When you call John McPhee on the phone, he is instantly John McPhee. McPhee is now 86 years old, and each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access. I was calling to arrange a visit to Princeton, N.J., where McPhee lives and teaches writing. He was going to give me driving directions. He asked where I was coming from. I told him the name of my town, about 100 miles away.
“I’ve been there,” McPhee said, with the mild surprise of someone who has just found a $5 bill in a coat pocket. He proceeded to tell me a story of the time he had a picnic at the top of our local mountain, with a small party that included the wife of Alger Hiss, the former United States official who, at the height of McCarthyism, was disgraced by allegations of spying for the Russians. The picnic party rode to the top, McPhee said, on the incline railway, an old-timey conveyance that has been out of operation for nearly 40 years, and which now marks the landscape only as a ruin: abandoned tracks running up a scar on the mountain’s face, giant gears rusting in the old powerhouse at the top. Hikers stop and gawk and wonder what the thing was like.
“It was amazing,” McPhee said. “A railroad created by the Otis Elevator Company. An incline of 60-something percent.”
Then he started giving me directions — 87, 287, Route 1 — until eventually I admitted that I was probably just going to follow the directions on my phone. McPhee kept going for a few seconds, suggesting another road or two, but finally he gave up.
“Well,” he said. “The machine will be telling you what to do.”
As soon as we said goodbye, I checked McPhee’s facts. The incline railway was, indeed, designed by the Otis Elevator Company, with an average incline of 65 percent — in its heyday, it was one of the steepest railways of its kind on earth. These were things I had not known about a structure that is visible from my house, that I look at every day of my life.
McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.
McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and United States senator who was the subject of McPhee’s first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” was one of the organizers. “You can’t celebrate somebody who doesn’t want to be celebrated,” he told me.
As I spoke to people about McPhee — editors, students, friends, colleagues — I got the sense that they had all been waiting, respectfully, for decades for the chance to gush about him in public. McPhee has profiled hundreds but never been profiled. Almost everyone expressed surprise that he had agreed to such a thing. His focus has generally been outward; he writes, as he likes to put it, about “real people in the real world.” In recent years, however, his writing has become more personal: He has written essays about his mother and father, his childhood, his grandchildren. McPhee’s new book, “Draft No. 4,” takes us about as deep into his singular mind as we are likely to get. It is about the writing process itself.
Every book about writing addresses, in one way or another, the difficulty of writing. Not just the technical problems (eliminating clutter, composing transitions) but the great existential agony and heebie-jeebies and humiliation involved — the inability to start, to finish, or to progress in the middle. This is one of the genre’s great comforts: learning that you are not alone in your suffering. William Zinsser: “It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.” Annie Dillard: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.” Anne Lamott: “Your mind has become a frog brain that scientists have saturated with caffeine.”
McPhee embraces this tradition. In his preface to “Annals of the Former World,” he calls writing “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor.” (The first time I read this, I put a large star in the margin.) In “Draft No. 4,” McPhee writes of his “inability to get going until 5 in the afternoon” and his “animal sense of being hunted.” And yet this doubt, he writes, “is a part of the picture — important and inescapable.”
Much of the struggle, for McPhee, has to do with structure. “Structure has preoccupied me in every project,” he writes, which is as true as saying that Ahab, on his nautical adventures, was preoccupied by a certain whale. McPhee is obsessed with structure. He sweats and frets over the arrangement of a composition before he can begin writing. He seems to pour a whole novel’s worth of creative energy just into settling which bits will follow which other bits.
The payoff of that labor is enormous. Structure, in McPhee’s writing, carries as much meaning as the words themselves. What a more ordinary writer might say directly, McPhee will express through the white space between chapters or an odd juxtaposition of sentences. It is like Morse code: a message communicated by gaps.
The first time I read “The Pine Barrens,” McPhee’s 1968 novella-length portrait of an ecologically odd region of southern New Jersey where forests of dwarf pine trees grow out of sandy soil, its opening paragraph struck me as unnecessarily dull. I wanted razzle-dazzle, jokes, aphorisms, fireworks displays. I wanted Joan Didion (“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”) or Hunter S. Thompson (“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”) or Tom Wolfe (“Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia; hernia, HERNia … ”).
