Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Writing Life

Tuesday’s New York Times had a great article about author Peter Matthiessen, a nominee for this year’s National Book Award for fiction. Mr. Matthiessen’s entry into the competition--Shadow Country--was controversial because it was actually a rewritten compilation of three of his previous novels presented as one novel. Some questioned whether the book should have been eligible to enter the competition.

The Times interviewed Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation. Mr. Augenbraum “explained that the foundation ruled twice, in effect, on the book’s eligibility — once when Shadow Country was submitted, and again when the panel of judges asked for guidelines, without mentioning a specific title. ‘We allow collections of previously published material,’ he said. ‘Collected poems, collected essays, short-story collections — books like that. We don’t allow reprints, but we didn’t consider this a reprint. There’s a lot of new writing here’.”

The following is from Publishers Weekly's review of Shadow Country:
Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer . . . Edgar J. Watson is brought to life through marvelous eyewitness accounts and journal entries from friends, family and enemies alike. Book One (formerly Killing Mister Watson) creates a vivid portrait of the untamed southwest Florida of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recounts Watson's life . . . beginning with his arrival in south Florida and replaying key events leading up to his being gunned down in the swamps.

Watson . . . is roundly despised and feared, so much so that parents frighten their children into obedience by threatening a visit from Watson. The second book takes place several decades after Watson's murder and relates the travails of Watson's son, Lucius . . . as he investigates the contradictory claims and rumors (like that of a Watson Pay Day, when Watson would murder his farmhands rather than pay them) . . .

The final piece is perhaps the best, taking the form of Watson's chilling memoir. Recounting his life, from the years of paternal abuse right up until his jaw-dropping perspective on the day of his death . . . When Watson delivers his final line, it's as close as most will come to witnessing a murder.
My favorite part of the New York Times article was when it discussed Matthiessen's early life as a writer: “. . . as a fiction writer, he said, he ‘couldn’t cut the mustard.’ He had a wife and a family and wasn’t making any money. His agent at the time was the legendarily hard-bitten Bernice Baumgarten, wife of the novelist James Gould Cozzens, who sent back his first novel with the note: ‘Dear Peter: James Fenimore Cooper wrote this book 150 years ago, only he wrote it better’.”

Read the New York Times article here.

The winners of the National Book Award will be announced next Wednesday in New York.

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