Conversation: Peter Matthiessen

BY Arts Desk  December 31, 2008 at 6:04 PM EDT

Peter Matthiessen, a 2008 National Book Award winner, is best known as both a novelist and non-fiction writer, but he’s also an environmental activist, American Indian rights advocate and former C.I.A. recruit. The National Book Foundation called “Shadow Country,” Matthiessen’s novel, “an epic of American rise and descent — poetic, mythic, devastating.” The book is a compilation of Matthiessen’s Everglades trilogy, published in the 1990s, tracing America’s “familial, racial and environmental degradation” from the Civil War to the Great Depression through the character of Florida sugar planter E.J. Watson.

Matthiessen was born in New York City in 1927 and co-founded the Paris Review in 1953 with Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton. The magazine claims credit for publishing the earliest works of some of the most important and influential writers of the past five decades, including Adrienne Rich, Philip Roth and V. S. Naipaul. In a deliberate departure from traditional literary reviews, Matthiessen, Humes and Plimpton encouraged authors to talk about their own works through the Paris Review’s “Writers at Work” interview series.

Matthiessen’s other works include the National Book Award-winning “The Snow Leopard” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” a National Book Award nominee. His non-fiction works are often rooted in his environmental interests, and many of them have been serialized in the New Yorker magazine.

Here is more of Jeffrey’s Brown’s conversation with Matthiessen, who also reads an excerpt from “Shadow Country”: