In the fall of 2010 best-selling author Peter Matthiessen was a guest of the Traverse City National Writers Series. Matthiessen died yesterday at the age of 86. We feature this interview with Beth Milligan, prior to his 2010 Traverse City National Writers Series appearance, in memory of one of the greatest writers of our time.
Matthiessen is considered to be one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century. Described by The New York Times as “one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time,” the author is both a novelist and non-fiction writer as well as a Native American rights advocate, having written the acclaimed “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.” Matthiessen is also co-founder of the highly influential Paris Review, started in 1953.
In a recent phone interview with MyNorth, the author discussed his 2008 National Book Award winner, Shadow Country, which contained Matthiessen’s three famous stand-alone novels about Southern outlaw Edgar Watson, woven together and slimmed down into one sprawling epic. He also talked about founding the Paris Review as a cover for the C.I.A., which books have been inspiring him lately, and the highly unusual circumstances that introduced him to National Writers Series founder Doug Stanton…and to Traverse City.
MyNorth: Shadow Country earned you your second National Book Award in 2008 (The Snow Leopard won the first, in 1980). What drew you to the story of Edgar Watson? And how long did it take you to produce you the dense original trilogy?
Peter Matthiessen: It was written over a very long period of time. I had originally started the story as something else – it was focused on environmentalism and issues going on in the Everglades. But the Watson stories completely took over the other material. As a boy, I was passing by on the Florida river where Watson lived, and my father didn’t remember his name but said, “There’s a house three miles up that river. It was the only real house in the Everglades, and the man who lived there was murdered – executed – by his neighbors.” That stuck with me. I wondered, “How could that happen?”
I began looking into it and discovered that everything that had been written about Watson – and there was a lot – was all wrong. It was all based on reports from local people looking to make it a big story, and no one bothered to check the facts. Watson was a very complex and able person, with great charm. He had kids all over the place, numerous women in love with him. Even the people who killed him liked him! I’m not interested in the criminal mentality. Watson was much more than that. He was a very bad drinker, but ambitious, and I discovered that he had also been wildly beaten and abused by his father as a child. It took years and years for his family to open up to me and talk about him.
MyNorth: It’s tempting for many artists to go back and revise their work, but few actually do it once a piece has entered the public domain. Why did you want to revisit the three standalone Watson stories, and what changed between those original books and Shadow Country?
Peter Matthiessen: I wanted to go back mainly because of the middle book, Lost Man’s River. It contained the heart of the story, but as a book itself, it wasn’t formed properly. It was a big soft spot in the middle of this whole thing. And I had been too ambitious about the timespan and spread of the plot. So I eliminated a lot of the elements, cut the timespan back. And I changed points of views and gave characters voices they didn’t have before. Meanwhile, I was rewriting all the way. Jim Harrison, a great Michigan writer, told me: “What are you thinking? Those three books were great. Start a new book!” But I thought, “Well, it’ll only take me a year to do this.” It ended up taking me six years. My earliest notes for this story were in 1978, and Shadow Country came out in 2007, so it was almost thirty years overall. That’s quite a long time for one book.
Video: NYT bestselling author Doug Stanton interviews Peter Matthiessen in our MyNorth/Traverse Magazine offices in the fall of 2010. (After watching, keep scrolling for more Matthiessen interview).
MyNorth: Did your relationship to Watson and how you understood his character change through the rewriting process?
Peter Matthiessen: It did. I spent so much time in Edgar’s head; I got to know him better and better. I become a little bit more compassionate and understanding of him. You get to know somebody, and you kind of forgive them. (laughs) Readers tell me that, too – “I was sorry when he died.”
I think I redeemed him, in some way. I was in touch with Watson’s youngest daughter, who incidentally died just a few weeks ago. She always denied Watson was her father, wanted nothing to do with him. Then her daughter – Watson’s granddaughter – read these books and said, “My God. My grandfather wasn’t a good guy, but he wasn’t a monster, either.” She made her mother read it, and we then all got together to discuss it. Later his daughter wrote me the loveliest letter. She said: “You gave me back my father.”
