Legendary Author John McPhee on Procrastination, Dread, and His Endless Final Project

In John McPhee’s 58 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker—one of the longest tenures in the magazine’s history—he’s produced more than a hundred pieces, stories that chronicle the lives of geologists, truckers, soldiers, outdoorsmen, merchant marines, architects, environmentalists, athletes, and an iconic fruit. Many of his stories have grown into books, some 32 in all. One of them, a 20-year writing project that tells the story of North America’s geological formation, Annals of the Former World, earned McPhee the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Until recently, he taught at Princeton, unpacking the art of the profile to generations of students in a nonfiction seminar that produced such luminaries as his current boss at The New Yorker, David Remnick. More recently, he demystified his craft in the 2017 essay collection Draft No. 4: Notes on the Writing Process

So, you might ask, what’s left for the 92-year-old nonfiction master? As it turns out, a collection of the work he couldn’t quite make work. For the past four years, McPhee has been compiling a series of stories he never managed to finish, stitching them together into a kind of patchwork portrait of his career. Tabula Rasa, released in July by his longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, brings together an eclectic lineup of pieces—an account of his time as a night watchman at Princeton; memories of the writing advice he received from his tennis partner, Jaws author Peter Benchley; and, in a kind of follow-up to his classic book Oranges, an examination of Bing cherries, his actual favorite fruit. True to form, these fragments tell a vivid story about the life of one of America’s most curious writers, a man always on the lookout for the next idea. 

McPhee describes the collection as an “old-people project,” by which he means the kind of endless pursuit that keeps one old—as in alive. “You’re no longer old when you’re dead,” he writes. GQ spoke with him via landline phone from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he still “primes the pump” by writing on legal pads between bouts of writer’s block. A gentle talker with a dry sense of humor, he practically speaks in italics. “Nothing goes well in a piece of writing until it is in its final stages or done,” he points out. Tabula Rasa can, of course, be read as McPhee’s roundabout acknowledgement that his own life story might be entering its final chapters. But it’s not finished yet. After all, he writes, this is why titled the collection Tabula Rasa: Volume 1.

GQ: You used to write celebrity profiles for Time, sort of like the things that run in this magazine, which is hard to imagine given your career focus on the environment. Can you tell me why you seemed to never dabble in the odd celebrity profile or cultural piece ever again?

McPhee: I was the show business editor of Time. I wrote two or three pieces every week in the show business section. I also wrote a number of show business cover stories. When that era came to an end and I started writing for The New Yorker, I had no interest anymore in writing about show business. I’d just plain had enough. I wasn’t turned off or sour or anything like that. It was just enough. I just dropped show business right there. I never tried consciously to do that. It would be a totally unconscious thing. I wasn’t consciously avoiding anything except maybe politics. I thought that enough was written about national politics, and I wasn’t drawn to do that in any direct way.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top