Man of his words


Winner of the most recent National Book Award for his fiction trilogy, "Shadow Country," author Peter Matthiessen is welcomed by a very large audience at the Thelma Boltin Center in Gainesville, Fla., Tuesday, January 13.

Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 11:20 p.m.

Wearing a black sweater vest over a long-sleeve purple Oxford shirt, the thin, gray-haired man strode slowly up a short flight of stairs and stood in the back of the main room at Gainesville's Thelma Boltin Center Tuesday evening.

Around him, a crowd in the range of 300 filled the room. They took up every spot in the 10 rows of chairs stretching across the main floor. They stood lining the walls. They sat in the rows of chairs assembled on the stage and along the foot of the stage. Some sat cross-legged on the room's wood floorboards.

Then, when it was announced that 2008 National Book Award-winning author Peter Matthiessen was about to speak, the gray-haired man in the sweater who blended so easily into the crowd walked to the front of the room.

Matthiessen, 81, opened by telling the room how shy he was when he had to talk about his own works instead of discussing civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez or the plight of Native Americans or racism and how it has tainted American society.

But this crowd had come to hear him talk about his works, so he did. Donning a pair of drugstore reading glasses, he started with an excerpt from his book "The Snow Leopard," which chronicled his 35-day trek and spiritual journey across the Himalayas and won the 1979 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Mathiessen also read from his 2008 epic "Shadow Country," based on three earlier novels he'd written about infamous Everglades sugar planter and outlaw E.J. Watson, who was shot to death by neighboring farmers in 1910.

"Shadow Country" won the 2008 National Book Award for Fiction.

Matthiessen said he took great joy in that because, while he built his reputation and made his money as a nonfiction writer, fiction writing was his first passion.

"At the age of 81, I finally hit it," he said, bringing laughter from the crowd.

Matthiessen spoke with fascination of Watson and how the full story of his life was never known in accurate detail because "you didn't talk about dad getting blown away with 33 bullets worth" in 1910.

He described Watson as womanizer, outlaw, caring father and killer.

"He was quite a guy - even the people who killed him, most of them kind of liked him," he said.

He said he first learned the legend of Watson at age 8, when his father told him the story as they traveled by boat along Florida's southwest coast - a few short miles from Watson's former homestead.

Sitting in the second row Tuesday, Gainesville resident Chris Medved said Matthiessen was at the same time author, naturalist and anthropologist, who painted a vivid, "incredible picture" of not just Watson but the desperado-ridden Everglades of the early 20th century.

Standing in the back of the room, Bob Watson, had similar praise for the author.

"It's kind of interesting that characters like this actually lived and traipsed through this part of the country," he said.

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