Announcer: Welcome to the Public Radio Book Show, with your host Tom Smith of the Writers Institute at the State University of New York. Each week he’ll speak with authors, critics, journalists and others in the world of literature.
Smith: Our guest today is the distinguished American writer, Peter Matthiessen, author of many celebrated works of both fiction and nonfiction, including the two unforgettable classics At Play in the Fields of the Lord, about the incursion of modern civilization on a primitive tribe of Amazonian Indians, which was nominated for the National Book Award back in 1965, and the poetic novel, Far Tortuga, a luminous story of a doomed turtle hunt in the Caribbean, which was published in 1975.
Matthiessen: Good morning, Tom. Thanks very much.
Smith: Peter, you’ve moved easily between the two genres of fiction and nonfiction as you have traveled easily and much over the world. What is the determining factor or principle that tells you whether a story is to be told in the form of a novel or as a nonfiction narrative? Is there a determining factor? How does that work for you?
Matthiessen: Well, to me, fiction writing is a much slower process. It always gives us some little impulse, like a little bit of sand in an oyster that hopefully grows into some sort of pearl. It isn’t an assignment or isn’t something that I think up in lecture, it just kind of happens and when it’s ready I want to write it.
Smith: That was the genesis of Far Tortuga.
Matthiessen: I did go ahead and do the nonfiction piece, but Far Tortuga was what I really wanted to do.
Smith: I think I read the novel, maybe before I read the nonfiction piece, but I can imagine Far Tortuga written as a nonfiction piece very much in your style even though the novel itself is very, very experimental. I can’t say it’s an idiosyncratic style, but there are sections where there’s one word on a page or blank pages or pictographs, so it’s a very remarkable style. Yet, even when I was reading that, I could imagine that same story being told, if you will, straight by you.
Matthiessen: Well, I guess so, but I just thought there was more there than I could get in a nonfiction piece. It’s a different kind of truth that you’re after, of course, when you’re writing fiction, and it goes, in my opinion, a lot more deeply. Actually, the novel I’m working on now, coming out in June—it’s called Killing Mr. Watson—in a sense is based on reality, it’s based on an episode. But the hard facts in the case are so obscured they wouldn’t fill two manuscript pages really, and my project is to try to fill out what might have happened within the terms of what actually is known.
Smith: Now the title of this novel, which will be published in June, is Killing Mr. Watson?It’s a very enigmatic title. Could you give us any notion of what it’s about or when or where it takes place?
Matthiessen: Yeah. Mr. Watsonwas a very successful planter and ship owner and trader on a sugar cane plantation in a very remote wild part of the Southwest Everglades called the Ten Thousand Islands. He was very much liked by his several wives and a lot of children and he was really adored by all of them. He also was very highly regarded by his neighbors. But on October 24, 1910, his neighbors put 33 bullets in him. That episode is still being talked about in that part of the world. It’s still absolutely crucial to the way these people think about themselves. I’m fascinated by the myths that have grown up around Watson and what the truth might have been, or how did this happen, this paradoxical event. I got more fascinated, not just with him himself but the origins of myth—how myth begins—because he’s already a myth in that part of the world.
Smith: So that was a real historical event back in 1910.
Matthiessen: The event of his death was real, yes.
Smith: But the rest of it, of course, you have freedom to invent.
Matthiessen: Well, I have to sort of screen out all the lurid stories, magazine stories. He’s even appeared in a couple of books. The references are almost all erroneous and exaggerated, and people sort of pass them along and embellish them. I’ve tried to get next to the old, old people down there who remember him or whose father remembered him, and try to find out the real truth to what happened, what sort of man he was.
Smith: Well, there’s something about anything that takes place in history, especially if it’s momentous or mysterious. I think it just simply generates myth, and so, after a while, all these things are a kind of supreme fiction anyway, whether you try to write them in the most realistic novel form, or some kind of journalistic report, or whatever.
Matthiessen: Well I suppose that’s true.
Smith: On the other hand I could imagine The Snow Leopard as a novel. Did you ever consider it, or was it so much of a personal pilgrimage (your trip with your companion to Nepal)? I could imagine it as dynamite fiction.
Matthiessen: It could have been fiction, but here it seemed to me the physical circumstances of The Snow Leopard—the Himalayas, and the very strange 14th century atmosphere and the people and everything— were strange enough. Just the straight reporting of this scene, and my reactions to it and its effect on my thinking and my sense of time, seemed plenty. I thought fiction would be too much there; I wouldn’t know how to control this event.
