TOPICS > Arts > in memoriam

Journalist, naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen, 86, took readers to new territory

April 7, 2014 at 6:50 PM EDT
Peter Matthiessen was a co-founder of The Paris Review, an author of more than 30 books, and winner of the National Book Award in both fiction and non-fiction. He succumbed to leukemia at the age of 86, just days before his final novel will be published. In 2008, chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown interviewed Matthiessen about his acclaimed work "Shadow Country.”
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Writer, naturalist, activist and much more, Peter Matthiessen lived a full life that through both fiction and nonfiction took readers to far-flung locales in search of stories and adventure.

Born into wealth in 1927 in New York, Matthiessen served in the Navy, graduated from Yale,and then helped found the influential literary journal “The Paris Review.” It emerged later that he also worked for the CIA during his time in Europe.

He went on to write more than 30 books, becoming the only person to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. His 1978 work “The Snow Leopard” told of a spiritual journey into the Himalayan Mountains. In 2008, he won the award for “Shadow Country,” a fictionalized account of the real-life 1910 murder of a man named Edward Watson by his neighbors in the Everglades of Southwest Florida.

We talked on the NewsHour, and I asked what had drawn him to that character.

PETER MATTHIESSEN, Author, “Shadow Country”: 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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: Yes. Yes.

That’s what interested me. The fact that he was killed is not particularly interesting. How did it happen? Fishermen and farmers, and plume bird hunters, and 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 storyteller.

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, although kind of a dark kind, nonetheless, because he was. How did this happen? Why is a man like this killed who was so able and so charismatic, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you were first and maybe for a long time best known for your journalism and nonfiction 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 nonfiction.”

I was quite surprised and taken by that. You — you had — 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 nonfiction 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 get — 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 have 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Matthiessen succumbed to leukemia on Saturday at a hospital near his home on Long Island. He was 86 years old. His new, and last, novel, “In Paradise,” will be released tomorrow.