November 2018

John McPhee

Annals of a long career
Interview by

Despite the fact that John McPhee’s delightful new collection of essays, The Patch, is his 33rd book, he thinks it’s “ridiculous” to call him a prolific writer.

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Despite the fact that John McPhee’s delightful new collection of essays, The Patch, is his 33rd book, he thinks it’s “ridiculous” to call him a prolific writer.

“Here’s the thing,” he says during a call to his home in Princeton, New Jersey. “Every day you go over there [to his office at Princeton University] and try to get going. And you don’t get going, and you don’t get going—and you spend your whole day staring at the wall. Then a little panic sets in because you’re getting nothing done. Then maybe between 5 and 6 in the afternoon, you get something done. Then you go home, and the next day is the same, and the next day is the same. In other words, you spend most of your time not only alone, but getting nothing done!”

McPhee says he imagines the “something” at the end of day—a paragraph or two—as a few drops in the bucket. “If you do that 365 days or 330 days a year, the bucket is going to have some water in it.”

But still, a lot of people haven’t written 33 books, right? “And a lot of people aren’t 87 years old,” he replies, laughing.

At 87, McPhee is still writing and teaching his influential undergraduate writing class at Princeton, where he grew up as the son of a University team physician. McPhee has an office in Guyot Hall in “a kind of fake medieval turret that used to be a paint closet,” and he rides his hybrid bicycle roughly 2,000 miles a year.

Readers of The Patch first learn about McPhee’s bicycle riding in an amusing essay called “The Orange Trapper.” But while a bike getaway is an important part of the story, the essay is really about McPhee’s obsession with collecting golf balls. The titular “Orange Trapper” is a device he uses to sate his particular appetite. McPhee writes that he quit playing golf altogether at age 24, but as this and another great essay (“Linkland and Bottle”) convey, he’s still very interested in the details of the sport and the changing nature of the ball itself.

“My fascination with golf was from the war years, when I was a little kid and caddying at a local golf course. [The scarcity during] the Second World War made it clear that hunting for balls was like a treasure hunt. That’s the source of my compulsion to find golf balls.”

Clearly, McPhee is also obsessed with the arduous task of producing precise, invigorating nonfiction narratives. He is probably best known for his stunning narrative of America’s geological history, sections of which appeared over the years in the New Yorker magazine and in separate books. When collected into the single, strapping volume Annals of the Former World, McPhee was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. But he has written books on an astonishing range of other subjects—oranges, the Alaskan wilderness, America’s nuclear power technology and basketball player Bill Bradley, to name a few. McPhee’s writing and teaching has influenced generations of writers of literary nonfiction.

The range of McPhee’s interests is on joyous display in the second section of his new book, which he calls “an album quilt.”

“It’s called an album quilt because each block in an album quilt is unique; it doesn’t repeat the other blocks.”

“It occurred to me that there was a lot of material that I had written in various places, including for private purposes, that had never been in book form, and there was a lot of fun in some of it,” he explains. “I wanted to do a piece with fragments of that stuff, fragments that would be amusing and interesting to read in 2018.”

So over time, McPhee went through years of material, amassing a collection of some 250,000 words from nearly 60 years of writing. He threw out almost 200,000 words in the editing process.

“The goal was not to preserve anything. I kept 56 items, some of which are a fraction of a page, and the longest of which are about four pages. I wrote a cover story in Time magazine on Sophia Loren, for example, and there are two or three paragraphs from that story because they were the ones that fit this idea. I put them together without dates or an index. I wanted it to have a kind of antique impression, talking about Jackie Gleason, talking about Richard Burton, a passage on Cary Grant and so on. It’s called an album quilt because each block in an album quilt is unique; it doesn’t repeat the other blocks. That seemed like a good title.”

McPhee dedicates The Patch to his 10 grandchildren. He lists them in alphabetical order—he doesn’t want to appear to express preference. “My grandchildren are much beloved to me,” he says.

The title piece of the collection is about McPhee’s father. The essay describes in exquisite, meditative detail fishing with a friend for chain pickerel, a tricky fish other fishers consider a nuisance, around a patch of lily pads on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. The magic arises from how he links this memory of fishing with the stroke and eventual death of his father. These brief nine pages are a beautiful encapsulation of all that makes McPhee a great writer.

“There’s no accident that this piece is number one in the collection,” McPhee says. “And the number one reason that I am pleased that this collection is going to exist is that this piece is in it.”

This poignant essay—along with other gems—make The Patch worthy of any curious, thoughtful reader’s attention.


This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Yolanda Whitman.

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The Patch

The Patch

By John McPhee
ISBN 9780374229481

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