Smith: Well that’s true because it was a very mystical trip also.
Matthiessen: Yeah and it was already an hallucination, it didn’t need any metaphor to keep it going.
Smith: Well the Snow Leopard itself, which you did not find, loomed and summoned as a great metaphor. I mean, “Does it exist? If it exists what does that mean?” You were actually observing blue Himalayan sheep, as I recall, but the Snow Leopard itself took over your imagination. I just wondered maybe if that would have been a novel I would have said, “Oh my, he’s trying to imitate The Magic Mountain,” or something like that.
Matthiessen: Well, I didn’t think of it quite that way. It might have happened, you know. I began keeping a journal just as I did down in Mosquito Keys, but gradually the journal was already so strong, the material was so strong. As I said to George Schaller, who was my partner on that trip, “You know, if I can’t make a good book out of this journey, I’m a very poor writer indeed.” It didn’t need anything else but the journal, I thought, whereas in the other situation to get the real power of that man, that very simple man on the very spare, worn out ship, it needed something else. It needed a novel, I thought.
Smith: The Snow Leopard, as I mentioned, was a very personal journey. For one thing, there are many meditations on Zen Buddhism and on how that particular landscape tends to evoke those visions of vast eternity. And also you were, I believe at the time, in mourning. Your wife had just died recently of cancer. That’s why I thought it might have been too personal to try to turn into fiction.
Matthiessen: Well, I think so. For example, there is somebody that has an option on The Snow Leopard to make it a feature film, and I imagine it will take on fictional aspects. But I made it a condition of the filmmaking, if they make it at all, that I will have veto power on any material having to do with my late wife.
Smith: Yes. Peter, if there’s one powerful recurring theme in your work, it seems to be the violation of the natural and the primitive worlds and the great loss to all of us thereof. Was that always a driving passion with you? I mean, sometimes you write about it indignantly, and sometimes more elegiacally. But that seems to be there over the last 30-35 years in your work, and I wondered if that was always a driving force in your consciousness.
Matthiessen: I think, Tom, it was always present. It sort of strikes me as curious now, but it’s true. Even in my very first book, which was a novel called Race Rock, it was all the regret about how we had abused the American Indian people, there was regret about the landscape, there was some about the old ways—traditions—disappearing. I think I’ve always felt this. My interest in national history started very early. When I was a kid my brother and I collected snakes, and we even had copperheads, about seven of them, for a long while, and also I was passionately interested in birds, nature, and so forth. In my life I have seen these elements of nature disappearing so rapidly, so sadly, and my sons, and my grandsons, too, are not going to see the world we saw.
Smith: Yes. I recall, I think Wildlife in America must have been just about your first nonfiction book, and later on The Shorebirds of North America. Even though there’s a very scientific objectivity to them, I always had the feeling with the same lyric regret that that world may indeed pass, and very quickly.
Matthiessen: Wildlife in America came out in 1959, and about three years later Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out.
Smith: That’s right, it was serialized in The New Yorker, also.
Matthiessen: She was, I wasn’t.
Smith: That’s what I meant, yeah, in the early 1960s.
Matthiessen: And I’ve been crying in the wilderness ever since. It’s been a long, long time. But now, things really do seem to be turning around. A little bit slow, and a little bit late, but nonetheless, as far as the environment goes. I don’t know how much faith I have in our (so-called) environmental president, but I think that the politicians aren’t going to have much choice about it. I think we have to change our ways now, and I think people are doing it. I think they’re looking for ways, even small ways, they can do it in their own community.
Smith: Let’s hope that international tensions will continue to be reduced, but I thought that as we approached the 21st century, maybe the radical ecology is going to have to be the moral equivalent of war, as William James said. Your books certainly have done their full measure to raise our consciousness about that through the years. Let’s hope the politicians follow suit.
Matthiessen: Well, I hope they will because the polls have actually indicated that the American people have been informed about environmental reforms for a number of years now and the politicians have simply not paid any attention. They’re tied in too close to the corporations. I guess they just have not paid attention. Now I think they really haven’t got much choice, especially with Mr. Gorbechev weighing in last week on environmental causes.
Smith: Absolutely a salutary event. Peter, were you always such a restless explorer and pilgrim? I look at the list of your books, both fiction and nonfiction, and you’re in South America, you go to New Guinea, books about Africa, and of course Blue Meridian and Far Tortuga, and other ones about the sea itself. Were you always a restless traveler, a seeker?
