Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The man who inspired Jaws also inspires Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg

Illustration for article titled The man who inspired Jaws also inspires Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.


The fan: In the liner notes of the new Shearwater album, frontman Jonathan Meiburg writes about the joys and frustrations of life on the road, capturing snapshots of lonely highways at night and gas stations bloated with dusty merchandise. Describing a scene overlooking Painted Desert in Arizona, he writes, “No planes, no cars, no human voices—just ochre-and-cream badlands stretching north to the horizon, under a cloudless, violet sky.”

These lush descriptions will be familiar to fans of Meiburg’s songs, which often evoke the beauty and terrors of the natural world. For the latest album, Fellow Travelers, Shearwater covered songs written by other bands they’ve shared a stage with over the years. But Meiburg doesn’t so much cover other songs as he tears them apart, puts them back together, and re-inhabits them, giving St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” a more acoustic, lived-in feel, and turning Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv The Valley Oh!” into an ecstatic anthem. The album is out November 25 on Sub Pop.

The fanned: Books by Peter Matthiessen, a man who claims to have worked for the CIA, whose book Blue Meridian inspired the movie Jaws, and who was at the forefront of the LSD movement in the ’60s. He’s the only person to have won a National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.

The A.V. Club: It was a little unfair of you to pick all books by Peter Matthiessen. He’s written more than 30.

Jonathan Meiburg: I just desperately didn’t want to talk about birds.

AVC: So why are you a fan of Peter Matthiessen?

JM: Aside from his work, there’s his life in general. He got lucky enough to be born into a time and circumstances where he could check out most of the wild places on planet Earth in the context of some pretty significant historical events. You’re talking about a guy who wrote the book that inspired Jaws; the most consequential of the films made from his work was made by Luis Buñuel [The Young One, based on Matthiessen’s short story “Travelin’ Man”]; he co-founded The Paris Review as a cover for his work with the CIA; he got sued by the FBI for $49 million; he’s been at the forefront of various conservation initiatives. It seems like he’s crammed about five or six lifetimes into his own. I think if there’s a life in the 20th century that I envy, it’s probably his. And, of course, he’s still alive.


AVC: He even has a new book coming out next year.

JM: Does he really?

AVC: It’ll be called In Paradise, and it’s the story of a group that comes together for a weeklong meditation retreat at the site of a World War II concentration camp.


JM: Is it fiction?

AVC: Yes, and it’s coming out spring of 2014.

JM: I saw him speak a couple years ago in Texas, and he said at the time that he was working on two books, and he hated them both, and that he was also working on a memoir of some kind, but he had a deep distrust of memoirs because, he said, “You always come out looking pretty good.” Then he waggled his eyebrows. This guy’s got huge eyebrows. They’re great for waggling.


The thing is, we tend to think of him in the context of The Snow Leopard, because that’s the famous book, which is this great, first-person essay, part of which is just that this guy goes on a long walk. But it manages to be about nearly everything. That was the form he chose for that book—and he never quite revisited that form in the same way. It was clear, listening to him talk, and also thinking about his books, that that’s a really important element of his work: He doesn’t want to repeat himself. So his voice as an author is a little bit on the elusive side. Actually, sometimes he’s not present at all as a narrator in his non-fiction. And then sometimes, as in The Snow Leopard—that’s probably where he’s most present as a character in the books.

AVC: Which is remarkable considering how prolific he’s been. He’s written something like 10 fiction books, and 22 non-fiction.


JM: It’s preposterous. He needs to let some of the rest of us get to work.

My favorite of his fiction is Far Tortuga, which is almost entirely dialogue. It’s dialogue among the members of the crew of this sailing ship that’s harvesting turtles—green turtles and hawksbill turtles—in the Caribbean. And it seems like that would be a difficult thing to follow or to read, but he manages to make it into a pleasure. It’s incredibly experimental; it’s a really wild book. But it’s beautiful. He’s talked about how each character in that book has a song of life that they sing—which is a wonderful way of expressing it, that every person has a particular way that they express themselves, verbally or non-verbally. Especially verbally, in this case, because that was all [Matthiessen] allowed himself to use when dealing with these characters. Some of them don’t talk very much. I think he’s especially good at hearing and mimicking the songs of life of not only people, but also landscapes and animals. The one that runs underneath all of them, and the one he uses the most lightly, is his own song.


AVC: There’s a great quote from him: “I like to hear and smell the countryside, the land that my characters inhabit. I don’t want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape.”

JM: Yeah, exactly, and he seemed very much ahead of his time. When he was born, the world and its wilder places still seemed pretty huge and inexhaustible. Now that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. He sniffed that out pretty early on, in part because he traveled so much. His writing has a kind of muscularity that verges on that old-style machismo sometimes, like Hemingway. But it has that kind of confidence. And yet—Hemingway, for as beautiful as his descriptions of things are—a mountain is just a mountain, a river is just a river. He’s usually way more interested in food than he is in plant and animal communities. [Laughs.] At least in a way of rendering them that’s not purely descriptive, that involves you, that really brings you in.


I love his fondness for really quixotic projects. He did a bunch of traveling—I feel like he looked at the globe in the ’90s and thought, “What’s the big, wild part I haven’t been to? Siberia?” And so he managed to get a couple different books out of that. He wrote one about Siberian tigers and one about cranes and one about Lake Baikal. He had tried his hand as a fiction writer, and also—I think he ran a lobster boat for a while.

AVC: He said he was a failed fisherman.

