Author Peter Matthiessen ’50 has tromped around the Everglades, searching for clues to uncover the truth behind a tale of execution and drunkenness. He has also been on expeditions in Nicaragua to learn about the culture and dialect of fishermen.
In a Davenport College Master’s Tea Tuesday, Matthiessen recounted tales from these adventures and stories — in the comfort of the great indoors. Since the publication of his first novel during his days at Yale, Matthiessen has written several novels, including “The Snow Leopard” and “At Play In the Fields of the Lord.” He has also written a plethora of short stories.
Matthiessen said that although he writes nonfiction to make money, he prefers fiction.
“I am a fiction writer at heart,” he said. “Fiction has always been my great love.”
He described good fiction as a piece of sculpture. There is a mystique about the creation process for both sculpture and fiction; and the sculptor, like the author, does not know what direction his work will take, Matthiessen said.
He said that major motifs within his fiction pieces are endangered people, places and animals.
“The environment has always been my passion,” he said.
Matthiessen said that his favorite novel is “Far Tartuga,” which he wrote in an old-fashioned Caribbean dialect. He told the audience about the voyage to Nicaragua during which he met the individuals who would later be characters in his novel.
“We ate barracuda three times a day, with beans if we were lucky,” he said.
Matthiessen continued to describe how there was not a single life preserver or radio on board, and how the side of the boat was so worn that you could barely see the original color.
“I wanted to write the novel just like that,” he said. “No metaphors, no ‘he said, she said,’ with few adjectives.”
He said that some critics reacted with rave reviews while others thought it was horrible. Matthiessen said that it is a good sign if a novel inspires such diametrically opposed opinions because it gets people interested in it.
Matthiessen read excerpts from his works, including “Killing Mister Watson,” which recounts the life and mob execution of a violent drunk who owned the only home in the Florida everglades at the time. Matthiessen described a 20-year quest to uncover the truth about Watson’s life. The author pieced together information from courthouse documents, newspaper articles and eventually family members, who for years had been reluctant to discuss their relative.
“[Watson] was a terrible guy, but he was still a human being,” Matthiessen said as he described some of Watson’s more endearing traits.
Matthiessen leaned over his work as he adopted the posture and voice of his characters, laughing at his descriptions of plume killers and alligator poachers along with the audience.
Stephen Gikow ’06 said he has read most of Matthiessen’s nonfiction as well as some of his fiction, and has discussed Matthiessen’s works in his English 120 class.
“[Matthiessen] is full of many stories, and he tells them with lots of detail,” Gikow said. “He talks kind of the way he writes — with a lot of rambling. I enjoy that.”