Interviews | June 01, 1989
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little about your early life? You’re a veteran, I understand.
Matthiessen: Yes, I served in World War II and then I went to Yale. I took my junior year abroad at the Sorbonne.
Interviewer: Did you grow up in the city?
Matthiessen: I was born right here in New York City, Madison Avenue and 65th Street, I think it was, at a little lying-in hospital. I went to school in New York City and then we lived up on the Hudson for a while, then moved to Connecticut. So I’ve been around the New England coast all my life.
Interviewer: What did your father do?
Matthiessen: He was an architect. Then he went in the Navy and helped design various gunnery training devices used during World War II. He didn’t really want to go back to architecture. After the war, he became a fund-raiser and spokesman for conservation groups, the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy, that kind of thing.
Interviewer: So you would credit your family life then, with your interest in nature, the environment?
Matthiessen: We had a wonderful piece of property in Connecticut, back up in the hills, and my brother and I were both very interested in snakes and birds. We had a big copperhead den on our property. Until my mother put a stop to it, we had a lot of copperheads in cages. I went on to birds–starting with my mother’s feeder–and my brother became a marine biologist. I think we kind of taught my father–it was the other way around.
Interviewer: What did you study in school?
Matthiessen: I was an English major, but I took courses in biology and ornithology. I began writing in boarding school, smart-alec articles about this and that. Then, with a friend, I did a column for the Yale Daily News on hunting and fishing.
I started writing short stories while I was at Yale, and I was still there when my first short story, “Sadie”–it’s in On The River Styx>–won the Atlantic Prize, which was very useful because I came back there to teach writing my first year out of college. I didn’t last very long as a teacher, just one term, but the publication was a big help. The Atlantictook a second story, and I got an agent. Then I started my first novel and sent off about four chapters and waited by the post office for praise to roll in, calls from Hollywood, everything. Finally my agent sent me a letter that said “Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this a hundred and fifty years ago, only he wrote it better. Yours, Bernice.”
I probably needed that; it was very healthy.
Interviewer: Did that novel become Race Rock?
Matthiessen: No. That was, I think, the only novel I ever junked.Race Rock was the second one I started, the first one I finished.Interviewer: Tell me about the Paris Review.
Matthiessen: I started it in Paris in late ’51 with a guy called Harold Humes, who was an absolutely brilliant fellow but rather erratic. People had trouble working with Doc Humes, so I got hold of George Plimpton, who was at Cambridge then. I’d gone to school with him in New York and I’ve known him since I was little. Why he accepted the editor’s job I’ve no idea, but he did. I came back to the states in ’53, and after 1954, the editorial office was mostly in New York, and Plimpton was the one who held it together.
There were a lot of good young writers around Paris. Bill Styron was there, Terry Southern, Jimmy Baldwin, Irwin Shaw. A lot of people were coming in and out. Years ago, E. P. Dutton did a collection ofParis Review fiction in the early years. You should see it. Beckett’s first appearance in an English-speaking magazine, Kerouac–about the first appearance under his own name–and Phillip Roth’s first appearance, too.
Interviewer: When did you know you were a writer?
Matthiessen: I always knew. I can’t remember even considering doing anything else after I was about fifteen or sixteen. I wrote only fiction for a long time. But then I got married, and I wasn’t making a living. I became a bayman and haul seiner and I ran a charter boat out of Montauk Island for a few years, deep-sea fishing, but it wasn’t enough. While I was in Paris I had written a non-fiction piece for The New Yorker, one of their ‘Annals of Crime,” together with Ben Bradlee, who now runs The Washington Post and was also in Paris at that time. I decided I’d better try some more non-fiction.
I had this idea about wild places-everybody was writing about civilized places, but the wild places were being destroyed in many parts of the world, and indeed still are. I went to The New Yorker‘s Mr. Shawn and asked him what The New Yorker would think of sending me around the world to look at some of these places and write about them. To my amazement, he agreed. I took a freighter from New York, all the way up the Amazon into Peru; I went all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. That began a long series of travels that hes at the heart of my non-fiction, some for Audubon Magazine,but mainly for The New Yorker. Some of it’s anthropological in tone, like Under the Mountain Wall, the New Guinea book, and some is almost purely natural history like The Shore Birds of North America. Then I got into social advocacy, like the book on Cesar Chavez and the farm workers-that became a New Yorker profile.
