National Book Award winner and Zen master Matthiessen is author of, among others, "The Snow Leopard," "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," "Far Tortuga" and "Wildlife in America." He writes about vanishing cultures, oppressed people and exotic wildlife and landscapes, combining scientific observation with lyrical, intellectual prose. Matthiessen co-founded the Paris Review and was its first fiction editor. Recorded May 2, 2007.
My stories can be described as “slice of life” stories. In other words, a confined, very specific setting begets a character and defines their unique experience. The defined borders of the environment allow the setting to come alive as much as the characters: the pressures of prep school life motivate three friends to push boundaries with dire consequences; Brooklyn through the eyes of an orthodox Jewish girl becomes a vehicle to highlight specific cultural values and to highlight a foreign land contained in the very familiar; a cartoon artist’s daily route through the streets of Providence catalyzes character transformation when that daily routine is interrupted by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; feeling out of place in a city so different from home can result in an affliction of the mind attributed to intense nostalgia and loneliness; and finally, the city of New York becomes as much a part of the narrative as the boys’ journey and coming of age. I credit Henry David Thoreau as my inspiration for the following exploration and the title piece of this collection. Through his experiment in living, Thoreau arrived a place where he found the profound in the very minute: he describes connecting on an intimate level with pine needles, seeing Greek battles in the way that ants marched to and from home, and the connection between Walden Pond and the sky, “sky water”, in a moment of transcendence on a sunny afternoon. The meat of a story and of a character is in the details. For example, the answer to the question of why a certain character chose to wear a particular pair of shoes could be the key to ultimately understanding them. The tradition of the midrash, stories collected in the Talmud from medieval rabbis that attempt to anecdotally explain scripture, also provided a model for the overall structure of many of the stories and the dialogue itself embedded in the stories. Midrashim are told in a manner similar to that of a Socratic dialogue where one rabbi poses a question and others answer with an opposing view. They argue back and forth, in often humorous exchanges, until it results in an absolutely unexpected, yet satisfactory, philosophical conclusion. This structure explores not only the extremes of the larger issue at stake in a story but also highlights the reality of dealing with the person on the other side of the table who may have wildly different life experiences and opinions than you. My goal was ultimately, through my own artistic lens, to capture something human and relatable in each of these stories. I hope that the reader finds that something comes alive for them as well, either in the characters, the plot, or the environments.