McPhee, I thought, had wasted his chance. The opening paragraph of “The Pine Barrens” reads like an information board on top of a scenic lookout. “From the fire tower on Bear Swamp Hill, in Washington Township, Burlington County, New Jersey, the view usually extends about twelve miles. To the north, forest land reaches to the horizon. The trees are mainly oaks and pines, and the pines predominate. Occasionally, there are long, dark, serrated stands of Atlantic white cedars. … ” This goes on for several pages, at which point I imagine some readers wandering off for a walk in an actual forest.
Why start there? McPhee can do razzle-dazzle. Almost immediately after that hiking-guide of an opening, “The Pine Barrens” unleashes all kinds of color and legend and bizarre characters, including a deep-woods cranberry farmer who invites McPhee into his shack while eating a pork chop in his underwear. “Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in,” he shouts.
Why not start there?
I didn’t discover the answer until the book’s end, some 150 pages later. “The Pine Barrens” leads you right back where it started, to the fire tower on Bear Swamp Hill — except now the view of that spreading forest is charged with sinister context. McPhee stands there, this time, with a city planner, who fantasizes aloud about a thrilling future in which the Pine Barrens will be paved over, replaced not only with a city but also with the largest airport in the world. Supersonic jets will whisk people away to everywhere else on earth. The region, in other words, is under threat, and McPhee, by introducing us to its creatures and lore, has made us care.
When I reached the final sentence — “At the rate of a few hundred yards or even a mile or so each year, the perimeter of the pines contracts” — I turned immediately back to that long opening passage, the encyclopedic panorama of trees. What had seemed dry was now poignant and rich with meaning. In fact, the qualities I had objected to — the quietness, the numbing distance, the sense of taking inventory — had actually, slyly, been the point. The very large quietness of the Pine Barrens, which took such patience and focus to appreciate, was exactly what was under attack. Our modern minds, too, had been paved, and McPhee was peeling that pavement back. It hit me like the end of a great work of fiction. The razzle-dazzle, I realized, had been there all along — it was just suppressed, and there was no way to feel it until you finished the book.
“Draft No. 4” is essentially McPhee’s writing course at Princeton, which he has been teaching since 1975. This imposes a rigid structure on his life. During a semester when he teaches, McPhee does no writing at all. When he is writing, he does not teach. He thinks of this as “crop rotation” and insists that the alternation gives him more energy for writing than he would otherwise have.
McPhee’s students come to his office frequently, for editing sessions, and as they sit in the hallway waiting for their appointments, they have time to study a poster outside his door. McPhee refers to it as “a portrait of the writer at work.” It is a print in the style of Hieronymus Bosch of sinners, in the afterlife, being elaborately tortured in the nude — a woman with a sword in her back, a small crowd sitting in a vat of liquid pouring out of a giant nose, someone riding a platypus. The poster is so old that its color has faded.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, where McPhee has been a staff writer for more than 50 years, took McPhee’s class in 1981. “There was no fancy discussion of inspiration,” he told me. “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic — to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use. It was all about technique. In the same spirit that a medical student, in gross anatomy, would learn what a spleen is and what it does, we would learn how stuff works in a piece of writing.”
Much of that stuff, of course, was structure. One of Remnick’s enduring memories is of watching Professor McPhee sketch out elaborate shapes on the chalkboard. One looked like a nautilus shell, with thick dots marking points along its swirl. Each of these dots was labeled: “Turtle,” “Stream Channelization,” “Weasel.” Down the side of the chart it said, simply, “ATLANTA.” An arrow next to the words “Rattlesnake, Muskrat, etc.” suggested that the swirl was meant to be read counterclockwise.
This inscrutable pictogram turned out to be the structure of a 1973 New Yorker essay called “Travels in Georgia,” in which McPhee describes a long road trip with ecologists who, among other things, eat roadkill. (“Weasel,” in the diagram, refers to the time McPhee ate one.) The piece is one of McPhee’s early magazine masterpieces, its language lovely (“The darkness in there was so rich it felt warm,” he writes of a swamp) and its characters almost unbelievably vivid. (“She had a frog in each hand and saw another frog, so she put one frog into her mouth while she caught the third.”) Like much of McPhee’s work, it sits at some thrilling intersection of short story, essay, documentary, field research and epic poem.
