who this bogeyman was and neither did her mother, but I feel sure it was the same Mister Watson. By the time he reached Brooklyn, he had been transformed into the legendary slayer of fifty people.

INTERVIEWER

So you could have written a biographical account instead?

MATTHIESSEN

No. Ed Watson became what was known as a shadow cousin, never mentioned even in his own family. Almost all that was known a half-century later was tall tale, rumor, a few ancient error-flecked news clips, apocryphal written accounts—old folks’ stories, recounted over and over. The only dependable information still available came from old gravestones, country records—all the rest was hearsay, which grew even more lurid with the passing years. To write a biographical account with such a paucity of fact, one would have to cripple each assertion with a qualification—”It is said that . . . seemingly . . . it appears that . . . apparently . . .” and so forth. In fact, it was the absence of hard evidence that inspired me to reimagine Watson. By immersing myself in his legend and his times, and listening for years and years to the old voice on that southwest coast, I finally would intuit who the real man might have been.

INTERVIEWER

Why didn’t you stop after the first novel?

MATTHIESSEN

Because I already had first drafts of what became two others. There was no separate first novel, not at the start. I wrote out the first draft of the entire thing. Only when the smoke cleared and I got my breath did I realize that my publishers would balk at the enormity that I had wrought. So I pulled it into three rough parts as one might separate a loaf of bread, then went back to the first part and revised and polished. But those three parts really belong together, so I will have to reassemble it another day.

INTERVIEWER

The Great American Novel?

MATTHIESSEN

If you like. Perhaps we’re all writing the Great American Novel, each in our own way.

INTERVIEWER

First we have Killing Mister Watson, accounts from neighbors and so forth about Watson.

MATTHIESSEN

I saw Killing Mister Watson as the first movement in a kind of symphony, since the whole thing felt symphonic in its rhythms, rising and falling, ever returning to the underlying theme. To establish that, I made kind of a prelude of his enigmatic death, the relating of which would recur in variations throughout the trilogy. The original composition as I envisioned it seemed to demand that Watson’s death take place at the start and at the end of all three movements, but later this structure seemed too arbitrary and schematic. However, the death of Mister Watson on that remote shore in the October dusk would remain the ending of all three of the so-called movements.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t that risky—to give away the plot right off the bat?

MATTHIESSEN

Well, the title already had given it away—that’s what I wanted. My British publisher was shocked; others were, too. But I had no interest in the plot; I wanted to get that out of the way and penetrate the underlying mystery. A powerful and respected man is shot to pieces by his neighbors: why? It is the why that matters. Was it really self-defense, as claimed by the participants, or was it a planned lynching? How could such a frightening event take place in a peaceful community of fishermen and farmers? And what about the rumor that the man who fired first and perhaps fatally was the lone black man in that crowd of whites—an astounding event on a Florida frontier in Jim Crow days when a black raising a gun against a white under any circumstances was inconceivable. Who was that man? What was he doing there? In terms of the American past, and African-American history in particular, this strange episode had endless reverberations.

INTERVIEWER

Did the separate books stand by themselves when you broke that first draft into three?

MATTHIESSEN

The first book and the third were more or less in place just as they were, though I was to revise and tighten them over and over. The middle section, Lost Man’s River, in which Watson’s son Lucius returns to the islands seeking truth about his father, worked well enough as a bridge between the other two but did not stand by itself—it lacked a skeleton, although it contained much of the brain and heart of the whole creature. It reminded me, not agreeably, of the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between the upright sturdy legs—an amorphous and unlovely thing when separated from the rest but critical to the function of the whole. To make it work—to make it a novel on its own—I was finally obliged to borrow a powerful and crucial episode, which really belonged elsewhere had the trilogy been written as a single book as originally planned.

For a time, that second volume was entitled “The Man Who Killed Belle Starr.” A remarkable book called Hell on the Border, first published in 1898, describes the demise six years earlier of a woman called Belle Starr, who in that era, in the opinion of The New York Times, was one of the ten most distinguished women in the United States—no one quite knows why, since for all her flamboyance, she was a ratty and disreputable sort of person. At any rate, this book claimed Belle Starr was murdered on a February day in 1889 by a man named Watson—a featureless assassin who comes out of nowhere. According to Hell on the Border, this man Watson was sent to the Arkansas penitentiary for horse theft and was later killed while attempting to escape. That last part was untrue, of course. He fled to the Everglades frontier.

