SANIBEL — The legend of Edgar Watson has been on Peter Matthiessen's mind for more than 40 years.
"I remember around 1965 hearing about this ruin of a house down in the Ten Thousand Islands, that it had belonged to a man who was shot to death by his neighbors," Matthiessen says.
"I thought, why? It just lodged in my head."
Indeed. Matthiessen has written fictional versions of Watson's life and death not once, not twice, but three times. The third version, Shadow Country, was published last week. "It's taken a very big fraction of my whole writing life. I've spent about 30 years on this project."
Although he was born in New York and has lived much of his life on Long Island, Matthiessen has spent time in Florida since boyhood. Visiting his siblings in Sanibel recently, he was right in his new novel's territory on the southwest Florida coast.
Matthiessen, who is 80, looks much younger, sitting barefoot in the sun after a morning of kayaking around the island. A recipient of the National Book Award, co-founder of the Paris Review and longtime New Yorker writer, he is one of the lions of environmental writing. His nonfiction books include The Tree Where Man Was Born, The Snow Leopard and The Birds of Heaven.
But, Matthiessen says, "I feel my fiction is what will last." His eight novels include At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga and those versions of Edgar Watson's story.
Watson was a real person: The imposing, auburn-haired sugar planter was shot to pieces in October 1910 by a mob of his neighbors at Chokoloskee, south of Naples, amid rumors that he had murdered several people. (That's not a spoiler — Watson dies in Shadow Country's prologue, and several times thereafter.)
Matthiessen says his first notes on the book date to 1978, though it had been "stewing for a couple of years before that." Famed as a meticulous researcher, he scoured the records on Watson and collected the myths that surrounded him. "I talked to everybody over 95 in southwest Florida."
Except, that is, Watson's surviving relatives: "They wouldn't get anywhere near me." But he gradually formed relationships with some, and after his first Watson books were published, he received "a very, very touching letter" from one of Watson's daughters,
then 90, who wrote, "You gave me back my father."
Watson gripped his imagination in part, Matthiessen says, because his story was "a metaphor for the Florida frontier. It's all there, the racism, the corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, the isolation of the Indian peoples."
His first attempt to write about all that was a massive 1,500-page manuscript that "terrified" his publisher, Random House. So he carved it into three books, Killing Mr. Watson (published in 1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999).
The Watson Trilogy was acclaimed by critics, and Killing Mr. Watson was a bestseller, but Matthiessen wasn't satisfied with his second attempt to write the story. "Who was it that said a work of art is never completed, only abandoned?"
He decided he'd rewrite it as one book. "I thought it would take a year or two to take it apart and put everything back together." It took about seven years.
Matthiessen says the second portion of Shadow Country, corresponding to Lost Man's River, was the most radically rewritten. "I thought the first and third parts were pretty strong, but I felt I could strengthen them too."
With Shadow Country in print, Matthiessen says he isn't sure what he'll be writing next. "I was just in the last spasms of this in December."
But, he says, he has been cleaning out his office in Long Island. "It's beyond belief. I had never let anyone in there for 30 years.
"There's all sorts of fascinating stuff in there."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com.