By Jeffrey Preis
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Winners and Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Jeffrey Preis, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed John McPhee about winning the 2018 NBCC Ivan Sandrof Award.
John McPhee has lived in Princeton, New Jersey for most of his life. He grew up around the campus as a young boy — his father was the athletic department’s physician — and he spent his undergraduate career there. He currently teaches a class on creative nonfiction — a genre some say he helped pave, and has taught it since 1974. McPhee has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than 50 years and his book, Annals of the Former World, won a Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 1999.
His last book , Draft No. 4,, was published in late 2017 and it’s dedicated to the writing process. The book touches on the emotions, hardships and frustrations that all young writers face at one point — I can confirm this to be true. He’s covered a range of subjects from an entire book on oranges to a geological history of North America and an essay on The Army Corps of Engineers attempt to control the Mississippi River. His tenured career has been rooted in his quest for knowledge and he is more than deserving of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jeffrey Preis (JP): What differences do you notice now versus when you started teaching?
John McPhee (JM): Well, of course, when I started teaching long ago, nobody was using computers then. There was no internet. I got into writing on a computer in 1984 which is fairly early and of course, that’s what we all do now. As far as the quality in their writing, there hasn’t been a trend up or down. They’re a selected group from an applicant pool of 50 or 60 or 70, and they’re good at what they do.
JP: In writing creative nonfiction, the writer’s skill in conveying a sense of place and local color can be key to his success. Do you use a formula or is it work specific?
JM: Work specific. I don’t use anything that could be called a formula. I have, however, certain methods that repeat themselves. In certain basic things, for example, all research is done before the writing begins, in distinct phases. Of course, you could violate these principles. The lead is written before the actual structuring is done and then you figure out what the structure is and where you’re going to go and then you go back and write the rest of it. As far as atmosphere and local color, that’s a matter of soaking up everything you can, perhaps in what you have spent scribbling down [what] you think might be useful later on about the world you’re in out there.
JP: While we're on structure, I read your book, Draft No. Four and you have a section on writer's block that appears towards the end of the book. In the Essay version in The New Yorker, you open up with that section on writer's block.
JM: The first word is “block.”
JP: Exactly. My question is how do you make the transition from essay to book; how much do you have to alter the structure of it?
JM: The pattern is, and has been true for all of my books from the beginning — I’m a New Yorker writer and everything has begun as something for The New Yorker. So, the books come along about a year, at least, after something’s been in The New Yorker. And if it’s a collection of New Yorker pieces, like Draft No. 4, I did that over a period of a number of years. One of [the essays] was in a previous book, but when I put all [the essays] together as a book, I don’t necessarily have to follow the publication dates in The New Yorker. I’d have to look at the book to see what order, but I thought the essay on “Omission” just made a good place to end this book, so that’s why it’s [the last in] this book.
JP: You don't necessarily paint the prettiest picture in terms of the writer's life, you refer to it as the “masochistic, self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.” After so many years, what have you learned most from this lifestyle?
JM: The negative side of it is important, I think. First of all, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that. And I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else but this. But every single day when you face the writing, it’s daunting and, basically what I’m talking about is the part that takes the longest, which is the first draft. After the second draft and the third draft, things are accomplished in a much shorter period of time, and you’ve got some confidence, you’ve got the thing there on paper and you’re working to improve it. So, we’re really talking about first drafts when you don’t really know where you’re going and hope that you can get to wherever it is. And as I said in the book, I think it is rational not to have confidence. Whatever you’ve written before isn’t going to write this one for you.
JP: What autobiographical influences do you nice in your writing? For example, did your love of kayaking and fishing lead you to the Atchafalaya River?
JM: No, what led me to the Atchafalaya was that a daughter of mine took a course with Robert Coles at Harvard. Robert Coles was teaching Walker Percy and Sarah got totally zonked with Walker Percy and she wanted to see Walker Percy country and [asked me if I’d] take her there on her spring vacation. I thought, ‘fine, we’ll go to New Orleans…but, what’s in it for Dad?’ [I got a hold of someone who] told me about Charlie Fryling at LSU…and the upside of that was that I got in Charlie Fryling’s canoe, Sarah too, and we [went] into the Atchafalaya. The story about [the Atchafalaya], I didn’t know about it at all…and [my friend] set me up with Charlie because she thought it was interesting. After hearing about it all day long, I thought so too. Of course, paddling around in the swamp was my cup of tea.
