An Interview with Peter Matthiessen

A picture of Peter Matthiessen, who was an American novelist, naturalist, and explorer, can be seen in the image provided by

At first, the taxi driver couldn’t locate it; the snow-covered barren fields to the left and the insignificant trees to the right were not pointing to a Hamptons mansion at the end of the road. He said, “I don’t think there’s anyplace else here.”

But then it showed up: a humble, low-lying home was visible through a passageway in the trees. As our car pulled into the driveway, it was evident that Peter Matthiessen’s home for the past six decades would not be considered an ordinary residence anywhere.

A gigantic skull–the cranium of a fin whale–was propped up against the house wall, and bunches of other relics lay partially concealed in the snow: driftwood, stumps, shells, small stones, sculptures.

I rang the bell but no one answered, and for a moment all was quiet: the rain trickling off a line of icicles dangling from the roof. And then a pleasant, deeply creased face peered through the brightness in a window of the front door.

Peter Matthiessen was certainly unique. He was a writer, thinker, naturalist and activist, as well as a student of Zen Buddhism for fifty years.

His publicist said he “lived so large, and so wild, for so long”. Matthiessen was the only person to have won the National Book Award for both fiction (Shadow Country, 2008) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1979).

He was awarded numerous medals and prizes for his books, which often focused on wild places, animals, and people on the edge of the world, where pre-human and premodern elements were (or still are) visible.

He spent much of his adult life traveling to a variety of places, such as the Himalayas, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the Mongolian steppe, Africa, South America, North America, and Siberia.

Additionally, he co-founded the Paris Review while working undercover for the CIA. After that, he was a novelist and commercial fisherman off the South Shore of Long Island. Later, he served as a labor activist with Cesar Chavez.

His book, In the Spirit of Crazy Peter: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement, led to legal disputes with a former governor of South Dakota and a former FBI agent (both of whom lost their cases).

Finally, he followed a team of divers trying to capture underwater images of the great white shark, which inspired the film Jaws.

Matthiessen’s body of work is characterized by his intellectual acuity and his knack for capturing the essence of nature and people.

His writing has a unique quality that could be likened to the “ecstatic truth” identified by Werner Herzog, making it appear as if it were a translation from a foreign language.

As a pioneer of both nature writing and creative nonfiction, he has had a major influence on modern literature, though his fiction has been largely overlooked (with the exception of Far Tortuga, the novel that preceded The Snow Leopard).

His last book, In Paradise (published in 2014), which was inspired by his personal experiences in Auschwitz during Zen meditation retreats in the late ’90s, explores the boundaries of spirituality in a unique way.

The interior of his abode was neat and composed, featuring a palette of earthy and wooden tones.

Photographs of the people of New Guinea, taken by his expedition partner Michael Rockefeller, in 1961 were hung around a used baby grand piano with a set of binoculars perched atop.

Along the window sills, smooth river rocks with a design resembling the Buddha’s face were placed, with potted maidenhair ferns and a blooming Christmas cactus.

In the backyard, two furry deer were seen standing beneath a feeder, with a flurry of cardinals and white-throated sparrows hovering around them.

We crowded into a tiny study, due to the small outhouse he usually wrote in being affected by mould. He sat at his computer, working on another memoir, which he apparently wasn’t a fan of.

I had to put my recorder close to him to capture his deep voice, although I didn’t get all of it, as he talked with his face, hands and body – widening his eyes in shock or amusement, waving his fingers in disapproval of ‘flowery writing’, and using his various facial features to imitate animals.

His silver hair and creased forehead conveyed a sense of turmoil, however his eyes were a surprising light blue.

Even a month before his death at the age of eighty-six, he was still the author of The Snow Leopard, and his memory of books written fifty years ago was astoundingly accurate. The pad of his right thumb was stained with green ink.

— Jonathan Meiburg stated

Are those Michael Rockefeller’s snapshots adorning the wall in the next room?

Peter Matthiessen pointed out the two long spears over the doorway. He informed that these spears weren’t all owned by Michael, but he could show the ones that were.

BLVR: It appears they’re very serious.

The PM noted that these people were not in a rush to launch their spears, as it was a laborious process to craft them.

Crafting spears required no metal, and the technique was to submerge saplings into cold mountain water and scrape them with stones. This process could take a few weeks to complete.

When it came to battle, they would use a bow and arrow until their enemy was weak, and only then would they throw the spears. The fear of having them stolen by the enemy was also a factor in their tactics.

