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The John McPhee Interview: On the Rhythm and "Masochism" of Writing

The writer John McPhee spoke with host Tom Ashbrook on April 16 about life, literature, and the writing craft. It was a notable chat with one of America's greatest non-fiction writers. If you missed it, you can listen back to the entire hour-long segment. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

TOM ASHBROOK: Joining me today from Princeton, New Jersey, is John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of some 30 books, including “Coming Into the Country,” “Giving Good Weight,” and “Annals of the Former World.” He’s been a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine since 1965. His new collection of essays, just out, is “Silk Parachute.”

… It’s great to have you with us, and you’ve dedicated this new collection to grandchildren. And you’ve got a list here, nine names long -- Isobel and Jasper and Leandrao and Livia -- right on down through nine grandkids. I guess that means in fact that you’ve been at this for a while, sir.

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes, I guess so. Isobel, who lives in Chestnut Hill, figured out that if the list were alphabetical, she would be at the top.

TOM ASHBROOK: So it had to be alphabetical.

JOHN MCPHEE: Instead of chronological. There’s no grass growing under her feet.

TOM ASHBROOK: I’ve got so much to ask you. I have to admit I’m a little bit daunted. I’ve been reading since way back when, maybe clicked in around “Coming Into the Country.” But I … read way back and then forward with you. Has your style of writing, the manner in which you sit down and prepare and begin and commence and execute on your writing changed in that time? Has it been consistent? How do you go about it?

JOHN MCPHEE: It’s been very consistent, but it went through the transition from a standard typewriter to a computer, to a lot of things I had scattered around the room on paper that are now organized in the computer. But the way I go about it is really exactly the same.

TOM ASHBROOK: Did that computer introduction have an effect on your writing itself? It’s so kind of physical, and in a way visceral, certainly tangible feeling. Did moving from the key that you push to one that you touch change your sense of the writing itself?

JOHN MCPHEE: I don’t know, I don’t think so. What I do is go through the miserable business of a first draft which is just, you know, masochism, and when I get it done, there’s a bit of a change comes over me, as I get a little calmer about what I’m doing. And I print out this first draft, and one page at a time, I go away from the computer with a clipboard and scribble all over that page. And that’s how the second draft comes to be, and if anything good is going to happen, that’s where it happens.

TOM ASHBROOK: You’re talking with us from Princeton, New Jersey, today and for you this is really deeply home turf. I mean it’s not just college there, but growing up in Princeton as a home town and right on through. We associate you with Alaska and a lot of other terrains. What’s kept you right there in Princeton all these years? What’s kept you there from the get-go?

JOHN MCPHEE: Well, I grew up here, was born here, and I lived in New York for two or three years, and I came down here not so much because it was my home town but because of the university library. I thought if I was going to do the kind of work I like to do, that would be a really good base. So it was the library that kind of drew me back here, I think. I don’t know. But I’ve been here all my life. My daughters think it’s funny. But Princeton’s a fixed foot. I mean, I have got around, you know, from Cyprus to Alaska.

TOM ASHBROOK: And I read somewhere recently that a lot of your subjects come out of topics that were of interest to you going all the way back to your childhood, to high school years anyway. Is that true? That you’re still kind of operating off your fascination list from when you were fifteen years old?

JOHN MCPHEE: It’s very true. I mean, I think it’s true of something like 90 percent of all the pieces long and short that I’ve ever written. But what it amounts to is this: ideas, good ideas for non-fiction, for factual writing, stream by all the time. There’s millions of them. What makes you settle down on one thing that’s going to keep you busy and to some extent unhappy for a while as you wrestle your way through it — and it’s usually, very often, something that has a touchstone in when I was in college or before. For example, the only sports I’ve written about is sports I’ve played in high school.

TOM ASHBROOK: …Do you know when you’re hitting your rhythm? Is there a rhythm that you have to hit before you feel satisfied with a piece of writing?

JOHN MCPHEE: Yes. I couldn’t say exactly what it is, it’s just that you feel satisfied. I mean, you turn things around and around and around in order to make one sentence go. And then it has to relate to the next sentence in a kind of metric way, as well as in what you’re saying. So, yeah, I think about that a lot.

TOM ASHBROOK: But everybody’s got a little bit different rhythm. And I wonder where you would -- if you had to trace the origins of what feels right to you and how that was produced. I mean sometimes I feel like a prisoner of the Old Testament, King James from childhood. I feel like if I write something and it doesn’t have some trace of that rhythm, I never feel satisfied with it. Could you trace yours back?

JOHN MCPHEE: Not that way – I mean to a specific thing. And so I often wonder about it. It’s just I want the thing to sound a certain way. If in the fact-checking process later on, if I have to change something, it makes me nervous because I want not just to get the facts right. But I don’t want the change to lump up the prose. So you’ve got to work on trying to smooth that out, too. But I don’t know where that comes from.

TOM ASHBROOK: Is it, I don’t know, a mother reading bedtime stories, the way she did it? Or the way a grandparent spoke? You don’t have a particular compass setting that you’re aware of when it comes to that?

JOHN MCPHEE: No. I can remember my father driving along in the car. We were driving along to Vermont or something. Every once in a while he’d mutter something, and he obviously liked the sounds of the words that he was attracted to saying. And he just sort of said it to himself. And I see in that little story something that I seem to have picked up, too.

McPhee and Tom went on to discuss everything from canoeing adventures to tips for young writers. You can listen back to the entire interview here.

This program aired on April 22, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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