Mar 16, 2018
Interview with 2018 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award Winner John McPhee
For the past four years, the National Book Critics Circle has partnered with The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program, allowing the students to interview each of the NBCC Awards Finalists. In addition to building excitement for the Awards Finalist Reading and Ceremony held at the New School March 14th-15th, these interviews have built an intergenerational bridge between the writers of today and tomorrow.
This year, as part of the ongoing collaboration, and in support of the NBCC’s conversation about reading, criticism, and literature that extends from the local to the national, Brooklyn Magazine will publish and promote the interviews between NBCC Finalists and the current students of The New School.
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 (FSG), was published in late 2017 and is dedicated to the writing process. It touches on the emotions, hardships, and frustrations that all young writers face at one point. From oranges to a geological history of North America, his tenured career has been rooted in his quest for knowledge and that is why he more than deserving of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
What differences do you notice now versus when you started teaching?
Well, of course, when I started teaching long ago, nobody was using computers. 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 writing quality, there hasn’t been a trend up or down.
In writing creative non-fiction, 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?
Work specific. I don’t use anything that could be called a formula. I have, however, certain methods that repeat themselves.
All research, for example, is done before the writing begins. 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. Of course, you could violate these principles.
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. How do you make the transition from essay to book; how much do you have to alter the structure of it?
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. The books come along about a year, at least, after something’s been there. 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.
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?
First of all, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that. 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 and 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.
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 you’re trying to go. 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.
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?
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 [your piece] to [all go together]. I wouldn’t turn in a piece that I didn’t think did. My goal is to do the best I can do—and when I get there, I call it a day.
What about those kismet or déjà vu moments when writing—do you ever experience that? If so, how does it influence what you’re working on?
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 that 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: you hear something you just know just belongs in the subject you’re addressing.
Any regrets in terms of your writing?
No, I think I’ve been lucky. 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 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.
What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?
Well, number one, stop worrying. I’m very concerned about writers in their twenties and into their early thirties because I [remember spending] 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.
At the same time, there’s nothing less promising than an overconfident, inexperienced writer. Writers grow slowly. You’ve got to have a certain doubt in order to do a good piece of writing.
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