BLVR: Under the Mountain Wall is certainly one of the most unique books among your collection.

The Prime Minister gave an affirmative response.

BLVR: What motivated you to compose it in such a fashion?

When I initially went out to New Guinea, I had no intention of writing Far Tortuga, which was inspired by an article I read in the New Yorker called “To the Miskito Bank.” I kept having to go back to Grand Cayman due to the antics of my contact there, a sea captain similar to Copm Raib.

I ended up using a lot of the expense money and felt embarrassed when I went to see Mr. Shawn at the New Yorker.

I informed him that the article was going to be okay, but that I was keeping the best of my findings for a novel because I had been so powerfully stirred by the emotions I felt during my travels.

Shawn had spoken–I’ve been in the magazine industry for a long time, dealing with editors and all the struggles that come with it including lack of payment, etcetera–but Shawn, without any doubt, said [ in a Shawn voice ], “Mr. Matthiessen, do what’s best for your work!

My eyes welled up with tears of emotion. I was absolutely overwhelmed by that experience.

So I did, and I went even further. I didn’t just omit elements for a novel, but I wanted to get rid of the “furniture” of a novel, like “he said”s, metaphors, and similes.

This idea was partly inspired by At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which I found well-written, but too elaborate compared to what I had in mind. I wanted Far Tortuga to be absolutely spare, only with a line of birds on the horizon.

I find myself asking a great question from Turgenev’s Virgin Soil, in which a character commits suicide and leaves behind a note that reads: “I could not simplify myself.” [ Drops jaw ] That reminds me of the Akhmatova line from the epigraph in In Paradise

BLVR: “Something that nobody knows about–”

The Prime Minister declared, “–but wild in our breast for centuries.” Yes, I understand. [ Groans indicating distress ] It is a sensation I am quite familiar with. My ambition has been to simplify things, but I have yet to be successful.

BLVR requested that I take them to the mountainous region of New Guinea.

It became clear to me that if anthropologists were part of the equation, the complexity of the situation would increase.

I had no interest in the type of writing often featured in National Geographic, where the storyteller is taken by surprise. I wanted to achieve a feeling of a purely primitive culture, not another expedition narrative.

BLVR asked the reason for their initial decision to go.

The PM described an interesting observation of two tribes coming together to fight on a regular basis.

The purpose of these battles was not to take anything from the other side, but instead to establish a pecking order or determine status.

The combat was adjusted to make it fair, taking into account factors such as the terrain to make sure the sides had the same chances for success.

The female laborers would leave the trenches they were working in and convene on the hillside where they would jeer and mockingly chant, “He can’t even get it up!” Killing one person was enough for them, so in a sense it was quite civilized.

We found them to be very nurturing and compassionate with their own children and elderly people. Moreover, they had a strong sense of civic duty and were very attentive to those in need.

BLVR: What knowledge did you gain regarding war?

The men weren’t simply attempting to maintain their power over the women when they went to war. In actuality, they were skilled farmers and would help dig agricultural ditches, which was strenuous labor.

Afterwards, they would take the time to groom themselves and adorn their hair with bird-of-paradise plumes and partake in smoking dope.

2. In the second section, we can observe…

In In Paradise, a major theme is the interplay between physical love and a more profound, almost spiritual kind of love. Olin describes human beings as “this two-legged creature that knows it must die,” and the word “crotched” is especially striking in that context.

PM: No matter what we do, the ultimate consequence is that we are aware of our mortality. We are the only creature that is aware of this; other animals, even those that are rare and vulnerable, will just hide if they are feeling unwell. But, for us, in the end it’s the end [smiles].

BLVR: What I’m trying to express is a hidden erotic element in your work. This aspect is more obvious in In Paradise than any other book you’ve created. It’s funny for a book that is situated–

The Prime Minister mentioned Auschwitz.

At the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, BLVR was present.

PM inquired if Olin’s attraction to the woman was more obvious, or if the situation was so far off what would be acceptable from a politically correct perspective that it became more noticeable.

Olin had to come to terms with the fact that he was strongly drawn to the woman, even though he had a strong New England ethic.

BLVR: In The Snow Leopard, the idea of Eros being lost and regained is also presented. In the closing passages, you note that you are ready to partake in ordinary activities such as eating, sleeping, and making love, alluding to the reemergence of the love within you.

PM: It’s a part of life. I’m pretty typical in this regard, but I don’t like to dwell on it. I find the comedic aspects of sex scenes entertaining, and some of the ones in Shadow Country are hilarious and over the top.

