A way to talk about work and friendship.
Before I became friends with Peter Matthiessen, I was his editor. We talked on the phone and our conversations, when I’d reach him driving one of his numerous loops through the deep West, never started with where he was but rather where he was going. All the travel, all the reporting, were central to his work. “I like to hear and smell the countryside, the land my characters inhabit,” he said, when he talked about writing. “I don’t want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape.” And they did, I think, because his great discipline allowed him to write well from wherever he went, from however deep he got.
Peter traveled with universal notebooks, taking notes on the right-hand pages, leaving the left blank until he used them for his first run at usable copy—usually in the evening after a day of reporting. It was an efficient system that made him productive on the road. The notebooks were artifacts, too, and I think they meant as much to him as the research they held, although he insisted that this was a silly idea.
He lost one of those notebooks once, at the San Francisco airport, while returning from reporting in Klamath National Forest in Northern California. Those were the days of pay phones, and Peter had left the notebook at one in the main terminal—for only a few minutes, but when he realized what he had done and quickly returned, it was gone. Hans Teensma, who was the art director at Outside, had driven Peter to the airport and was seeing him off. They went on the search together. Then as now, there was no effective lost-and-found at any airport, so that took about five minutes before they started reverse engineering the trash-disposal procedure. They found rooms full of sorted garbage, but Peter, forlorn and increasingly resigned to the loss, had a flight to catch.
Hans continued the search, with no luck. Driving home that night empty-handed, he figured that only a crazy person would look at one of Peter’s notebooks and not understand that someone had put a lot of work into it. They might not want to go to any trouble to find the owner, but something like that would be very difficult to just throw away. Hans returned to the airport the next afternoon and tracked down the notebook in the janitors’ changing room. One of them had picked it up and just stuck it on a shelf before he went home.
Hans called Peter, and then Peter called me to tell me what a brilliant and wonderful thing Hans had done. Hans and I worked together again at Rocky Mountain Magazine and then lost touch, but for all the years that followed Peter and I would talk about how Hans had gone back to the airport and found that notebook. Peter always implied some kind of tangential credit for me, the way he often did with his friends when something they’d had very little to do with went right in the world. It was a way for us to talk about the value of work and friendship.
Adapted from The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers, by Terry McDonell, published this month by Vintage.
Terry McDonell is the president of the board of The Paris Review Foundation. On his website, he’s written about Hunter S. Thompson and Trump.