Interviewer: Did these books and articles put groceries on the table?
Matthiessen: The New Yorker is very generous, and I was writing fiction at the same time, making a little bit of money, and I was commercial fishing. I wasn’t getting rich, but … The first real money came with a novel called At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which had a movie sale.
Interviewer: Was that ever made into a movie?
Matthiessen: Oh, they’re still talking about it, and it now seems that Hector Babenco (Ironweed, Kiss of the Spider Woman) might be doing it. Virtually every star and director you can name has been involved in that book at one time or another. About five different scripts have been done.
Interviewer: Aesthetically, in terms of the vision in your head, what is the relationship between the fiction and the non-fiction?
Matthiessen: I’ve always thought that my real writing was the fiction, which seems odd, since I’ve done over twice as many non-fiction books as fiction books. Yet I really haven’t changed my view. Non-fiction usually involves research. One has to stick to the facts, piecing together a construction, it’s more like cabinet work or carpentry. Fiction is totally different, much more natural, more fun. Yet somebody told me that I mustn’t repudiate my non-fiction, because it’s saying very much what the fiction is saying. They work together well because the underlying themes are the same. That’s probably true. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse would make a marvelous novel–I could turn that into a novel in a few months.
Interviewer: My sense is that Raditzer and the other two early novels were apprentice books, the sort of books that young men were supposed to write.
Matthiessen: I had a very interesting letter from Styron aboutPartisans. We shared a place in Italy the summer I was working on it. He said, “This isn’t a novel; it’s a short story that goes on too long.” I think that’s absolutely true–it’s too pared down, too cut away. A novel should have some sense of shambling looseness, unpredictability; it shouldn’t be taut. A lot of modern novels are, I know, and Styron’s remark applies. Raditzer has the same feeling; it’s a little bit too tight, too neat.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you hit your stride, in terms of fiction, with At Play in the Fields of the Lord?
Matthiessen: I haven’t hit my stride yet. I hope to hit it with the one I’m working on now.
Interviewer: You went to the Amazon for six months. Was that where you found Lewis Moon?
Matthiessen: Lewis Moon, is, as far as I can piece it together, an amalgam of three people. When I was doing the research for Wildlife in America, travelling through the west, I picked up this hostile Navajo kid who wouldn’t answer a single question, and any attempt to be friendly was rebuffed. We eat, we drive, but we don’t talk. Then somewhere in the middle of the desert–about six hundred miles later–I didn’t see a connection with anything–he bangs on the side of the car and I let him out. Now I know Indian people better, and I know that the guy probably didn’t speak English, or if he did, he was ashamed of it. He was unsophisticated. Also hostile, but not as hostile as I thought. It seemed to me at the time that it was alienation, tremendous alienation from the white culture, though I’ve probably romanticized that all over the place.
The second one was a guy I ran into in a bar in Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Absolute loner of a man, pursuing some dream of exploration in the jungles. He had a little kit–maps, a spare shirt, spare underpants. Everything was cut down so that he carried all his gear in a little packet. He’d had a successful business in Canada and got sick of it. He ran out on his wife and children, became a merchant seaman, was washed off a deck of a cargo ship and miraculously picked up, not his own ship but another one, way out in the middle of nowhere. He said that gave him real pause about his life, knowing how close he had come, and he wanted to see things.
Those two guys, with a little of me thrown in, came together as Lewis Moon.
Interviewer: One theme that unites your work seems to be the impossibility of purity in the ultimate corruption of civilization, and the impossibility of finding one’s way back. In light of that, how do you assess the ending of At Play in the Fields of the Lord, where Moon is the one man under the sun?
Matthiessen: I don’t know. One great thing about fiction is that you don’t have to have a wrap-up. I always sort of loosely thought that Moon didn’t survive, but I don’t know. I may bring him back for another novel.
Interviewer: Where did you get that image of the moth that reverberates through the book? The moths fly off into the moon, and finally, in that last scene, he builds the bonfire. The idea of the sparks flying off brings the reader’s mind back to the opening lines of the novel.