JP: Writing teachers often tell their students, especially when analyzing books that nothing is there accidentally, meaning, the author does not purposely include this or that detail, but upon completion, the writer has a sense of holistic completion that everything seems to go together. Do you notice this in your writing, especially given that a lot of your writing is heavily vetted by multiple departments at The New Yorker?
JM: I don’t know, listening to that quote and everything, it certainly sounds familiar. Of course, that’s what one does when one starts a project and collects the raw materials for the piece. And in the end, you want it to fit that description. I wouldn’t turn in a piece that I didn’t think did. [As far as] examples, well, really, just anything. That’s your goal. My goal is to do the best I can do, not the best that ever was done because I can’t do that. But I can do the best I can do and when I get there, I call it a day.
JP: What about those kismet or déjà vu moments when writing — do you ever experience that and, if so, how does it influence what you’re working on?
JM: That happens all the time and it doesn’t exclusively or even a majority of the time occur when you’re writing. It occurs for me when I’m out interviewing. Things occur that you just know are going to be significant in the book. At the end of my time in the Swiss Army, I was attached to some unit, and these guys [were] doing a war exercise where it was all concocted. Word comes in on the walkie-talkie that a petite atomic bomb had exploded. Well, I heard that, and I scribbled down exactly what the message was and I also thought, ‘right there, there’s my ending.’ Whatever my piece of writing is going to be, that’s how it’s going to end. This kind of thing happens, from time to time, when you’re interviewing when you hear something you just know just belongs in the subject you’re addressing.
JP: Any regrets in terms of your writing?
JM: No, I think I’ve been lucky. I got into a form of writing after trying different things. This whole business is about real people and real places and that somehow fit my psychological nature better than poetry or novel-writing and you find that out by experimentation. I feel lucky that I got into that good and early and tried other things and that I felt comfortable in this niche. William Shawn (editor of The New Yorker from 1952-1987) talked about this all the time — young writers take more time, he said, to figure out what kind of writers they are. I started doing this when I was pretty young and I’m very glad I got into this niche because I feel very comfortable there and I feel like that’s where I belong. I was also very lucky to get connected to The New Yorker where Shawn seemed to be particularly interested in long-fact writing. That’s what I do, so that was pretty lucky.
JP: What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?
JM: Well, number one, I say stop worrying! I’m very concerned about writers in their twenties and into their early thirties because I spent most of my time fretting and fussing over the fact that I didn’t have confidence. I don’t like to see other people go through that. There’s nothing less promising than an over confident, inexperienced writer. That makes no sense at all. You’ve got to have a certain doubt in order to do a good piece of writing. I’d do anything I could to keep the thirty-year-old from biting his nails. When I turned 30, I was working at Time Magazine and I thought that that was terminal, that I was never going to get along with anything else, that as a writer, [I wondered] what kind of future did I have? I remember going into some restaurant on my 30th birthday in the Upper East Side and feeling particularly gloomy because I turned 30. When I tell these stories to young writers, about the fact that I started sending things to The New Yorker when I was 18-years-old and [didn’t sell] my first little thing to them until I was 31, and it was a little thing indeed. When I turned 33, I sold them something that changed my life and I’ve been there ever since. I don’t tell that story to depress anyone, I tell that story because this is how it worked for me. Writers grow slowly. And that’s why those years are taking the time.
John McPhee began contributing to The New Yorker in 1963. He has written more than a hundred pieces for the magazine, among them a Profile of Senator Bill Bradley during his days as a Princeton basketball star, an examination of modern-day cattle rustling, and several multipart series on a wide range of subjects, including Alaska; a voyage on a merchant ship down the west coast of South America as a Person in Addition to Crew; a stint with the Swiss Army; and the writing process. Between 1955 and 1956, he wrote for television, before joining Time, where he contributed pieces about show business until 1964. He has taught writing at Princeton University since 1975, and in 1982 was awarded Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Award for service to the nation. He is the author of twenty-eight books, all of them based on his New Yorker writings. Among them are “Coming Into the Country,” which was nominated for a National Book Award; “Encounters with the Archdruid”; “The Control of Nature”; “Looking for a Ship”; “The Ransom of Russian Art”; and “Annals of the Former World,” which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. His most recent books are “Uncommon Carriers,” and “Silk Parachute,” a collection of pieces ranging from North American lacrosse to the Cretaceous chalk of Europe.
Jeffrey Preis was born and raised in New Orleans, and moved to New York City in the Fall of 2016 to begin a Master’s in The New School’s Creative Writing program. He currently interns for The Points Guy and is working on his thesis on the Mississippi River and Louisiana.