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AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER MATTHIESSEN Peter Matthiessen O Hans Teensma The following interview with Peter Matthiessen was conducted by Kay Bonetti, Director of the American Audio Prose Library, in May 1987. Mr. Matthiessen is the author of numerous books of fiction and non-fiction including The Snow Leopard (for which he won the National Book Award in 1978), Far Tortuga, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, etc. His new collection of short stories is titled On The River Styx. The American Audio Prose Library offers tapes of American authors reading and discussing their work. For information, contact AAPL, Box 842, Columbia, MO 65205. An Interview with Peter MatthiessenIKay Bonetti Interviewer: Can you tell us a little about your early life? You're a veteran, I understand. Matthiessen: Yes, I served in World War II and then I went to Yale. I took my junior year abroad at the Sorbonne. Interviewer: Did you grow up in the city? Matthiessen: I was born right here in New York City, Madison Avenue and 65th Street, I think it was, at a little lying-in hospital. I went to school in New York City and then we lived up on the Hudson for a while, then moved to Connecticut. So I've been around the New England coast all my life. Interviewer: What did your father do? Matthiessen: He was an architect. Then he went in the Navy and helped design various gunnery training devices used during World War II. He didn't really want to go back to architecture. After the war, he became a fund-raiser and spokesman for conservation groups, the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy, that kind of thing. Interviewer: So you would credit your family life then, with your interest in nature, the environment? Matthiessen: We had a wonderful piece of property in Connecticut, back up in the hills, and my brother and I were both very interested in snakes and birds. We had a big copperhead den on our property. Until my mother put a stop to it, we had a lot of copperheads in cages. I went on to birds—starting with my mother's feeder—and my brother became a marine biologist. I think we kind of taught my father—it was the other way around. The Missouri Review · 209 Interviewer: What did you study in school? Matthiessen: I was an English major, but I took courses in biology and ornithology. I began writing in boarding school, smart-alec articles about this and that. Then, with a friend, I did a column for the Yale Daily News on hunting and fishing. I started writing short stories while I was at Yale, and I was still there when my first short story, "Sadie"—ifs in On The River Styx—won the Atlantic Prize, which was very useful because I came back there to teach writing my first year out of college. I didn't last very long as a teacher, just one term, but the publication was a big help. The Atlantic took a second story, and I got an agent. Then I started my first novel and sent off about four chapters and waited by the post office for praise to roll in, calls from Hollywood, everything. Finally my agent sent me a letter that said "Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this a hundred and fifty years ago, only he wrote it better. Yours, Bernice." I probably needed that; it was very healthy. Interviewer: Did that novel become Race Rock? Matthiessen: No. That was, I think, the only novel I ever junked. Race Rock was the second one I started, the first one I finished. Interviewer: Tell me about the París Review. Matthiessen: I started it in Paris in late '51 with a guy called Harold Humes, who was an absolutely brilliant fellow but rather erratic. People had trouble working with Doc Humes, so I got hold of George Plimpton, who was at Cambridge then. I'd gone to school with him in New York and I've known him since I was 210 · The Missouri Review Peter Matthiessen "I took a freighter from New York all...


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