In Lost Man’s River, his son Lucius is trying to find out who his father was. He has no cooperation from his family, which has swept the whole thing under the rug. So Lucius—this fictional Lucius—does an extraordinary thing. He goes to live in this backwater community where this dangerous man was executed by his neighbors. If you happened to be one of the shooters, what would you think when the son shows up a few years later? Might this man be on a mission of revenge? And of course Lucius learns more truth than he had bargained for.

Lost Man’s River is longer and more complex than the other two, but it is upsetting and sad and also funny, if you enjoy grim laconic humor. As Naipaul has observed, “You can’t give a dark, tragic view all the time—it must be supported by this underlying comedy.” Just so. I recall thinking that At Play was hilarious in places, but readers were so overcome by its tragic story that its humor passed all but unnoticed. At last a reader wrote to say that he thought it one of the funniest books he’d ever read—true or not, that came as a great relief. I wasn’t so sick after all, or else somebody out there was as warped as I was.

INTERVIEWER

And part three—Bone by Bone—is Watson’s autobiography, as it were.

MATTHIESSEN

In a sense. Its title comes from a beautiful, strange, edgy poem by Emily Dickinson. This volume takes Watson back as far as early childhood and young manhood, but like the other two, it moves remorselessly toward this dire event on October 24, 1910, when Watson came north from his plantation and, after a short dispute, was massacred. Thirty-three bullets, according to the sheriff, were removed from his body during the autopsy. The reader accompanies him in his head right to that last fatal second, by which time, I hope, one understands this man at last. That’s the challenge—to discover the humanity in such a man and even, perhaps, forgive him.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier we spoke of risk in your nonfiction. Risk is present in your fiction, too. I’m thinking of At Play’s wild drug hallucination scene, and how the novel form was stretched in Far Tortuga, and now this twenty-year commitment to a single work. What is important to you about risk? You never seem to write from a place of safety.

MATTHIESSEN

Isn’t that the joy of fiction? To probe for fresh experience rather than perpetuate received wisdom? Why turn out endless variations on what we have already done well; what our reviewers, and friends and family, too, assure us we do best; what everyone feels most comfortable with and what might sell. Why not explore new territory and also new means of getting there when that seems necessary? Too few writers these days seem to risk long-term commitment to a project, like that of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, and Proust and Joyce. Not risk painful controversy, as Styron did in Sophie’s Choice and Nat Turner, nor even extend their reach from book to book, as Mailer tries to do, and Don DeLillo. Because these novelists embrace large subjects, they will write long books when necessary, although quite aware that the poor overworked reviewers and the busy readers much prefer slight fictions.

I think serious writers stretch themselves, however subtly, and stretch their good readers, too—otherwise, why do it? There are many too many formulaic novels published already. In paying attention to what publishers or readers may expect of us, one is no longer an artist but an artisan, however gifted. To keep that necessary edge, the writer must never feel quite comfortable, and never satisfied. So many good novels could have benefited from another draft. I would work all the way to the printer’s, if they let me.

INTERVIEWER

You’re not afraid of overworking the material?

MATTHIESSEN

Indeed I am. My danger signal in my own endless revisions is when, next day, I remove more of my corrections than I keep. The prose dries out with overwork, becomes too literary.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider this trilogy your magnum opus?

MATTHIESSEN

You said that, not me. But certainly it draws together in one work the themes that have absorbed me all my life—the pollution of land and air and oceans, the obliteration of wilderness and the wild creatures, not to mention the more defenseless members of our own species, in particular the traditional peoples left stranded by the long-term cruelty and stupidity of what passes for progress and democracy, especially among businessmen and politicians.