Love is often ridiculous and foolish, and I don’t often write about city life or the people in our area – as it’s been done to death by the likes of The New Yorker. I prefer to write about the people on the edges, who don’t have the time to be neurotic.

BLVR: Utilizing the word Neurotic is quite amusing, since when receiving the National Book Award for Shadow Country , you mentioned that you always experienced a “neurotic” sensation that your fictional works were not as esteemed as your nonfiction.

PM: So, yeah–did I refer to it as “neurotic”?

BLVR: You accomplished it!

PM: That’s alright. I can have my own anxieties, but I don’t find the need to write about them, as it is already overly done with all the memoirs, autobiographies, and fictions out there. It’s not something I particularly care for.

What do you believe has gone unnoticed in your writing by the public?

The Prime Minister: Utilizing humor.

BLVR: A sense of humor?

At a book signing, PM was once surprised when a man came up to him and said he had made him laugh, prompting PM to embrace him.

Later, when a documentary was made about him and held a private screening at his house, Maria remarked that the filmmakers had missed two important aspects of him: his humor and his mischievousness.

Number Three.

BLVR: There is a consistent theme of longing for something that is lost, yet still accessible in your work.

Take, for example, the Samling monastery in The Snow Leopard that could not be reached, the leopard itself, or the woman in the da Vinci painting in In Paradise.

What is particularly fascinating to me is that you seem to feel the absence of this paradise due to a memory of having experienced its presence. Could you explain where that sensation originates, or where it has been experienced in your life?

PM: Yeah, yeah. [ Long pause ] I recall that I had this thought when I was young, and even when I was very small. [ Widens eyes, leans back, and becomes almost preverbal ]

Everything was just whizzing by like noises , lights , and matter , and I was just eating worms, thinking to myself–“What in the world is all this?” You know?

In a way, this is what we experience as a loss of paradise; we don’t discriminate, we try anything and everything. However, eventually we must sort out what we don’t like and what we do.

This gives way to the negative feelings of opinionatedness, anger, and indignation, which Zen Buddhism sums up as “greed, anger, and folly.”

During my youth, I have a distinct recollection of light flashes. One of these flashes occurred during my time on a troop ship heading from the Golden Gate to Pearl Harbor.

The storm lasted twelve days and I was assigned fire watch. As I was standing on deck, I found shelter under an Ellis, one of the landing crafts, across the bow. The entire ship was filled with a nauseating smell from all of the vomit.

On one night, the waves were incessant and I felt as if I was becoming a part of the wave. Peter Matthiessen’s third novel, Raditzer, contains an attempt to depict this experience.

In the 1960s I was heavily indulged in drugs; nevertheless, it wasn’t a full experience. It was like viewing everything from a distance, and my ego had vanished. It was as if I had been placed in a sandbox, where I was manifesting and yet unaware of this fact.

BLVR: The moment in Far Tortuga that looks like a cautionary tale takes place when the characters eventually reach one of these legendary islands–

PM: –but they arrive at it as it is being desecrated.

My fury was directed towards you due to that.

The Prime Minister smiled and said, “Of course, Desmond, I’m sure he wanted to have his time in the spotlight.”

BLVR: Taking into account the destruction we’ve caused to our planet, and the lack of progress in rectifying it, it’s difficult to prevent the idea that the world would be better off without us from entering our minds. How can this line of thinking be prevented?

One day, Kurt Vonnegut, who lived nearby, visited and placed a sticker on my truck. It read: “YOUR PLANET’S IMMUNE SYSTEM IS ATTEMPTING TO ERADICATE YOU.” It’s still there, but is fading with time.

He also gave me a model of the HMS Beagle, which can be seen in the glass case near the entrance.

I had been questioning the source of the item.

PM: It truly is an excellent model! He had no idea that it would turn out this way and he was not expecting his life to last much longer.

Then one morning, he just showed up and left a sign on it that reads: “This is my present for Peter Matthiessen.” It was amazing, yet he didn’t even stay for lunch.

IV. Another way of expressing this is to say that the concept has been reworked in a new form.

When Jaws was released, what were your thoughts on it?

PM: Is the query regarding the film or the novel?

BLVR: Both options are suitable.

I had heard that Peter Benchley was a pleasant individual, so I have nothing against him aside from maybe taking inspiration from my white shark description at the beginning.

I never had an affinity for the book, as I only read it due to the movie we made – “Blue Water, White Death”. Quint, in the film, is based on a man named Frank Mundus, a Montauk shark hunter.

