Living on the Edge of Life: A Final Interview with Peter Matthiessen

The life and work of Peter Matthiessen teaches us that there is no substitute for actual engagement with the world and all its people and species and darkness and wonders.

By Alec MichodApril 6, 2014

    Living on the Edge of Life: A Final Interview with Peter Matthiessen

    PETER MATTHIESSEN died on Saturday at the age of 86 after a long battle with cancer. A native of New York City, he published his first novel, Race Rock, in 1954, and went on to pen over 30 more books. He lived and wrote in the great heroic tradition: he was a naturalist, a Zen roshi, an explorer, environmentalist, journalist, reporter, and ornithologist. He wrote more than 30 books, co-founded the Paris Review and was also a raconteur, commercial fisherman, an undercover CIA agent, and a Zen monk and teacher. 

    Matthiessen was unique in our literature, a descendant of Melville and Dostoyevsky who chronicled the heart of darkness at the center of the American fever dream. Sometimes, as in his most popular work, The Snow Leopard (1978), he chronicled his own journey to the edge.

    In his life and his work, Matthiessen was constantly on the move — trekking into the Himalayas, chasing great white sharks, sailing down the Amazon, hiking the Andes from Peru to Tierra del Fuego, reporting from the center of a revolution in Bolivia, living among the tribal people in New Guinea with Michael Rockefeller. The world he encountered influenced his work, and he would influence it right back. In profound ways: Wildlife in America (1959) helped launch the environmentalist movement. Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971) inspired Peter Benchley to pen the novel Jaws. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) was the rallying cry that launched the movement to free Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Under the Mountain Wall (1962), his account of life in stone-age New Guinea, created the genre of the nonfiction novel, influencing Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood and everything Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists wrote; the book’s influence continues to the memoirs and creative nonfiction of today. The loss to American letters is immeasurable. 

    I met Matthiessen at his house in Sagaponack on the South Fork of Long Island in February of this year, only two months before his death. He’d been battling acute leukemia for over a year and I was warned the interview might be canceled at the last moment depending on his health that day. I was haunted, as I traveled to him, that our talk might be one of his last interviews. But the man who received me at the gates, and duly introduced me to a gigantic finback whale skull he’d dragged up from a nearby beach with the help of a couple farmer friends, did not seem weakened by the fog of chemotherapy. He was rugged, vibrant, playful, encyclopedic, garrulous, rebellious — like his writing.

    We talked for over two hours, primarily about his final novel, In Paradise. Matthiessen started it in his journal while attending a witness-bearing retreat in Auschwitz. Initially he conceived of it as a work of nonfiction, in the style of The Snow Leopard, only to run into the limitations of the form he’d pioneered. “I didn’t think it was authentic,” he told me. “I didn’t think I was contributing anything fresh.”

    One could say that Matthiessen spent his entire career searching for that authenticity by running away from the success of his nonfiction. His reportage was groundbreaking, but the novels he left behind are expansive, crazed — unlike anything in our literature. His novels about the outlaw Edgar J. Watson (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone By Bone, later completely rewritten in one volume, Shadow Country) capture a tornado of unique voices. Matthiessen was as gifted a ventriloquist as Faulkner. During a visit to southwestern Florida, some elderly local fishermen told me that his rendering of turn-of-the-century Everglades dialect was exactly as they remembered it.

    When I asked him which of his novels was his favorite, Matthiessen didn’t hesitate before answering, Far Tortuga. Like the Watson books, it’s more than just an adventure novel; it’s a document of a lost vernacular, in this case spoken by Caribbean green-turtle fishermen, part Moby-Dick, part haiku. Tortuga is a challenging, experimental read and a soaring masterpiece, but it’s also a literary relic which would not have been written if Matthiessen hadn’t lived with the fishermen he was writing about, soaking up their culture, their language, their lives. Is there a novel as simultaneously expansive and intimate as Far Tortuga? Is there a novelist alive who writes books with such brazen full immersion? The life and work of Peter Matthiessen teaches us that there is no substitute for actual engagement with the world and all its people and species and darkness and wonders. Matthiessen is the only writer ever to have won National Book Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. 


    Alec Michod: I was talking to a friend, who’s visited Dachau, about your new novel. He said the moment you walk through that gate, into that space, you feel this incredible weight fall over you and slowly smother you. It remains, he said, until the moment you leave — the exact moment, in his experience.

    Peter Matthiessen: I don’t think it lifted quite so fast, but it was very, very fraught. You’re taken out of yourself. The experience pretty much smashes your ego. I’ve been three times for Zen training. It’s very good for Zen training for exactly that reason. 

    Being taken out of yourself?