MyNorth: You’ve worn many hats: nonfiction writer, fiction writer, environmentalist, travel writer, Native American rights activist. Do you identify with any of these roles more than the others, or have any in particular shaped your life or career?
Peter Matthiessen: I always thought of myself as a fiction writer. That’s all I did for a long time. But then I got married and had a family and kids, and it wasn’t putting bread on the table. My work has always been well-reviewed, but I’ve never been a big-selling writer. So I started writing nonfiction. Then I wrote The Snow Leopard, and that put me in a nonfiction box which was hard to get out of. I felt my fiction was being submerged. And it was a pity, because that’s who I really am.
But you know, a painter friend said to me at the time, “What are you bitching about? It’s all the same thing. Your writing all covers one theme. It’s always an elegy for lost people, lost species, lost land.” And I think he was right. It’s an elegy for what we’re throwing away as a nation; as a civilization.
MyNorth: How did your involvement in founding the Paris Review come about?
Peter Matthiessen: I was signed up as a recruit under the C.I.A. Part of the deal was that they’d send me to Paris, a city my wife was crazy about, and I’d have time to work on my first novel. That sounded good to me! But the problem was, it turns out writing a novel isn’t a good excuse for a cover in Paris. (laughs) That was ironic, because it was genuine, but it wasn’t satisfactory enough if anyone got suspicious of my activity. I was interested in doing a magazine anyway, because there were a lot of young writers there, so (The Paris Review) became my cover for being there. I was amazed the thing kept going after I left the country. I’m still on the board – I’m the old gray eminence. I keep trying to resign, but I haven’t succeeded.
MyNorth: I understand you first encountered Traverse City – and Doug Stanton – under very unusual circumstances.
Peter Matthiessen: Yes, I did. It was on September 11. I was flying over Pennsylvania when the attacks happened. Traverse City was the nearest airport they could find with an open spot to land. The second building had just been hit when I landed in the airport. I remember people were yelling at the TVs – it was unreal. My God.
So I was grounded there for six days. I mean, you couldn’t get a horse out of town. So I called my friend Jim Harrison and said, “Jesus, you lived in Lake Leelanau. Do you know anyone in Traverse City?” And he put me in touch with Doug. I got to tramp around town with him a little bit. I thought it was a very pretty part of the country.
MyNorth: Traverse City is home to a number of dedicated environmental groups and activists. After your own decades of work in that community, what do you think now are some of the most pressing environmental concerns we’re facing as a society?
Peter Matthiessen: We’ve gotten away from the main problem, which is all anyone would talk about in the ’70s – the issue of human overpopulation. That’s the cause of global warming, food and water shortages, resource depletion, wars, all of it. There are just too many damn big mammals on the planet. It’s created an enormous biomass which we’ve inflicted on the earth.
That aside, the most immediate big issue is clean, fresh water for everyone. It’s going to be absolutely essential to figure that out in the very near future.
MyNorth: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the direction we’re heading on the environmental front?
Peter Matthiessen: I’m optimistic in the sense there is more public information out there now, and there has been a lot of good legislation passed … although I think the Bush people did their best to undo all that. The environmental movement itself is going strong. The problem is we’re dealing with the edges of what’s causing these things, not the fundamental issues. I hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t think it looks too good right now. (pauses) It makes me sad to say that.
MyNorth: On a closing note, what do you read that informs your own work as a writer? Any books you’d recommend to fellow readers?
Peter Matthiessen: I’m always reading. I read around a lot, all kinds of things. I recently finished two books by Hans Keilson. He’s 100 years old and has only written two novels, but they’re both masterpieces. I guess it just took him some time to figure it out – kind of like me. (laughs) I also enjoyed 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, about the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico. It’s an awful tragedy, but a brilliant, brilliant book.
—Beth Milligan, Traverse City, October, 2010.
“An Evening with Peter Matthiessen,” a National Writers Series event, will take place on Friday, October 29 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. The National Writers Series, along with Michigan Writers and Fountain Point Resort, will also host a free writing master class (goodwill donations accepted) with Matthiessen the morning of the 29th from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Fountain Point Resort. Pre-registration is encouraged, but not required, at 231.256.9800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the National Writers Series, visit nationalwritersseries.org.