Matthiessen: Some Amazonian Indian myth, the moths trying to reach the moon. Or I may have made it up, who knows? I may as well claim it.
Interviewer: Far Tortuga was such a change in terms of style. What happened?
Matthiessen: It was a purposeful change. I just got sick of all the metaphor. Originally Far Tortuga began as a non-fiction piece for The New Yorker. I’d heard about a man who was still running a schooner from Grand Cayman down to Nicaragua, fishing sea turtles. I got The New Yorker to send me on the schooner, and I was stunned by the men and their attitudes toward the sea, the way they handled themselves with no life-preserving equipment, dangerous reefs, and everything so worn out, so bare and spare.
I was drawn by that spareness. At Play is in the jungle and it’s lush, but in the Miskito Cays, everything was worn out by the sun and the salt and the sea, and despair and poverty. I came back to Mr. Shawn and said, ‘Listen, I can do the article, but I’m going to hold back the best material. I don’t want to tell you that I’m giving you everything I saw, because I’m not. I want to do a novel about it.” The magazine had spent a lot on expenses, but without any hesitation–he’s a great editor-he said, ‘Do what’s best for the work, Mr. Matthiessen.” I did an article for The New Yorker, and then I went ahead with what I really wanted to do.
Interviewer: How long did Far Tortuga take you to do? One has the feeling that doing a spare novel takes more time than the other kind.
Matthiessen: Off and on, it took about twelve years, and I could’ve put in another twelve years. I enjoyed it so much I didn’t want to stop working on it. I think it’s my best book. But I was doing a lot of non-fiction, too.
Interviewer: Was Captain Raib based on a real person?
Matthiessen: There was a very colorful captain of that turtle boat I was on, it’s true. I can’t possibly admit that Captain Raib was based on him, because if I ever do go to Grand Cayman, he’d put me in jail.
Interviewer: Robert Stone wrote: “From its opening moment with daybreak over the windward passage, the reader of Far Tortugasenses that the narrative itself is the recapitulation of a cosmic process, as though the author had sought to link his storytelling with the eye of creation.” And he goes on to say: “In a way, there is only a single insight: the unity of things beneath an ever-changing multiplicity of form.” Are you comfortable with that?
Matthiessen: Certainly in terms of the cycles and the time, the tides, and the hour–I use those funny spaces and marks, you know–yes, I did have some idea of universal time, but I think Bob Stone was giving me a little bit more credit than I deserve. Sometimes you do things that aren’t consciously worked out in your mind. At the very, very beginning of the book, when the sun rises, coming hard around the world–yes, in a sense, that’s an expression of what he’s saying there.
Interviewer: That seems to be another of your recurring themes–the unity with the multiplicity.
Matthiessen: That’s very much a Zen theme.
Interviewer: At the beginning of your Nine-Headed Dragon Riveryou describe an encounter with Soenroshi. You were just in from Africa-from travels that became The Tree Where Man Was Born–burned-out, haggard, exhausted, whatever, angry, nervous, all those things. And your second wife, Deborah Love, was already involved in Zen-you hadn’t gotten interested yet–
Matthiessen: No. We were both interested in LSD, we were doing a lot of drugs. Then she went over to Zen–this was in the late ’60s–and she and I weren’t getting along very well. I left and was away for about seven months and I just showed up without warning in the driveway. She was there with three Zen masters, but I didn’t know that-they were just three guys in my driveway in weird costumes. She introduced me, and then they went away. “Oh, poor Debbo-lah,” they said.
Interviewer: You’ve written about the historical tension between Zen practiceand art.
Matthiessen: When Zen first came to Japan, and especially the Rinzai school of Zen, many so-called Zen monks and teachers became poets and translators, painters, and so forth, and their insights infused the whole culture in a marvelous way. Japanese culture is grounded in Zen, but as far as pure Zen practice goes, it was fatal. These people spent all their energy in the arts, being aesthetic and hobnobbing with the courtiers at the palace. The real Zen spirit was dying. So writers were harshly criticized because most of the monks at that time were writers and poets.
