© Jesse Close.
by Bret Anthony
Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist
for the National Book Award! How did the news reach
you? What was your reaction?
Matthiessen: Thank you. Word came in
a phone call to Philip Gourevich who announced it during
our Paris Review board meeting. Everybody clapped and
cheered except the bashful author, though of course
he was very pleased, too.
BAJ: What is your writing
process? How did working on the various Watson books
or on the Modern Library edition of Shadow Country feel
different than working on your other books?
The first step in my writing process
is a rough, tentative outline of the book’s general
narrative structure (which evolves almost throughout).
Notes on characters, themes, ideas are jotted in, and
here and there a précis of a scene, a fragment
of dialogue, description, all of this stuff very provisional
so that it won’t hurt too much when, inevitably,
I toss most of it out.
Meanwhile I am casting about
for the most effective point(s) of view, voice(s), and
tone(s) in which to tell this story. Eventually some
kind of entity emerges , at which point I embark upon
what will become the first of many drafts. I already
know where I am going—not the “plot”,
which is rarely important and sometimes non-existent—but
in searching out the elusive feeling—the mystery
or underlying truth—which impelled the writing
in the first place and urgently demands creative expression.
The Watson concept is far more
vast than anything I have ever attempted. The first
draft of the original came to at least 1500 pages. Broken
up into the 3 novels of the “trilogy” phase,
it still amounted to some 1300 pages altogether. What
has now been restored is a single narrative of about
900 pages, thirty years in the making.
BAJ: In Shadow Country,
you’ve re-imagined your breathtaking “Watson
Trilogy” and pulled the three books together into
a sustained narrative, which was your original conception
of the story. What was the most difficult aspect of
revising the pages to achieve your original vision?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of
this revision was orchestrating its many elements throughout
six years of drastic cutting and editing, all the while
adding and subtracting voices and eventually rewriting
almost every sentence—“deepening and distilling”,
as I think of it.
BAJ: The cornerstones
of Watson’s story are violence, obsession, and
the nightmarish abuses of the poor and the environment.
His struggle is as trenchant today as it was then, if
not more trenchant. Have your feelings on the character
changed or evolved since you published Killing Mr. Watson,
the first book in the trilogy?
I understand Watson (and myself) much
better after all these years of frequenting his brain
and to some degree I find I can forgive him. He is a
violent drunk and occasional killer, true, but he is
also intelligent and persevering, with very sharp insights
into human behavior, and he has dignity and courage,
too, and can be very funny, at least by the lights of
my own warped sense of humor. In the end, despite myself,
I came to like him. But I think my task was to make
the reader feel the humanity of a “bad”
man and even perhaps a twinge of regret at the waste
of such ability when he is killed.
interesting similarity among the fiction finalists this
year is how all of the novels focus on the past. What
is it about the past that so captivates readers and
If only sentimentally, nostalgically,
I suspect most of us yearn for the “good old days”,
“the remembrance of things past”, “the
lost paradise” of childhood as we long to recall
it, however damaging it might actually have been.
BAJ: For some writers, the engine that powers
their fiction is character. For others, it’s language.
For others still, the engine might loosely be called
“theme.” Do you identify with any of those?
What sparked the initial idea for you?
Very important as those are, the seed
and engine of a novel, for me at least, is that hidden,
all but inexpressible feeling cited earlier that must
be isolated and gradually brought forth during the telling.
BAJ: Who is your ideal reader?
The ideal reader might be one who understands
and appreciates the difficulties of what the writer
is trying to do and hopes he/she will succeed at it,
so that both reader and writer are fulfilled by its
BAJ: What books or writers do you find yourself rereading?
Do you see any of their influence in your current work?
There are so many wonderful writers
and great books still unread that I rarely find time
to go back and reread. Earlier in life, I devoured Conrad,
Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, all those magnificent
Russians ( I did reread The Idiot and War and Peace)
and I have greatly admired and been inspired by many
writers since, but I honestly don’t recognize
any direct influence on my work.
in an election year. The country is engaged in two wars.
The economy is all but collapsing. Other wars are being
waged around the world. The environment is suffering
on every front. In light of all of these pressures,
why does fiction matter?
Fiction—the best fiction—will
always matter because it strives to penetrate our great
and terrible human nature, our human condition. Perhaps
it can help reconcile us to our final inconsequence
and the absurdity of man’s fate.
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5
Under 35” fiction honor from the National
Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative
Writing at Harvard University. For more information,
please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.