“Draft No. 4” is full of such diagrams. McPhee creates them for everything he writes. Some of the shapes make almost no sense — they look like the late-stage wall sketches of a hermit stuck in a cave. Others are radically simple. “Draft No. 4” begins, for instance, with an alphabetical fraction:
This is the structure of “Encounters With the Archdruid” (1971), possibly my favorite McPhee book. After years of writing traditional profiles, McPhee was bored of the form, so he decided to write a quadruple portrait: one character (D) as revealed through separate interactions with three other characters (A, B and C). He came up with the structure first, then spent months trying to come up with the right people. He finally settled on the pugnacious conservationist David Brower, and set him against three unapologetic developers. After this, McPhee was tempted to experiment even further. “I began to think of a sequence of six profiles,” he writes, “in which a seventh party would appear in a minor way in the first, appear again in greater dimension in the second, grow further in the third, and further in the fourth, fifth and sixth, always in subordinate ratio to the principal figure in each piece until becoming the central figure in the seventh and final profile. However, I backed away from this chimerical construction.”
I asked McPhee why he is so obsessed with structure.
He told me it was because his high school English teacher, Olive McKee, made him outline all of his papers before he wrote them.
But lots of people, I said, had to outline papers in school. Not many ended up devoting the meat of their adult lives to scribbling byzantine diagrams all over the place. Perhaps there was a deeper psychological cause — something about childhood, maps, his father, anatomy?
“Not consciously,” McPhee said, cheerfully. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not right.”
John McPhee lives, and has almost always lived, in Princeton. I met him there in a large parking lot on the edge of campus, next to a lacrosse field, where he stood waiting next to his blue minivan. He wore an L.L. Bean button-down shirt with khaki pants and New Balance sneakers. The top half of his face held glasses, the bottom a short white beard that McPhee first grew, unintentionally, during a canoe trip in the 1970s and has not shaved off since. He is soft-spoken, easy and reserved. Although McPhee possesses intimidating stores of knowledge — he told me, as we walked around campus, the various geological formations that produced the stone used in the buildings — he seems to go out of his way to be unintimidating. Whenever we stepped outside, he put on a floppy hat.
McPhee proceeded to show me every inch of Princeton, campus and city, narrating as we went. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone so thoroughly identified with a place. His memories are archaeological, many layers deep. Not 30 seconds into our orienting drive, we passed the empty lot where he used to play tackle football as a child, and where, at age 10, he first tasted alcohol. (“One thing it wasn’t was unpleasant,” he wrote recently.) The lot is no longer empty; it is occupied by a new house, boxy and modern. I asked McPhee if he felt any animosity toward the structure for stomping out his memories.
“No,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of stomping grounds stomped out.”
McPhee was born in 1931. His father was the university’s sports doctor, and as a boy McPhee galloped after him to practices and games. By age 8, he was running onto the field alongside Princeton’s football team, wearing a custom-made miniature jersey. He played basketball in the old university gym, down the hall from his father’s office; when the building was locked, he knew which windows to climb in. McPhee was small and scrappy, and he played just about every sport that involved a ball. To this day, he serves as a faculty fellow of men’s lacrosse, observing Princeton’s practices and standing on the sidelines during games.
Every summer growing up, McPhee went to a camp in Vermont called Keewaydin, where his father was the camp doctor. One of his grandsons goes there today. (“I have 200 grandchildren,” McPhee told me; the number is actually 10.) McPhee speaks of Keewaydin as paradise, and his time there established many of the preoccupations of his life and work: canoeing, fishing, hiking. “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college,” he writes in “Draft No 4.” “I checked off more than 90 percent.” Keewaydin put McPhee into deep contact with the American land, and introduced him to the challenge of navigation — how the idealized abstractions of plans and maps relate to the fertile mess of the actual world. The camp’s infirmary is now officially named after McPhee’s father. McPhee’s own name still sits in the rafters, an honor for having been the second-most-accomplished camper in 1940, when he was 9.
On the center console of McPhee’s minivan was a 10-CD set of “Lolita,” read by Jeremy Irons. The entire back of the van was occupied by a bicycle, standing upright. McPhee drove me by the house where both Aaron Burrs lived — the father, who was Princeton’s second president, and the son, who shot Alexander Hamilton. We passed, many times, the Firestone Library. (“Interesting structure,” McPhee said. “Most of it is underground.”) We saw his childhood home, tucked into leafy streets named after trees. Everything was incredibly green. It was a great year for foliage, McPhee said, because of all the rain.
He pointed to a house with columns.
“See it?” he said. “Einstein.”
