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John McPhee: The Writing Life


We’ll talk with the great master of literary journalism, John McPhee about his craft and his collection of personal essays, Silk Parachute.

Princeton University Professor John McPhee, in Princeton, N.J., April 12, 1999. (AP)

If you’re a fan of literary nonfiction, John McPhee is the mountaintop. He’s the master of amazingly-informative, exactingly-sculpted, “you-can-read-it-two-or-three-times” journalism.

His process is exacting, and his attention to detail is exhaustive.

“What I do is go through the miserable business of a first draft,” McPhee says, “which is just, you know, masochism, and when I get it done, there’s a bit of a change comes over me, as I get a little calmer about what I’m doing.”

This hour in an archive edition of On Point, we speak with John McPhee about the writing life.

-Tom Ashbrook

Note: This show was first broadcast April 16, 2010.


John McPhee, author of more than 30 books and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His career as a staff writer for The New Yorker goes back to 1965. His new book is Silk Parachute.

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  • cory

    C’mon! There must be three interns in the building willing to put on a live show. Put up a topic like “Socalism: Evil or inevitable.” You don’t even need a guest, just take calls for an hour on the topic and I promise you’d have over a hundred posted comments by the end of the day. You won’t get 20 posts on this retread topic.

    Those of us who work 40 or more hours per week year round and on holidays find it really lame that you can’t get someone in to do the two hour radio show. The Monday after a holiday isn’t actually a holiday y’know!

    Leftfield, Wisconsin

  • Nay


  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Even the BBC News this morning called a Boston weather forecaster to see how snowed-in we are. The snow near the coasts is wet and deep, and weighing down the lines that bring electricity. Sixteen, seventeen inches, causing courts to call off sessions, colleges and universities to call a halt. Wisconsin, I think you already had this “event.” But I’m thinking OnPoint people picked a good day to take off.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Cory, I think the idea of “jobs” and “assembly lines” led to the parentification/oligarchy and to the infantilization/socialist tendency of the workforce.
    People expect “days off,” where in the 1800s you worked every single day. If you weren’t chopping wood all summer long when you weren’t farming, you froze in the winter. Indians might notice and come by for pickings.
    So there is a distant history of significant self-reliance, but the “jobs” we want are not about self-reliance. And we inevitably steer towards socialism.
    I’m waiting to hear how McPhee addresses this, but I’m thinking he will.

  • Nick, Massachusetts


    That is a great idea. WBUR is part of Boston University and has a terrific Communications & Media Department. I have one sister who graduated from it.

    THIS WOULD BE A WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE THE STUDENTS RUN THE SHOW – regardless of the outcome and faux pas. That’s how they learn.

    I would be keenly interested in listening to the students and particularly their point of views.

    Tom, a missed opportunity here…….



  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I’d like to hear from the staff who stand there and monitor our postings. I assume that’s what they’re doing in one of the photos that was included a week ago, I think, showing a room of people watching what’s going on, on screen, probably picking ones to highlight, ones to delete for being obscene, whatever. They must have to exercise an awful lot of restraint not to get involved and start posting themselves. But I get the impression they do help pick topics and guests, so they weigh in that way.
    On the other hand, there are probably pretty good reasons for their not wanting to, surprise, host a show. Would they be paid overtime? Would they start to state a lot of things that would require long disclaimer sidebars? Don’t you think if they wanted to be broadcasting nationwide that’s what they would be doing? At the Metropolitan Opera, everyone says the prompters have huge clout, yet they would not want to go on stage, even as a “supernumerary,” in case of snow.
    Still, it would be fun.

  • Patricia Della-Piana

    Personally, I’m pleased with this repeat performance. I never heard the original, since I HAVE A LIFE and don’t spend every waking moment listening to the radio. McPhee is a person of great interest to me. Thanks, On Point!

  • Carol

    I enjoy rebroadcasts. It’s not easy for me (and I expect some other listeners) to listen to an entire show while I’M WORKING. Rebroadcasts give me a chance to hear more of some wonderful topics.

  • Susan St.John

    I have long admired the tight concise writing of Mr. McPhee . My father was a comtemporary at both Deerfield and Princeton . I wonder how much the rigors of that particular education influenced his writing style . . .