The movie began when Peter Gimbel visited Salivar’s bar, seeing a mounted head of a white shark. He asked himself if he would be afraid of it, and the answer was a definite ‘yes’. If someone wasn’t scared of that, they must be an idiot.

BLVR: You still decided to take the test, though. You entered a pen and descended.

PM: I had to see it, and I was scared because I was the one who had the bait [ stretches arms out, eyes not looking at anything ], and this thing was hitting the bar like a speeding train, whaaam! it was just made of aluminum–Jesus! [ Laughs ]

There was a scene where Peter Lake was inside the cage and the shark opened it up like it was nothing. He could have taken Lake out with ease but he had a preference for the glimmering flotation tanks.

At BLVR’s perspective, the start of our infatuation with the great white shark can be traced to the publication of Blue Meridian.

PM: It’s too kind to say that Jaws came out of my movie. In actuality, Blue Meridian was my book and I was the sole chronicler for the expedition. In fact, one can see Blue Meridian in the stack of books in the captain’s cabin.

In the famous film Jaws, one can find a great example of suspense.

PM: I assume that was meant to be a comfort to me [ chuckles ].

What is the luckiest thing you have ever had the opportunity to experience in your life?

PM: [ Extended pause ] Could it be the grandeur of the towering Himalayan peaks? When they are in full glory, and you are up there at fifteen thousand feet, it is truly awe-inspiring.

But I have also been out at sea during a hurricane, with massive waves crashing over the bow. I am just in awe of it all. Even the smallest things in my own backyard can excite me – “What could this be?” – so, I don’t know. I’d have to think about that.

I don’t believe the question is appropriate. I’m passionate about birds, but I do not want to maintain a record of the birds I see nor do I want to create a “top ten” list.

At one point, I was a very serious birdwatcher who kept a Peterson Field Guide and had all the birds on both the eastern and western lists. But then I lost the guide, and since then I don’t keep track of the birds I see in detail.

I just make a general list after each trip, but I don’t even look at it afterwards. Moreover, I don’t have a list of birds from all over the world; I don’t think that’s a good reason to become a birdwatcher.

Do you recall the small yellow bird that has remained in my thoughts since I viewed your artwork?

At the Urubamba River, situated in the The Cloud Forest gorge of Peru.

BLVR affirmed in the affirmative.

It’s likely to be a yellow warbler due to the season, PM suggested.

V. Making modifications to the structure of the text without altering the context and meaning is a great way to eliminate plagiarism.

Why did you opt to write In Paradise as a work of fiction instead of something more closely based on your own life?

PM: It wasn’t possible for me to communicate all of my emotions through nonfiction writing; I couldn’t delve deep enough. Just like the old artist said, one has to go through art to see the same thing again, to experience the same feeling, and to make it feel fresh.

Even now, I’m expecting a lot of criticism and backlash, similar to what Styron experienced with Sophie’s Choice. People felt he was wrong for making Sophie out to be Polish [Catholic] instead of Jewish. There’s a widespread belief that “the Jews own the Holocaust”.

BLVR: The concept highlighted in In Paradise is that all people carry a responsibility for the Holocaust.

The Prime Minister stated that everyone can be either the owner or the one being owned, and everybody has potential to switch sides.

I found it peculiar to read one of your works that didn’t include animals, nature, or anything wild, considering your writing typically centers around those topics.

When Olin is standing on the platform, he spots a falcon.

It appears that my hypothesis must be discarded.

PM: In the snow around the crematoria, the PM noticed rooks, hooded crows of Central Europe, and deer prints.

In a state of disbelief, they descended into one of the gas chambers and were astonished to find microbial and fungal life had already begun to take it back – after 60 years. They found this process of reclaiming to be remarkable.

At a past speaking event in Texas, BLVR recollected feeling some unease with memoirs, commenting “The trouble is, in the end, you always look rather well.” Now however, they are writing one. What is there to be uncovered about their life that has yet to be revealed?

The PM expressed that they had a lot of exciting experiences they would like to document, but felt apprehensive about doing so due to the potential for perceived bragging. To avoid this, they suggested lightheartedly poking fun at themselves as a way to counteract any unintentional vanity.

Does it ever feel like something that is not genuine?

PM: Not me. The master of self-deprecation was George Plimpton. He excelled at taking a hit.

Do you find it astonishing that the Paris Review has endured for so long?

I once tried to persuade Plimpton to leave The Paris Review after it had been in New York for some time. I started a small insurrection.

