Feature

Author of the week: Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen's <em>Shadow Country</em> won the 2008 National Book Award. The award is a triumph for Matthiessen, who spent 30 years putting the book into shape, and whose fiction writing has always been overshadowed by his nonfic

Peter Matthiessen won one for perfectionists everywhere last week, said Hillel Italie in the Associated Press. The author’s Shadow Country, a one-volume rewrite of a trilogy of novels he’d never been satisfied with, took home the National Book Award for fiction, beating out 2008’s fully original works. The 900-page novel, based on the real-life story of a murderous Florida sugar magnate, took Matthiessen only three decades to put into award-winning shape. He spent seven of those years just distilling the trilogy. “There’s hardly a sentence in the whole damn thing that’s exactly the same,” he says.

Matthiessen’s victory is doubly sweet because his fiction writing has previously been overshadowed by his non­fiction, said Charles McGrath in The New York Times. In truth, Matthiessen only turned to magazine writing to pay his bills when he discovered, in the 1950s, that he “couldn’t cut the mustard” as a novelist. By the time he won a nonfiction National Book Award for 1979’s The Snow Leopard, a generation of readers considered him primarily an environmental journalist. Shadow Country’s triumph might change people’s perceptions. But it hasn’t changed the writer himself. Already, the 81-year-old champ is joking that he’d like another crack at polishing the book again. “The truth is, I can hardly bear to go back,” he says. “I immediately see an adverb that should come out. It kills me.”

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