Interviewer: How do you reconcile art and Zen? Or is it necessary?
Matthiessen: It’s difficult for me because I am a Zen monk–in fact, I’m a Zen priest–I can marry you or bury you or whatever. I don’t talk much about Zen in my public fife, but I’ve been a Zen student for a long, long time, and I probably should be giving more of my time to it than I do. But I have this idea that American writers, by and large, do weak work in their later years. I’d like to have the character to quit writing sooner rather than later, and maybe at that time I’d go over more fully into Zen practice.
Interviewer: You mentioned that the composition of The Snow Leopard was your Zen practice for several years, and I wonder if you’d explain what that means?
Matthiessen: I’d parted with the Zen master I was working with originally, as had most of his senior students, so I was without a teacher. I was in touch with another Zen teacher only intermittently, so I made the writing and composition of The Snow Leopard my practice. I did a lot of study–a lot of sitting and meditation with it–and I think that gave the book a meditative quality that it might not otherwise have had. Interviewer: To what extent is The Snow Leopard a shaped creation?
Matthiessen: Fortunately I had that natural, built-in structure of the dates themselves; the book is faithful to the time in which it took place. It has a symbolic shape as well. We literally–and in Zen this is an important symbol–we literally walked up across the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau and then walked down again. The wonderful thing was that, in late autumn, when you’re coming down the mountain, you’re walking against the season. Even though winter is coming, you’re walking back towards summer because of the altitude difference. So this yin/yang inversion of things was built-in and very helpful.
Interviewer: And literally true?
Matthiessen: And the nefarious Tukten, suspected of being a thief and a drunk, and foul-mouthed and so forth. Yet he was my teacher in the book, throughout.
Interviewer: Did you rewrite to emphasize that for the structure?
Matthiessen: I rewrote a lot but the basic book is in my original journals. I’m a terrific rewriter, I polish and polish and polish and polish. I rewrote the last chapter, the river descent, in At Play in the Fields of the Lord–I’m sure I rewrote that thirty times. Even then I didn’t get it the way I wanted it. I had started to wreck it, as you do–you go stale, and become stiff and literary and useless. That’s when you have to quit. That’s the only reason I quit with Far Tortuga. I started to do it damage. If you find yourself coming back the next day and erasing more of the so-called improvements than you keep, you’d better get the hell out of that book.
Interviewer: After I read about jaguar shamans in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, I couldn’t help thinking of Tukten as a snow leopard.
Matthiessen: I saw him that way, too. I did kind of push things that way, because he had yellowy eyes. It was nice to interpret him that way. Tukten was amazing, a beautiful person.
Interviewer: Did you ever meet him again?
Matthiessen: No. An odd thing happened after I’d been back about a year and a half, two years. A woman called up one evening and I think she’d had a drink or two, maybe getting her nerve up to call me because she thought she was being a fool. She said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I was in Nepal with my daughter and we took a trek to Manang. One night in camp this rude sherpa, who was a friend of our sherpa, came over to me and said in very, very bad English, ‘You America?'” She said, ‘Yes, I America.'” He shoves this dirty-looking packet at her and says “Give Massin.” She says, “America’s a very big place, I just don’t know.” He just shakes his head and shoves it at her again and says “Give Massin,” as if he knew there’d be no problem at all. So she has this little dirty packet with her, comes home to New York and doesn’t know what to do. But she has another daughter, and that daughter calls up and says “Oh, Mum, isn’t this an amazing coincidence, you’re just back from Nepal and there’s a wonderful series of articles in The New Yorker about Nepal, by Peter Matthiessen.” And she says, “Holy Mackerel,” or something. That was too much, you know, the coincidence, the timing-you see, Tukten really is a shaman. So she calls up this stranger and says, “Does that sherpa sound like anybody you know?” I said, “It sounds like Tukten.” And she says, “Great,” and fired off this thing. It was exactly what Tukten would’ve sent to me. It was–quite a nice one–a Lama’s delusion-cutting knife; it’s for cutting your delusions. It’s kind of a half-moon crescent blade with what is called a dorje or bell handle on it. Bong! I have to assume that was Tukten. It just felt right, it felt exactly right.