Matthiessen: Well I think I’ve always been some sort of closet seeker. I don’t particularly like to travel. I love being in wild places, but I keep thinking, “Boy, it would be really great to stay home for a few years.” But then I get here, and I like it very much where I am. But nonetheless, if someone comes along with a great idea for a trip I’m very excited and I’m off. So I don’t know what I’m looking for, but probably the perfect island. I’m putting together a collection of essays on islands all around the world. It’s going to be called The Search for an Island.
Smith: Ah, islands. Now, I’m curious, which islands, either that you’ve written about, or perhaps haven’t up to this time, are you focusing on? What are the essays on?
Matthiessen: Well they really vary. One’s an island in the middle of the Red Sea, one is the Mindovac Island up in the Bering Strait, Aldabra in the Galapagos. Some very well-known islands, and then there are couple of islands which really aren’t so well known. I just am drawn to islands as a metaphor, and a last retreat or something, I don’t know what. But I’ve always had that feeling and now I’ve heard about a wonderful, very wild island that’s almost untouched, if there is such a thing left in the world, off the northwest coast of Australia, and I’m trying to arrange an expedition there in the next couple of years.
Smith: Well that’s fascinating. I’ve wondered, are there any islands, more than ten yards across, that are uncharted, and undiscovered yet, and where would they be?
Matthiessen: Right. I don’t think there are any that are undiscovered. I remember one time when I was flying I was going across the south part of the Philippine Islands on the way to New Guinea and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The number of what seemed to be absolutely beautiful, uninhabited islands, coral islands, down there.
Smith: And this is in the South Pacific?
Matthiessen: South Pacific, yeah. But it was way away from the Manila area. It was in a remote part of the southern Philippines. There were a great many islands there and they seemed to be almost untouched, very few boats or anything.
Smith: I’ve always been fascinated with the story of Pitcairn Island, and of course everybody knows the story of Mutiny on the Bounty. But the point is that it seems so isolated, and you wonder if anything like that in the last hundred years is possible, and what it would do to our minds if anything would be discovered on the planet earth that we hadn’t yet chartered.
Matthiessen: Well, I think so. I think it’s a human trait to try to cling to something permanent, something unchanging. Of course, as the Buddha pointed out, this is the source for most human suffering, trying to make things stay put, trying to hang on to people or ideas, concepts, or the old family house or whatever it may be, and not accepting the fact that everything is changing around us all the time. It’s a very painful thing to swallow because our ego is so tied up with non-change, and so we cling. I remember, I think I remarked somewhere in The Snow Leopard, it struck me that there’s an Afghani word for clinging to a mountain ledge, and the same word is the word for death.
Smith: Clinging and death are the same word.
Matthiessen: When you’re clinging you’re no longer alive because you’re not going with universal flow. It’s wonderful.
Smith: I see sometimes these marvelously life affirming adventures of yours. Also it’s kind of lyrical death trips, and I mean that in kind of a mythical way rather than anything that has a downside to it. But I mean the fact that those two words really mean the same thing I think is astounding.
Matthiessen: Well, I don’t know about “national heritage.” I think men are men. We came here, we saw some good land, there were some Indian people on it and we pushed them off. I think almost all racism has a base in economic factors.
Smith: Certainly not peculiar to one culture or one society, or one national destiny, or anything you want to call it. I notice in the last two stories, in your collection of short stories, the title story “On the RiverStyx,” and also the most recent story, which is “Lumumba Lives,” both seem to reflect, in different ways, the racial tension of our times. Do you think that that is maybe the most destructive or distressing aspect of American life? How do you see that as part of the line?
Matthiessen: I think so. I think the American Indian people are, as they say themselves, “shadows.” Here we’re very concerned about South Africa and Afghanistan and all sorts of places where people are oppressed. We really don’t want to look at people we’ve oppressed right here. Most obviously the black people, but also the Native Americans. I think that those last two stories have to do with racism involving black people because in the earlier stories I really hadn’t been much concerned with that, and I didn’t choose it as a subject. I think my basic interest is not different races, it’s simply oppressed traditional groups. I did one book on a local commercial fisherman here, for example -- white people. I did another book on the Mexican-American migrant workers in California, and Cesar Chavez. Any underdog group which hasn’t got a voice. Camus [Albert] said a really marvelous thing in his Nobel Prize speech. He said that he feels, in the 20th century at least, the one duty of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And I was very struck by that. I think it’s true, I think that is part of the writer’s obligation.