JM: He said he did a lot of things not very well, including being a spy. He said he was a terrible spy. This is the story he tells now—that The Paris Review was his cover for working for the CIA. It was not yet involved in the more fantastic plots and schemings. He doesn’t seem to have gotten into any trouble by saying that he worked for them, so I think they’re letting him off the hook. He made a comment about how he thought that the people he was dealing with—like French Communists—were kind of humorless, but they were extremely dedicated and serious. His sense was that the United States didn’t have any idea what we were dealing with when we set up this straw man as our enemy, that we weren’t perceiving it correctly, which made him extremely nervous about working for the CIA.


AVC: And now he’s a Buddhist.

JM: Yeah, he became a full-on Buddhist, whatever the equivalent of a priest is. I haven’t read some of his work—like the Nine-Headed Dragon River and journals that he’s published. I’d like to, but there’s just so much of his work—I thought I’d exhausted all of it a few years ago, and then I realized I’d really only gotten through around a third of it.


I’m devoted enough to The Snow Leopard, and it made enough of an impression on me, that I actually sought out the manuscript, which is here in Austin at the Ransom Center at the University Of Texas. The structure for that book is so interesting, and so simple on its face—because it’s just like a journal of what’s going on every day as he’s walking 250 miles through northern Nepal with George Schaller, the biologist. It just seems impossible that he could be doing all the things that he talks about doing and writing all this stuff down at the same time. It just seems superhuman. So I was very curious, if you looked at the notebooks that he was carrying, how much of that was actually on the page, and how much came later. He took the trip in 1973, and the book came out in ’78, so there’s a bit of a gap. I hadn’t read anything about what his process was, but I thought that if I looked at the artifact, I might be able to see it. So I went up into the Ransom Center and put in my little request card and they wheel out a little cart and then there I am, sitting there with the notebooks that he carried through Nepal, from which he wrote The Snow Leopard.

It just seems impossible. It’s like if somebody just walked up and handed you the Mona Lisa and left you alone with it. And it was fascinating. There were passages in there that were straight from the book—really beautiful prose, completely thought out, almost no revisions. There were all kinds of stuff scratched out in multiple colors of ink; you felt like he probably worked his way through the notebooks as he prepared the typescript and would cross pages off as he was done with them. And then, of course, there were some things that didn’t make it into the book at all—like when he talks about, early in the book, some people who present him with a plaster cast of what they think is the footprint of a yeti, and said they had a permit to collect one if they found one. He doesn’t mention this in the book, but in the notebook, he says, “If I had a dead yeti at my feet, I’d probably reserve another bullet for my own head.”


I think there were three or four notebooks; it would have taken many, many days to go through them, and I only spent about six or seven hours there. But it was a very inspiring experience. And there’s a line just by itself that says, “Cruck! My stave makes a blue hole in the snow.” And that line is just sitting right there in the journal, and it’s amazing to see it—it’s just right there on the page as it occurred to him. There’s a Zen-ness to that, too, because it has the quality of shocking you into awareness of the present moment. Like in Shunryu Suzuki’s wonderful book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, there’s a page as you’re turning through the book—you suddenly encounter a blank page with a little drawing of a fly on it. And it appears apropos of absolutely nothing. But the idea, I think, is to surprise you with something that you weren’t expecting, and to shock you into the present. And that book, The Snow Leopard, so much of it—metaphorically and literally—is an attempt to drag himself and his mind out of the past and into the present.

AVC: In the liner notes for Fellow Travelers, you said that it’s also kind of a stepping-stone, that it’s meant to be a step forward and a step back. Are you consciously trying to mimic the expansiveness of a life like Peter Matthiessen’s?


JM: [Laughs.] Oh man. If I could even have a small slice of his ability and experience, I’d take it. I’ve been really lucky in my life to get to go to a lot of really wild and strange places. I wouldn’t want to imitate his writing style, and I wouldn’t want to imitate exactly the things that he’s done, but his approach and his openness—despite pretty intense amounts of reserve and pride and that kind of thing—he’s managed to not close himself off from what he felt the world was offering him. And he’s done it with great courage.

Matthiessen’s famous, though not so much among our generation, I don’t think, and I would encourage anyone who’s interested in him to look beyond The Snow Leopard. If I were going to recommend any of his books after that point, or before it, I’d say The Tree Where Man Was Born, which is about East Africa, and which he wrote just before The Snow Leopard—it’s extraordinary. That’s the thing, he’s just so good at evoking some of these places; even though you get the feeling that he’s not quite sure what he’s doing, he tries to make that into the subject of the book in some ways. And it has a beautiful ending. Also, The Tree Where Man Was Born was published as the kind of book that—it’s sort of strange to me that you don’t see this now—it wasn’t a directly illustrated book, but photographer Eliot Porter had just been to the region and photographed whatever he liked. And so it was a book of really awesome prose accompanied by really awesome photographs. It was a really neat thing. You just don’t see that these days—it’s either pictures or words. I don’t know why, but the pictures and words thing didn’t really catch on.


The Cloud Forest is an earlier one of his that’s kind of picaresque. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he has some amazing adventures anyway. It was part of the inspiration for Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo; he consulted with Werner Herzog and was actually sailed on the ship in Fitzcarraldo before they used it in the movie. And Under The Mountain Wall, about New Guinea, an incredible piece of work, I think, because he’s on that Harvard expedition, the one where Michael Rockefeller disappeared, up into the highlands of New Guinea in the ’60s, and it was the first expedition of its kind. His decision to write about the people up there as if the members of the expedition were not there—it’s pretty incredible.