We followed Einstein’s walk to work, which included a stroll down two rows of mighty sycamores, between which the great man would pause, occasionally, to watch local boys playing football. Those local boys included John McPhee. We stepped into the old basketball gym, where his father worked and where Bill Bradley played, and also into the new gym, a vast arcing space that looks like a blockbuster sci-fi set. “This is a hell of an interesting structure,” McPhee said, with admiration.
McPhee is a homebody who incessantly roams. He inherited Princeton and its Ivy League resources as a kind of birthright, but he comes at the place from an odd angle: He was not the son of a banker or a politician or some glamorous alumnus but of the sports doctor. His view of the university is practical, hands-on — it is, to him, like a big intellectual hardware store from which he can pull geologists and historians and aviators and basketball players, as needed, to teach him something. He is able to run off to Alaska or Maine or Switzerland or Keewaydin because he always knows where he is coming back to.
“I grew up in the middle of town,” McPhee said. “It’s all here.”
McPhee took me to his office in the geology building, in a fake medieval turret that, before he moved in, was crowded with paint cans. Now its walls are full of maps: the Pacific Ocean floor, United States drainage, all the world’s volcanoes. On the carpet in the corner of the room, a box sat stuffed with dozens more, from the center of which protruded, almost shyly, a folded map of Guayaquil, Ecuador. His enormous dictionary, open to the letter P, sat on top of a minifridge. Multiple shelves were loaded with books published by former students, above which stood framed photos of McPhee’s wife, Yolanda, and his four daughters.
McPhee sat down at his computer and clicked around. Green text appeared on a black screen. That was all: green text. No icons, rulers, or scrollbars.
McPhee began to type in command lines.
Up came portions of his book “The Founding Fish.” He typed in further commands, and hunks of green text went blinking around: a complete inventory of his published articles; his 1990 book, “Looking for a Ship.”
I felt as if I were in a computer museum, watching the curator take his favorite oddity for a spin. McPhee has never used a traditional word processor in his life. He is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in “Draft No. 4.” Kedit was created in the 1980s and then tailored, by a friendly Princeton programmer, to fit McPhee’s elaborate writing process.
The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project — every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit — and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)
Every writer does some version of this: gathering, assessing, sorting, writing. But McPhee takes it to an almost-superhuman extreme. “If this sounds mechanical,” McPhee writes of his method, “its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated just the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.”
McPhee’s next book, “The Patch,” will be a collection of previously uncollected work reaching all the way back to his first magazine job, starting in the late 1950s, when he wrote celebrity profiles for Time magazine — often without actually meeting the celebrity. (“He looked like a big basset hound who had just eaten W.C. Fields,” he wrote about Jackie Gleason.) If that sounds straightforward, McPhee has decided to make it not so. He has turned it into another structural challenge. “The Patch” will gather fragments of the old work, arranged by McPhee into a pattern that pleases him, out of order, like patches in a quilt. (“I’m still trying to get my head around it,” Alex Star, McPhee’s current editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, told me.)
The title piece of “The Patch” is a short essay that McPhee wrote about the death of his father. It is, in its way, as revealing as anything he has ever written. Fishing, McPhee writes, was his father’s “best way of being close.” In the essay, he finds himself alone in a hospital room with his father, who has suffered a debilitating stroke. McPhee doesn’t know what to do, and so he begins, spontaneously, to talk about fish, particularly a species that he had recently been out catching in New Hampshire: the aggressively ravenous pickerel. “Pickerel that have been found in the stomachs of pickerel,” McPhee writes, “have in turn contained pickerel in their stomachs.”
I went on in this manner, impulsively blurting out everything I could think of about the species, now and again making comparisons and asking him questions — did he remember the sand sharks off Sias Point? the rainbows of Ripton? the bullhead he gutted beside Stony Brook that flipped out of his hand and, completely gutless, swam away? — to which I expected no answers, and got none.
It is a touching scene of laconic masculine love — emotion expressed not directly but through the medium of shared wilderness activities. After which McPhee does something structurally magical. There is a section break, some white space, and then a paragraph of fish facts that, in the context of his father’s impending death, reads like a prose poem:
With those minutely oscillating fins, a pickerel treads water in much the way that a hummingbird treads air. If the pickerel bursts forth to go after prey, it returns to the place it started from, with or without the prey. If a pickerel swirls for your fly and misses, it goes back to the exact spot from which it struck. You can return half an hour later and it will be there. You can return at the end of the day and it will be there. You can go back next year and it will be there.
