2008 National Book Award Fiction
Winner Peter Matthiessen Interview
Modern LibraryPhotos © Jesse Close.
by Bret Anthony
Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your reaction?
Peter 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?
PM: 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?
PM: 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?
PM: 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.
BAJ: An 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 writers?
PM: 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?
PM: 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?
PM: 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 creation.
BAJ: What books or writers do you find yourself rereading? Do you see any of their influence in your current work?
PM: 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.
BAJ: We’re 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.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, 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.