The Craft of Fiction in Far Tortuga

Peter Matthiessen

Q: James Dickey feels that Far Tortuga is a turning point in the evolution of the novel, that you are “creating our new vision.” Would you say something about this book’s development?

A: Far Tortuga is based on a sea turtle fishing voyage off Nicaragua: tortuga is the Spanish word for sea turtle, and sometimes refers to a cay where green turtles are found. I started work on the book in 1966, and since then, it’s been put aside many times, but I never tired of it. I was moved by the stark quality of that voyage, everything worn bare by wind and sea—the reefs, the faded schooner, the turtle men themselves—everything so pared down and so simple that metaphors, stream-of-consciousness, even such ordinary conventions of the novel as “he said” or “he thought,” seemed intrusive, even offensive, and a great impediment, besides. So from the start I was feeling my way toward a spare form, with more air around the words, more space: I wanted the descriptions to be very clear and flat, to find such poetry as they might attain in their very directness and simplicity. In fact, I can only recall one simile in the whole book. And eventually, I attempted using white space to achieve resonance, to make the reader receive things intuitively, hear the silence in the wind, for instance, that is a constant presence in the book.
      In Japanese sumi painting, in a drawing of a bamboo stalk, the brush moves upward, leaving a white space between strokes to suggest the nodes of the bamboo that separate sections of the stem; it’s the emptiness that brings the rest to life. Similarly, the emptiness and silence represented by white spaces set up reverberations in what is written. But I neglected to anticipate the mechanical problems of these spaces in terms of the printed page, and in the end I had to compromise on the white-space idea. Next time I’ll draw the whole novel onto the blank pages of an artist’s sketch book so that white spaces and juxtapositions will be just the way I want.

Q: Has your study of Zen affected this book?

A: Perhaps it has contributed to a need for spareness, the presentation of a coffee cup, a cockroach, with a minimum of literary adornment. Zen training helps one to see in a fresh way, to dissolve the screens that build up from early childhood and obscure one’s perceptions, and I suppose I am trying to present things directly, let objects and actions speak for themselves, so that the reader will not have to perceive things through the screens in the minds of the characters.

Q: How does your editor feel about this experimental novel?

A: Well, I guess he was pretty suspicious at first, assured me it wouldn’t sell, of course, but after he’d spent some times with it, it began to get to him. Some readers may be wary—certain critics, too—of the strange type set-up on the page: they’ll say, “Oh-oh! An experiment!” But actually, the experiment, if that is what it is, is very simple, no tricks or word games at all, and once the reader gets the feel of the new form, the book is quite straightforward. In the beginning, since you don’t know the crew, it doesn’t really matter much that you’re not always sure which man is speaking: by the time you do care, you will recognize each man, not only by the idiosyncrasies of speech but by his small obsessions. There’s a ship’s manifest with each crewman’s name, kin, and particulars, and a deck plan of the vessel which serves as sort of a stage set, and an endpaper map for following her course off Nicaragua—all these help.

Q: Do you recognize other influences?

A: I mentioned sumi painting, and an admiration of haiku poetry may well have influenced the brief descriptive passages. But leaving space experiments aside, the basic physical format derives from the screenplay, even though the person speaking is not identified directly, and the camera directions are replaced by descriptive writing. The dialogue is realistic, but toward the end, I recognized that I had put an element of folksong in it, naturally enhanced by the power and simple beauty of the turtle men’s speech. And of course a turtle boat is a good situation for the sort of experiment I was trying—a small isolated world, a confined stage which nobody could leave, and men who sing the refrains of their bewilderment over and over.

Q: Could the form you have developed be adapted to other types of novels?

A: I hope so, since I’d like to try again; next time, I’ll carry it further, perhaps, if I can do so without loss of clarity and feeling.

Q: What was that one simile, and why did you leave it in the book?

A: I guess I didn’t want to take it out. It comes when the Eden’s men first see Far Tortuga on the horizon, and refers to an island, “like a memory in the ocean emptiness.” The image seemed to me mysterious, nostalgic, suggesting that the turtlers were returning to a mythical childhood place, perhaps even that, unknown to themselves, they were already dead and had entered another world. In any case, the image occurred naturally, and I didn’t want to take it out just to be consistent.

—Interviewed by George Plimpton

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