A series of tiny astonishments: An interview with Peter Matthiessen
"I was always writing something down," Peter Matthiessen remembers of his childhood. His voice, on the phone from his home in Sagaponack, New York, is relaxed and humorous. "I don't know if that was the beginning or not. But even when I was a little boy, I would make strange lists -- even of my phonograph records. I don't know why."
Matthiessen was born in 1927. He wrote what he calls "bad short stories" as a teenager, for school magazines and the yearbook. At Yale he began writing more seriously, and he helped found the Paris Review only three years after graduating in 1950. In the decades since, he has published many volumes of award-winning fiction and nonfiction, ranging from the experimental novel Far Tortuga to the African meditation The Tree Where Man Was Born.
Matthiessen's latest book, Tigers in the Snow, is a small gem of only 160 pages. It includes dramatic color photographs by biologist Maurice Hornocker, who invited Matthiessen to visit the Siberian Tiger Project and write about it. Inevitably, the book's terrain and feline star will bring to mind Matthiessen's 1978 National Book Award winner, The Snow Leopard. But the new book is less mystical and poetic, more journalistic and condensed. It records the plight of these magnificent animals -- and the adventures of the scientists and villagers around them -- in a prose as sharp and evocative as the lines of a woodcut.
Whatever his aim in each book, Matthiessen never distances himself from his subject matter. "One cannot speak for those who live in tiger country," he writes in Tigers, "but the vivid presence of Hu Lin, the King -- merely the knowing that His Lordship is out there in the forest -- brings me deep happiness. That winter afternoon in the Kunalaika, the low sunlight in the south glancing off black silhouetted ridges and shattered into frozen blades by the black trees, the ringing clarity of the great cat tracks on the snowy ice, the blood trace and stark signs of the elk's passage -- that was pure joy."
The factual Tigers in the Snow comes on the heels of the fictional Bone by Bone, which won the Southern Book Critics' Circle Award. Bone by Bone is the final book in a critically acclaimed trilogy that began with Killing Mr. Watson in 1990 and continued with Lost Man's River in 1997. The genesis for this massive work dates back to a single remark in the 1940s. "I was traveling up the west coast of Florida with my father in a boat, and we were off the Ten Thousand Islands -- the western part of the Everglades -- and he showed me on the marine chart where a river came down out of the Everglades. And he said, 'There's a house about three or four miles up that river, and it's the only house in the Everglades. It belonged to a man named Watson, who was killed by his neighbors.
"That's all he knew, but the seed was planted: a man killed by his neighbors! Why? The whole thing had a gothic and romantic ring to it. And it began working in my head. For many years, I thought it would be a thread in a very different book, having to do with the Indian Wars and the environment and so forth. But it grew and grew, and when I started writing, it was the main story."
Although published as three volumes, the story was originally written as one. When, in a recent Paris Review interview, Matthiessen mentioned that he hoped to reunite them into a single narrative, the Modern Library called immediately and offered to publish the one-volume version.
Although fiction, the Watson trilogy embodies many of the themes that drive Matthiessen's nonfiction. "I was just very interested in the American frontier and the growth of capitalism -- those enormous fortunes that were being made, more often than not, on the blood of poor people, black people, Indian people. They were the ones who paid very dearly for those great fortunes." He laughs quietly, ironically. "I wanted that aspect of our great American democracy brought out."
Matthiessen has said that the difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is like the difference between making a cabinet and creating a sculpture. "In nonfiction, you have that limitation, that constraint, of telling the truth. I'm just doing my job. I'm using my research, and I hope I'm shaping it properly and telling the story well, and you do the best you can with the language. In fiction, you have a rough idea what's coming up next -- sometimes you even make a little outline -- but in fact you don't know. Each day is a whole new -- and for me, a very invigorating -- experience.
"I used to distinguish between my fiction and nonfiction in terms of superiority or inferiority. And a friend of mine pointed out to me, 'You know, you're really writing about the same themes in fiction and nonfiction, but some material lends itself better to fiction or nonfiction.' I think some of my nonfiction books, especially ones like Under the Mountain Wall and The Snow Leopard, appeal to some of the same senses as the fiction does, simply because they're so strange. It's the strangeness, I think, which is the common denominator. It's like a world of the imagination, it's so different from what you had known.
"I remember saying to George Schaller, as I started out on that snow leopard trip, 'If I can't get a good book out of this, I ought to be taken out and shot.' I was thrilled by the material and the scene and the light." Obviously Matthiessen is not one to pore over the quotidian malaise of suburbia. "For me, that's never been very interesting. I've always preferred sort of life on the edge -- people who are desperate or cut off in some way, or loners, whatever."
Books such as The Snow Leopard and Blue Meridian have a vivid immediacy about them -- rich with the textures, scents, and sounds of the outdoors -- for a good reason. "When I'm in the field, when I'm working, I keep very careful notes. I wear big shirts with big breast pockets, and I carry in them two little spiral notebooks. I keep them going all day and then write up the stuff at night. I have to get it down quickly, because otherwise I may lose some of it; it's taken down in a semi-shorthand. So when I go home, I have a sort of rough first draft."
To the suggestion that such attention to detail is part of his appeal, Matthiessen replies, "I think in any writing you're paying attention to detail. E. M. Forster made that wonderful observation that good writing is administering a series of tiny astonishments. The astonishments aren't things you never knew. What they are is sort of the first articulation of something you knew but you'd never seen set down in print. And you say, Ah, yes! How true."
Author photo by Linda Girvin.