In the metaphor of the Watson legend, I suppose I am writing about Uncle Sam, about racism and injustice in our country and the ongoing destruction of their hopes for Americans living too close to the bone, with no voice in the rapid changes that gnaw at their beliefs and nothing to confront their irrelevance with but humor, grit and rage. These concerns are subthemes of these novels. I do my best to keep my voice down; be ironical rather than strident. I never forget what Camus said in accepting his Nobel: modern writers can no longer isolate themselves in the artistic endeavor but must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

INTERVIEWER

What is your review of the reception of the first two volumes of the trilogy?

MATTHIESSEN

Mainly I am grateful that they found a few good readers. The ills of our great republic as seen through the eyes of redneck fugitives, swamp rats, and smugglers around the back country will never be as popular as suburban angst, but losers on the edge are eloquent, with real obstacles to the pursuit of happiness, not mere neurotic ones. In the end, all true novels must finally deal with the human heart, even the heart of an alleged sociopath such as Mister Watson.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see flaws in this long work—problems to look out for?

MATTHIESSEN

Yes. I tend to make my novels too dense at the beginning so that even readers who enjoy them may sometimes find them a bit difficult to enter. This might be because my eye is fixed not on the ending of the book but on the feeling of that ending, the distillation of all its foregoing imaginings and intuitions. Philip Roth speaks intelligently somewhere about “the magnet”—that intangible force that draws the author to the subject, the first impulse to pursue and penetrate a certain feeling or idea. It then becomes the navigational aide that keeps the writer on course, therefore the reader, who sooner or later will be made to sense that magnet, too. When the book goes too far astray during the writing, the magnet will guide the author back. If it is lost, the book will wander, perhaps fatally.

I’m wandering right now from my point. The magnet in this trilogy appears to be that lone house on the wild river and/or the enigma of a man slain by his neighbors. I’m not quite sure which is the seed, but in this case it doesn’t matter much, since those images fuse into the yearning that drew me in and drew me ineluctably toward the resolution—Watson’s end and the book’s too, and also in some sense, to the degree that the author grows into the heart of the protagonist, my own. What I sought instinctively but only half-consciously was to prepare myself as the first reader, make sure I was well-oriented in every element I would require to enter and accompany the narrative toward its conclusion. Inevitably the writer has to share this information with the reader—hence these thickety beginnings, which the reader must pierce before being set free into the story.

To orient the reader and to prepare the ground overrules any consideration of easy access. To cite two prominent examples—and I certainly don’t mean to invite comparison between these books and my own—Moby-Dick and Faulkner’s long story “The Bear” are resounding works that prepare their readers by educating them relentlessly for what is coming. We have all heard complaints about Moby-Dick—all that “boring and unnecessary” information about whaling. Yet without embarking on that whole hard voyage, with its grit and particulars—the tar smell of hemp, the harpoon rust, the creak of spars and buffet of the canvas, the ocean light—every moment that reminds the crew of its own peril at sea and tightens its accumulating dread of Ahab’s obsession—without that knowing, how are we to join these men in the final passages? In the author’s grand spectral vision of our death in life?

INTERVIEWER

So now, in Bone by Bone, we have Ed Watson’s version of events—the final word, since surely he knows better than anyone who he has become and what will now become of him.

MATTHIESSEN

I suppose so, if we trust him. But how well does he really know himself? How wise is he? How honest in his feelings? The reader must be Watson’s final judge. And of course, if the thing has been done properly, the reader will ask those same questions of himself.

Anyway, that is the novel’s general structure—I say novel because it’s really all one work. That’s the way it was originally conceived and that will be its final form. As one novel, it will be considerably shorter and tighter, since much of the scaffolding required for setting up three separate books will be dismantled. Not that I can assume it will ever be published in its proper form. It’s just that I need to reassemble it before putting it away, if only to know that it exists somewhere in its true nature.

INTERVIEWER

The act of letting go of such a prodigious work—will that be a problem for you? Perhaps you haven’t let it go yet.

MATTHIESSEN

I will never let it go. How could I? Such a long work is in my grain, a manifestation of my being, like this carcass that lugs me here and there—I’m stuck with the damn thing, for better or worse. Perhaps their work is what writers become, in the way of people who, in old age, come to resemble their dogs.

 

* An interview entitled “The Craft of Fiction in Far Tortuga,” accompanied by an excerpt from the novel, appeared in The Paris Review 60 (winter 1974).

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.