Interviewer: The two big books you’ve done since then, if I’ve got the chronology right, are In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which deals with American Indian issues, and Men’s Lives, which deals with your friends, the commercial fishermen, at home. Do you think you’ve learned, to quote Thoreau, “to travel much in Concord”?
Matthiessen: Stay on my own cushion and not go seeking dusty lands? Yes, I think so. Certainly, my lust to travel has moderated. Still, I get itchy. Someone comes along with a great idea for an expedition–for example, I did a book called Sand Rivers, just before the Indian books, and it was a safari into a very remote part of Africa. I didn’t want to write that book at all, but I wanted to go to that place. I had to sing for my supper, that was the deal.
The New Yorker took it, and it worked out okay, but I have a queer feeling about books that don’t originate in my own oyster, so to speak, that little sand grit in the oyster that goes on and on and becomes a book. You can feel it, and then suddenly it’s ready to write. I think sometimes it’s like a line of eggs in a hen; it begins with a tiny seed up in the ovary, then a progression, egg after egg, getting bigger and bigger, until finally one’s ready to lay. Well, books are like that, too. If a book begins with some outside purpose or support system, it’s always a frail child. You don’t give birth to it; you construct it. Sand Riverswas one of those books and Blue Meridian another–I wanted to see white sharks so badly that it was worth it. To a certain extent the Indian books are the same way. They’re all written for a cause.
My English publisher wants me to do In the Spirit of Crazy Horseagain, cutting out all the special pleading, the legal argument aimed at getting Leonard Peltier a new trial, and doing the book again from a literary point of view, because it’s a wonderful story. I think he’s right. But I had to push it toward a certain end, that was the reason I wrote it.
Interviewer: Do you think that aesthetically and spiritually you’ve perhaps come home?
Matthiessen: No, I think perhaps the opposite. These last four books before the novel, two books about Indian problems, one about the commercial fishermen and their problems, and one about Zen-were all written to help out certain groups. I don’t regret it, but I don’t have any illusions about the literary quality of those books. Those books are not as good as The Snow Leopard, or The Tree Where Man Was Born. They’re not. And they could have been. I knew how to make them good. But I couldn’t make them good from a literary point of view and accomplish my purposes. It’s very difficult to do.
Interviewer: A critic, I think his name is Robert Sherrill, sees a change in your work since The Snow Leopard. He wrote: “Unless I’ve been misled by the internal evidence”–and he’s speaking of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse–“there has also been a profound change in Matthiessen. He is losing confidence in mankind, and perhaps in himself.” I wondered if you shared Sherrill’s assessment, that you seem to have lost your hope, or your confidence?
Matthiessen: I’m a little more skeptical about social action and what can be done. You don’t have to be much of a reader to recognize the human tendency throughout civilization’s long, long history to blood and gore, rapine, greed, and the worst kind of misery. You can make a little betterment here, a little solace there, but it’s not very much. Nonetheless you have to do it. You have to do it. I passionately think that. We all must make an effort for the betterment of mankind, even though we know it won’t do any good.
Interviewer: To what extent do you buy into the belief that if the individual becomes enlightened, that adds to the betterment four of the universe in and of itself?
Matthiessen: When Shakyamuni the Buddha was enlightened, he said “Above heaven and below earth, I alone am.” He said at the same time, “How wonderful, how wonderful, all creatures are enlightened.” So there’s the unity and the multiplicity both. “I alone” signifies the One, not one single ego. So when you are enlightened, the world is enlightened, but that isn’t a lasting condition. In the next moment, everything must be renewed again. It’s a very subtle teaching.
Interviewer: So it’s a continual process?
Matthiessen: A continual process.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Jan 12 2015
A Conversation with Mary Roach
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy,
Apr 28 2014
A Conversation with Chang-rae Lee
Chang-rae Lee’s novels are often peopled by characters who don’t quite fit into the cultures in which they find themselves. They are stories of cultural identity and assimilation, tales of
Jan 31 2014
A Conversation with Daniel Talbott
Sarah Schwab: Can you talk a little about how you started writing and what advice you have for other first-time writers? Daniel Talbott: It’s funny, because I still think of