Author Peter Matthiessen Reflects on a Life in Words

December 31, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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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 and American Indian rights advocate. Jeffrey Brown talks to the award-winning author of "Shadow Country."

JEFFREY BROWN: On October 24th, 1910, a man named Edgar Watson was shot and killed by a group of his neighbors on Florida’s southwest coast. He’d been a leading pioneer in the Everglades, a successful businessman, and almost certainly a murderer.

In fact, much about the life and death of Watson is the stuff of myth and legend. It’s also now the stuff of award-winning literature in “Shadow Country,” a new rendering of the Watson legend, which recently won the National Book Award for Fiction.

The author is Peter Matthiessen, whose long and distinguished career includes numerous novels and non-fiction that often explore vanishing cultures and far-flung landscapes.

Welcome, and congratulations to you.

PETER MATTHIESSEN, Author: Good evening. Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: What drew you to this character? I read that you first heard of him as a young boy yourself.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Well, I was probably about 17. I was traveling up the southwest coast of Florida with my dad. And he loved fishing. He had a boat. And he showed me on the marine chart Chatham River coming down from the Everglades on the southwest coast there.

And he said, “Up that river, there’s a house. It’s the only house in the Everglades. And the man who owned it, I think his name was Watson. He was killed by his neighbors.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And that stayed with you?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: That stayed with me. He didn’t know much else about it. And I, unfortunately, didn’t get around to writing about it for about 50 years.

A heroic nature, with a dark side

JEFFREY BROWN: But what's interesting to me is you write in the author's note -- and as we've just said -- the plot is essentially -- we know the end of the story, right? He's killed. So the question becomes, why.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: That's what interested me. The fact that he was killed is not particularly interesting. How did it happen? Fishermen and farmers, puma hunters, or people, why would they kill a neighbor? That's what struck me.

And then the more I looked into it, I discovered he'd not only been killed, but very violently by his neighbors, 33 bullets worth. So they meant business, and yet they liked him. And his wives liked him. And his children liked him. He was apparently a fascinating person. He was a great story-teller.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, he clearly fascinated you.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Well, of course, he grew in my own mind, too. And I gave him -- to make it easier, I think I gave him a pretty good sense of humor, of a kind of a dark kind, nonetheless, because he was. How did this happen? Why was a man like this killed who was so able and so charismatic, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the other characters even refers to him as "our kind of hero." So he had a heroic stature, as well as a dark side.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: In a sense, he did, even though they were very, very frightened of him. Actually, he wasn't in the book at all originally. The book was mainly about the Florida environment, the Everglades, the destruction of the Everglades, the Indian people who were there, who were the last untamed Indians, in a way, almost in America.

The interior of Florida was very wild. It was a great cattle state, which we forget now, you know, Tampa and Miami. But the interior has always been very mysterious and still is a very powerful place.

Vivid descriptions of Everglades

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, that's what I want to ask you, because Watson is this extremely vivid character in the book, clearly, but the other vivid character, among many, is just the place, Everglades, wild. You can -- the smells, the storms, the difficulties of living there, the sea. And you wanted to capture that sense of place?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: I've been a naturalist, environmentalist, really, since I was a kid. I mean, I was fascinated by that landscape. It was so untamed and everything, and also by the Indian people there. I worked with them. I did articles on them. And somehow I wanted to tie that all in together.

But the place, as you say, was a very powerful presence in the book, in the whole way I saw it. Watson was simply meant to be a kind of a bind to tie it all together. But he enveloped it finally. He became so huge, you know, in the picture that he took it over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, another fascinating aspect to this book is, actually, that it was originally three books written in the 1990s, and you came back and reworked it, which sounds like an unusual endeavor. Why?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: It was. I was advised strongly against doing it, you know, because the three books -- "Killing Mr. Watson" was the first. And that was the name of the original book, which was about 1,500 or more pages. It was an enormous book. And the publisher, you know, naturally balked at that. And so we split it up into three.

And the middle part, which was called "Lost Man's River," I think had the best material in the trilogy in it, but it was weak by itself. It just didn't work split apart.

And then the third book, "Bone by Bone," was probably the strongest of the three. I just wanted to redo it, put it back together as one book. But in the doing, I rewrote the whole thing.

Matthiessen completely rewrote book

JEFFREY BROWN: You rewrote the whole thing?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: I took about 400 pages out of it. And I rewrote it completely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And re-imagined parts of it?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: I re-imagined it. The hero of the book actually is a black guy named Henry Short. He's the kind of quiet hero, and I didn't give him a voice in the first version. Henry gets a voice now, especially in the first part. There are a lot of changes like that, that I made. And I think it's very clearly a different work and better.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you were first and maybe for a long time best known for your journalism and non-fiction and travel writing. And I read that, at the award ceremony for the National Book Award, you said, "I had a hard time persuading people that fiction is my natural thing, not non-fiction."

I was quite surprised and taken by that. This was something you had to overcome?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Well, I did. I wrote in particular a book called "The Snow Leopard," which won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category. And "The Snow Leopard" kind of tended to push my fiction aside.

And I had a novel that was nominated years ago, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." That was nominated, but it wasn't the winner. And somehow I just wanted to set that right. I just felt fiction really is what I want to do and what I always wanted to do.

But I am a journalist, too. And I write about the environment. I write about social problems. I worked with Cesar Chavez. I've worked a lot with the American Indian people. And that fascinates me, and I want to do that, but my heart is really in the fiction.

Fiction provides more freedom

JEFFREY BROWN: And so how do you balance it? Because here you've taken a real story of Edgar Watson. You could have written, I suppose, a nonfiction biography. But what does fiction let you do?

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Fiction allows you -- to me, it allows you to go deeper, just simply because you can imagine it. Non-fiction, you're stuck with the facts. I mean, some non-fiction people are not stuck with the facts, but they should be, I feel. And investigative journalism is really quite a different thing.

Fiction just -- you can go with it. Actually, you see Watson -- there's very little that was really known about him. I got all my hard facts from gravestones and county records, because the rest was all myth and legend and everything. And his family wouldn't talk about him at all.

Later they came to me. As the books went on, they began to see that I was making this guy a human being. And they came to find out -- I was able to show some of the family the first photograph of him they'd ever seen...


PETER MATTHIESSEN: ... which I found in north Florida in a household up there with cousins.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in a sense you -- in a sense, you did bring him back to life, huh?


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the National Book Award-winning novel is "Shadow Country." Peter Matthiessen, nice to talk to you.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Very nice to talk to you. Thank you.