    Exactly. It’s good training for our new monks. When I was there, we meditated all day on the selection platforms and prayed at the crematorium. We had Christians and Jews, a smattering of Muslims, some Tibetan Buddhists — about 150 people from 10 countries. We’d meet there at night, and people would share their experience of how the war impacted them or their family. The German attendees suffered the most; there were a lot of Germans and you have to give them credit. Everyone was trying like hell to maintain civility and, by and large, they all behaved.

    I can only imagine the emotions being stirred up there.

    Everybody knows or should know, in the back of their minds, that we’re all capable of something like that — of evil like that. We’re homosapiens, after all, and if you press the right buttons any one of us can become a monster. This is something a lot of survivors know, something Primo Levi writes about.

    Levi writes about his experience at Auschwitz with great detachment, but there’s also empathy there. What an incredible leap — to try to understand those that terrorized you.

    Levi recognized the difference between the oppressed and the persecutors. He is particularly eloquent on that point. I wanted to write about my own experience, but it felt so insignificant in comparison to what Levi went through. I was there a couple days, 50 years later. Still, something we couldn’t account for transformed us, the whole group. I thought: Why does that happen? How did it happen? What is the source of the blessing or whatever it was? And all the tension I’m talking about where everyone’s tempers flared and there was a tendency to look at the Germans. I wrote a journal not thinking I’d write a novel.

    A journal in the form of The Snow Leopard?

    I decided I couldn’t do this one as nonfiction, because I wouldn’t be contributing. How can you add anything when you weren’t even there?

    Did that feel inauthentic?

    It was pointless. I can write it beautifully, write the most beautiful prose and be congratulated and acclaimed for my fine writing, but after you’ve seen that place, after you’ve been to that place, you can’t do that. There’s an old painter, a survivor, who still visited the camp every day, who spent his time painting a mural in the basement of an old Franciscan chapel that’s been decertified. And all the walls are one painting that continues through all the rooms and the figures are like ghosts with huge eyes. He told me, “This painting doesn’t show the camp” — but it is the camp. This is the camp. All the Zen. All the camp is in there and it’s in me. And that’s why he’d come back. He could see the high tower in Birkenau every day, and he wanted to go back.

    Every day? You’d think that if you lived through that you’d want to get as far away as humanly possible.

    He wasn’t the only survivor there, in fact. I’d go around getting to know people, soaking up as much as I could, talking to every one I could, and there I met another survivor. I asked him how he could do it. He told me the only way to understand an evil is through art. You can’t describe it with realism. And he’s absolutely right. So I thought, with a novel, possibly, I could penetrate it, see something. I’m not sure I have, but the attempt validates it in a way. It won’t validate it for a lot of readers, I’m sure.

    How is it even possible to begin to understand something as horrific as the Holocaust?

    Adolf Eichmann was one of the worst Nazis and he was tried in Jerusalem and executed. Even after his trial, where hundreds of survivors testified, came forward and told their story and the evidence was incontrovertible — even after that terrible footage the army took — people couldn’t accept that the Holocaust actually happened. Can you blame them? It’s just too much. You can’t encompass it within your normal concept of evil. We chanted the death sheets. The names. The names. The names.

    Oh my God.

    The Nazis were efficient about the names. They had the right age, the right town of origin. Why did they do that? I mean, one flick of a wrist on the platform: you go this way, and you live. You go that way, dead. And those people had their names documented. They didn’t even have time to get tattooed and their names were documented. The fact that the Nazis could see some of them as human beings is so crazy. There is no logic to it.

    It’s almost like that world — the world of the death camps — is inverted. I noticed you used that word, inverted, twice. Once early on in the book: an incredible sentence. 

    “He has flown all night over the ocean from the New World, descending from moon stare and the rigid stars into the murk and tumult of inversion shrouding winter Poland.”

    Exactly. I love that sentence.

    I wanted that word early. He doesn’t really know where he is. Or what his feelings really are. I knew there wouldn’t be a plot — or I’d impose a plot, an unlikely romance. How dare you flirt in that circumstance. How dare you have such disrespect for the people who died here.

    Is that why you wrote this book as a novel?

    Fiction allows you to go deeper. You use your imagination. You can shape the world to make it more valid. When I’m writing fiction, I’m exhilarated. And by the end of the day, I’m hyper. You end up with something that’s unexpected and that’s the real thrill. That’s why I’m more passionate about writing fiction than nonfiction. Nonfiction began for me as a livelihood. I wasn’t making enough money as a fiction writer and I got married too young and had kids. I had to support my family. I was doing better as a commercial fisherman than as a writer. 