With every new editor, I thought it would be the ideal time to close the magazine. [Laughs] But I hadn’t realized–I mean, I had been acquainted with George since we were kids, however, I had no idea how important the magazine was to him–it was almost like it was a necessity for his life. Ending The Paris Review would be like killing him.

BLVR: Was there a book that you expected people to relate to but it didn’t resonate with them?

I didn’t anticipate my books to become best-sellers. The only one of them to achieve that success is The Snow Leopard, although it had a bumpy start – similarly to the starting of the last Super Bowl. PM: [ Pause ].

BLVR: [ Giggles ]

The PM remembered a time when the book section of the New York Times was available a week in advance.

On the Monday of the supposed release, their editor Joe Fox called to say, “Get ready. Buy yourself a yacht.” Meaning, they had made the front of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

During that time, stores would display a sandwich board advertising the book and even if customers didn’t read it, they still bought it. Everyone had to have it. It was a big hit.

The New York Times strike occured on the same day that my book was reviewed, so I never got the opportunity to become a best-seller.

Nevertheless, I can’t complain because the book sold quite well and eventually won the National Book Award. But it wasn’t what you might call a “biiiig” seller, the kind of book that keeps you on the best-seller lists for a long time.

In the music industry, we are familiar with the challenge of releasing a project and then waiting to hear what critics have to say. It can be a nerve-wracking experience, not knowing if the response will be one of celebration or rebuke.

PM: It could have been. We had published a book entitled The Tree Where Man Was Born with photographs done by Eliot Porter, and it was released by Dutton.

The New York Times asked Peter Beard to review it, as he was said to be the “young American who owned East Africa” and was the authority and ego of the land. Unbeknownst to us, he trashed the book in his review. We were unaware of what was coming.

But Truman Capote lived out here and he was not pleased when he heard what had happened to me.

He phoned me up and exclaimed in his trademark voice, “Oh my god! What they’ve done to you!” He had this unique and amusing combination of responses – he was not happy about his friend’s review, but there was part of him that found it amusing.

He gave me a heads-up, so I contacted the publisher, Jack Macrae at Dutton, and informed him we had been tricked.

He was obviously shocked and exclaimed that he had put a fortune into this book – he had even sent it to Italy for printing and the job was done well. I then told him we were going to be “trashed” on Sunday, which prompted him to intervene.

He was highly upset and expressed how it was not good editing, but rather a “hatchet job”. As a result, the review was never published.

BLVR: Going back to The Snow Leopard, not taking into account the sales–do you recall the emotions you experienced when it was being prepared for publication?

I visited the Ransom Center in Austin to examine the manuscript and I wondered how much of the finished work had been taken from your field notebooks.

The majority of the pages had lines crossed out in a variety of inks, in some cases with what I assumed was either annoyance or restlessness.

PM: I have a system I use to keep my thoughts organized. I write all the facts on the right-hand page and any extra thoughts on the left.

This helps a lot when I’m rewriting. It’s easy to unintentionally plagiarize myself, so if I’m certain a line or phrase is included in the text, I make sure to scratch it out.

BLVR: After you had finished it, what were your impressions?

At the beginning of the book, I jokingly said that if I failed to create a high quality book, I should be taken outside and executed.

VI. In conclusion, it can be said that the use of technology has had a major impact on the education system in terms of the way it is delivered, the way it is accessed, and the way it is utilized.

Technology has made it possible for students to access education from any location, and has improved the quality of instructional materials.

After spending over thirty years together, Maria Matthiessen–who was recently featured in an episode of This American Life–gave me a ride back to the station.

Her German and English parents, whom she was raised by in East Africa, were highly evident in her specific accent and direct attitude, and it was clear she had a personality as powerful as her husband’s.

I wished I’d questioned them together while I was having lunch in their kitchen; their relationship seemed unbreakable, yet they still retained their individual identities despite the lengthy amount of time they’d spent together.

Peter’s health troubles were the topic of conversation, and it was clear how the situation had impacted the two of them. Her dissatisfaction was evident in her words, “You’re stuck here; you can’t go anywhere or do anything. You’re in limbo, just waiting for the Lord to call.”

As Maria and I arrived at the station, the snow and ice from the morning had been transformed into a light rain, making the atmosphere a soggy, smeared, and gray one.

We watched a pair of crows flutter around the deserted car park as we talked. Maria opted to wait with me until the train came and when it did, I sat by a window and watched her standing on the edge of the platform, waving goodbye as I left.

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