Smith: Incidentally, the historical events that you talked about in In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, this was a shootout between certain members of the American Indian movement in South Dakota and the FBI. Two FBI agents were killed and there were convictions.
Matthiessen: I’d like to say, by the way, an Indian guy was killed too, although this is almost never mentioned.
Smith: Is that right? Now that was back in the 1970s, I believe. Are there any more recent repercussions in that case? I’m just curious.
Matthiessen: Sure, lots of repercussions. I wrote a book about it and I was sued by an FBI agent and also by the former governor of South Dakota for $49 million bucks. The Supreme Court just got finished throwing out the FBI case. It was thrown out in a circuit court, and they affirmed that even though they’re a very conservative court. I don’t think there was any libel in the book at all, but we’ve been harassed bitterly for the last six or seven years, myself and the publisher. But I think it’s all going to come out. Governor Janklow is still pressing his case, but we’re very confident that it won’t ever get to court. We hope it won’t.
Smith: There are other repercussions, then.
Matthiessen: Well those are my repercussions, but meanwhile there’s the guy the book was about, the one convicted of having killed the agents. Now I, for example, am off in a few weeks to talk to a man who now admits he killed the agents. They’ve known all along, the Indians have known. But this man doing time did not do it, as my book says. Even if he had done it, he got railroaded into jail in an extraordinarily unfair trial. Now, at least, we have quite a lot of interest in the Senate and Congress in this case, and we are still working on it. Oliver Stone, who just has his new movie out, Born on the Fourth of July, is producing a film about Leonard Peltier’s case. Mr. Gorbachev is trying to book Mr. Leonard Peltier, he’s one of the great heroes in Spain. We’re trying to get him known here in this country because he’s kind of a hero in Europe.
Smith: That’s Leonard Peltier.
Matthiessen: Yeah. So we are trying to get attention to this case, because I feel it’s the most important historic and economic case since Sacco and Vanzetti.
Smith: It’s an utterly fascinating book. The book, for the listeners, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, was published by Viking. The title alludes to Crazy Horse who wouldn’t stay on the reservation and who was Custer’s adversary at Little Big Horn, which is very close to where this shootout took place in the 1970s.
Matthiessen: Leonard Peltier is seen by the Indian people as kind of a modern day Custer, so that was the title he wanted. It’s not a title I necessarily would have chosen. That book, of course, is unattainable because, due to the lawsuits, Viking Press withdrew it. I’m hoping that there is going to be a new edition of it this summer.
Smith: How about Indian Country, the book that you wrote after that, is that available?
Matthiessen: Yes. Indian Country Viking sort of let go out of print so I’m hoping that will come back this summer with the other one. They’re thinking of doing them both together.
Smith: Peter, you talked about your new novel in progress, which will be published in June. How about another at least far away trip? I don’t necessarily mean writing projects, but do you have any exotic trips or future visions of yourself going to far away places at this point?
Matthiessen: Well, I have no major trip planned. I’m going out West in a couple of weeks on various assignments. Actually, I was supposed to have been in Russia last week for that environmental forum they had there but there was a mess-up on my visa. By the time they got it clear it was too late to go, but there is a possibility I may go back to Russia, to Siberia really, this summer. As I say, there are various things of potential but nothing actually planned.
Smith: One last question. So many of your other books that have fascinated me that we don’t even have time to mention, including Men’s Lives, which I think you did talk about, and The Cloud Forest, which is also about South America, Under the Mountain Wall, etc. But let me ask you one thing at least now. What do you see in our collective futures? If at some point there’s no more wildernesses, what kind of society, or what world, will it be?
Matthiessen: Well, I think we better have wilderness, at least a lot of forest or we’ll run out of oxygen. So I think we have to fight for that first. I don’t look forward to a world that has no wilderness at all. I personally feel there’s an awful lot of talk we avoid of this basic underlying thing which is that there are too many human beings in the world and I think that, to me, most of our environmental problems are corollary to that plain fact.
Smith: To overpopulation.
Matthiessen: Yes, not a popular fact to the politicians for very obvious reasons, you know, but I’m afraid there are too many of us, and we have to think accordingly. I feel that man is a very adaptable species. The only one I think of being as adaptable is the rat. The rat can get in any climate, pack any food, does very well wherever you put it. We’re rather like that and I think we can survive even under very reduced circumstances, for a while.
Smith: On that ominous and inspiring note I think we have to end, Peter. It’s been wonderful to talk with you about your work, your books, past and future, and for sharing something of your quest and your vision with us.
Transcribed by Joseph Pezzula.