McPhee’s great theme has always been conservation, in the widest possible sense of the word: the endless tension between presence and absence, staying and leaving, existence and the void. It is, of course, a losing battle. Our fathers will die. The Pine Barrens will contract. Civilization will continue to invade the vast wilderness of Alaska. The course of the Mississippi River once roamed erratically “like a pianist playing with one hand,” but humans put a stop to that. Developers want to mine mountains, pave islands and turn the Grand Canyon into a lake. North America, in McPhee’s telling, is the product of nearly infinite vanished worlds, with species and climates and mountain chains and oceans all lost in the chasms of deep time — so far gone that even the most brilliant geologists are unable to extrapolate all the way back to their original bubbling source.
Everything, for McPhee, is annals of a former world. Even his own work, he is fully aware, will disappear. “The fact is that everything I’ve written is very soon going to be absolutely nothing — and I mean nothing,” he told The Paris Review in 2010. “It’s not about whether little kids are reading your work when you’re 100 years dead or something, that’s ridiculous! What’s 100 years? Nothing.”
And yet McPhee’s work is not melancholy, macabre, sad or defeatist. It is full of life. Learning, for him, is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone. In the grand cosmology of John McPhee, all the earth’s facts touch one another — all its regions, creatures and eras. Its absences and presences. Fish, trucks, atoms, bears, whiskey, grass, rocks, lacrosse, weird prehistoric oysters, grandchildren and Pangea. Every part of time touches every other part of time. You just have to find the right structure.
For now, on the head of the pin that is our current moment, we have our little lives. Every other day, McPhee rides his bicycle 15 miles. Every spring, he teaches. Twice a year, he goes fishing with three of his New Yorker colleagues: Ian Frazier, Mark Singer and Remnick. The friendship runs deep. When I asked Singer what kind of fisherman McPhee is, he started describing the sight of his friend on the river — “He gets out there in a little canoe and sets up below a rapids, he’s got the fly rod in his left hand, he’ll paddle to sort of maneuver around” — and the description got more and more wistful until, finally, it turned into a pure declaration of love. “You just sort of see him in silhouette,” Singer said, “and it’s just — ” He paused, took a breath and was silent for a moment, and then he actually put his hand over his heart. “You know,” he said, “you just want to tell this guy how much you love him.”
McPhee, of course, takes his fishing extremely seriously. He keeps a journal in which he records every possible relevant detail: not only every catch but also its gender and weight, as well as the hours he spent fishing that day, water temperature and the current in the river. There is a category called “AWOLs” — the ones that got away. McPhee even records data about his friends.
“If I say, ‘Gee, how did I do three years ago when we were shad fishing?’ ” Frazier said, “he can tell me how many fish I caught.”
“He knows how many cubic gallons of water are going over the rocks on a given day,” Remnick said. (McPhee, asked about this, gently corrected him: It is cubic feet per second, not cubic gallons.)
McPhee recently did months of strenuous rehab to recover from a shoulder injury so he would be ready to cast when fishing season came. When it came, he was ready.
“He went up to Canada and caught seven salmon,” Frazier said. “Well, that’s how you catch seven salmon.”
As I prepared to leave Princeton, I stacked my John McPhee books on the passenger seat of my car, and there were so many of them that the car thought it was a person and frantically beeped at me to buckle the seatbelt. Before McPhee said goodbye, he started to give me driving directions. Then he remembered about my phone. This reminded him of my trip down. How, he wondered, had I gotten to Princeton? What route did I take? What roads did I drive? He was curious to know how my phone had solved the problem of orientation, how its machine directions had differed from his human directions.
Unfortunately, I told him, I had no idea. I had hardly been paying attention. I just trusted the computer, followed its instructions turn by turn and spent my time daydreaming about this and that.
This answer did not satisfy John McPhee. He wanted to know the roads I took. Didn’t I remember anything?
I told him I remembered passing a water tower. At some point, there was maybe a reservoir. I searched my memory. There had been a sign that said “Fog Area,” after which everything got foggy immediately, as if the sign had summoned the fog. I remembered, on the radio, a D.J. named Clay Pigeon saying that scientists had successfully encoded a 19th-century film of a running horse into a living cell. At some point I hit traffic, and my phone rerouted me onto back roads. I remembered a very old stone house, the Johnson & Johnson headquarters, a park called “Sourland.”
Based on those scraps of information, McPhee was able to reverse-engineer my route.
“Very interesting,” he said. “That’s not the way I would have told you to go.”