    I’m guessing your fiction takes a lot of research. When you started writing Killing Mister Watson, very little was known about Edgar Watson’s life, right? And then there’s Far Tortuga, when you lived with the turtlers and immersed yourself in their culture.

    I tried to write an article about Edgar Watson because the basic ligaments of his life are known. I tried to be loyal to the few facts, but there’s so much fable and exaggeration around him. Also, I got fascinated by interior Florida. It was a really rough place at the time: the biggest cattle state of all, bigger than Texas or Montana. Florida was wild — I’m an environmentalist — and there are beautiful tracks in the American Everglades. But Florida in 1910, you could shoot a black man at will if you didn’t do it on Sunday or in church. Imagine living with that fear and that much humiliation and to come out of it with a kind of resilience.

    Watson, as a character, is as mythic and epic as you get, I think.

    I wanted to make you love a murderer. There’s no way of redeeming him. He’s a drunk and a killer. He killed at least seven people (that we know of). But there were reasons he was a bad guy. He was surrounded by evil in those days. A lot of people were killed building modern Florida — modern everywhere. Watson had plenty of opportunities to see how rough those guys were playing and he thought he could do it too. At least he rationalized it that way. He had the devil beaten out of him and became a very dangerous guy. And he couldn’t handle his liquor, which is one of the worst aspects of him. And he went crazy. Understanding how that happened is useful, I think. There’s no reason any one of us couldn’t be Edgar Watson.

    Do you think a novel should be about a Big Important Subject?

    I think all novels should challenge the establishment — it’s our duty to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. But if you expect your readership to pay attention, it’s our duty to write as well as we can and to eliminate extra adjectives, adverbs. I keep finding out I’m not one of the so-called top fiction writers and I guess that’s certainly true in terms of public acceptance. But take At Play in the Field of the Lord and Far Tortuga and Shadow Country — not this new book, because I don’t think that’s in the same class as those other books — I’ll put those novels up against just about anybody’s three novels. They take risks, and the risks are interesting, I think. You stick your neck out. It’s no fun to write something you have down to a formula. 

    Far Tortuga is definitely not formulaic. Rather, it pushes the form as far as it will go.

    The reviews were ecstatic with Far Tortuga. So were the denunciations. The Village Voice eviscerated it for over three pages. You figure if the guy hates it so much why’s he wasting so many pages on it? Anything that rocks the boat is going to be hated by someone. And on the other extreme, James Dickey called me up at three in the morning one night. It’s true, he was drunk. He said, “I had to call you. You’ve changed American Literature.” He was absolutely foaming at the mouth.

    You lived with those guys, learned their language, right?

    I had to learn the language and bring that whole thing under control. I didn’t want to use prepositions, he or I or you. There’s no narrative, no voice that’s indicated, but I gave the reader a lot of clues in the beginning. The ship’s manifest with the crew names. Which village they came from. The design of the ship. So you get a rough idea of what you’re up against. I had this feeling that these guys had a song of a life and once you’re familiar with that song you know who’s speaking every time. I think after 30 pages you know who’s speaking. It’s not necessarily a writer’s job to challenge the reader. But I think you should not shy away from challenging the reader.

    There’s not enough experimentation in fiction these days, I think. You pretty much created the nonfiction novel and yet Capote gets all the credit.

    I didn’t say I invented the nonfiction novel! Truman did. He told me I invented the nonfiction novel, but he wanted to establish a genre and he wanted to be the star of that genre. I liked him a lot, but he was very competitive. He wanted a foundation for this new genre he created and he picked Under the Mountain Wall as being a classic — and there was another book he mentioned, The Children of Sanchez by Oscar Lewis, a wonderful book. Now I think half the books written are nonfiction novels. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, which I think are probably his best, are certainly nonfiction novels.

    You’ve traveled all over the world, climbed the Himalayas, traveled to the Amazon, Africa. It seems like there hasn’t been a place on earth you haven’t visited. I mean, you’ve lived a heroic life. On the other hand, Proust never left his room. How have all your travels made you a better writer?

    I’ve been running away from home since I was eight. I was fighting the social circumstances I was raised in. I joined the CIA, didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I joined. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had all sorts of adventures and been exposed to scenes and experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve always preferred being with people who are living on the edge of life.


    Alec Michod is the author of The White City, a novel. His writing has been published in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, Ben Marcus’ SmallworkConjunctionsThe Rumpus, and The Believer

    LARB Contributor

    Alec Michod is the author of The White City, a novel. His writing has been published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Ben Marcus’s SmallworkConjunctions, The Rumpus, and The Believer. He’s been a visiting writer at New York University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. The Chicago Tribune recently published an excerpt from his new novel.


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