  • Jim Hawkins

    Jim Hawkins from Nashville, TN. OK, so you live in New Jersey. Come on down to TN and write about us. You’ve had TN Tipsy Cake on your birthday; there’s more where that came from. So glad to hear you on Tom’s show today. Thanks for your marvelous books, a major part of my literary life, as you know!

  • tom

    Does Mr. McPhee consider his writing to be in the category often called the “new journalism”?

  • cory

    Patricia and Carol,

    All the previously broadcast shows are available for you to listen to anytime you’d like in the archive section. Since you “have a life” Patricia, this flexibility should really benefit you.

    I’ll stand by my post.

    Leftfield, Wisconsin

  • Brett

    I missed the original broadcast as well. I enjoyed today’s show. The difference between, as an individual, deciding to hear such a broadcast from the archives or hearing it in real time, such as today’s offering, is that people can start new threads and share the experience in synch with the rhythm of today from a rebroadcast…not so much from an individual decision to listen to an archived show…

    I think the whole “Socialism: Evil or Inevitable” topic has been discussed in one form or another from many angles and perspectives on this forum already, and I’m sure the topic will come ’round again in the future, as will all of the topical choices in today’s world; we’ll live through this somehow I think.

    Mr. Ashbrook and company tackle an average of about ten topics a week; and on balance, generate and promote a lot of discussion from all of the various media available. There WERE people working today at On Point and WBUR, obviously. It’s not so easy to put together a radio show…Old Ebenezer Scrooge would have applauded the idea of either making the primary hosts work today or making fill-in staff and interns work twice as hard to produce a fresh show, though! C’mon, there’s no heavy lifting involved!

    I’m not sure that the only function of public radio is to feed those who will ensure over one hundred comment posts, although stations could be run at a fraction of the cost. Simply post a topic (include both basic views of the topic in the title) and let the comments fly, both online and in lighting up the phone lines, as they say. Larry King is available and would be perfect [that was sarcasm], but he’d be too expensive. Anyway, the person hosting the show wouldn’t matter.

    Topic: would Scrooge have been a Tea Partier, a Libertarian or an out of the closet Republican? …discuss amongst yourselves…when will tomorrow GET HERE!!!!

  • Jim P.

    all the moans! I missed the original broadcast. I discovered John McPhee years ago (Coming into the Country) and read a number of his other books. But I had forgotten about them/him. I was sorry I couldn’t listen today since I had an appointment but I will listen online later. And I’ll have to reread the books I have and look for ones I haven’t. Reruns serve a purpose

  • Allan Lindh

    I heard a little of this broadcast, will download the podcast to hear the whole thing, appreciate the rebroadcast of their best shows. Can’t quite believe the level of whining about a rebroadcast. Guess none of these folks ever had a job where you never get a vacation. Or maybe they don’t understand that it takes a whole crew to put on a show, and they might like a little time with their families at Christmas also.
    Kudos to OnPoint, up there with Terry Gross for very high quality radio journalism.

  • Julia Pancake Rankin

    Allan Lindh:
    A good number of On Point listeners are on an enforced extended vacation (frequently unpaid) through no choice or fault of their own. When people make fun of the unemployed and the discouraged workers; yes, and I even know of several homeless commenters who use public library computer stations, they deny the actual conditions prevalent in our nation. We are the nation of the mighty Mississippi, not “de Nile.” Denying a voice to the powerless is the first step in dehumanization and extermination. That was the message of “Horton Hears a Who” and people should have learned it by the 3rd grade. Another Horton (miles) often said, “Those who have nothing are entitled to wish for anything good they can imagine.” On Point is their wishing well. Suffering people understand more, not less. They want relief: They want opportunity: They want their issues heard.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA


    I had been saying socialism rears its ugly head when wildly independent Americans start to depend on “jobs,” and here comes my public radio station with an interview by the historian (Jack Larkin) at Sturbridge Village (18th century reconstruction village in Massachusetts) who has a new book out: “Where We Worked: A Celebration of America’s Workers and the Nation They Built.” He draws the distinction between us and Europe where there were guilds and inherited skill-sets. Here you could pay for apprenticeships in some cases. He talks about coal as “king” in the north, and describes the model mine in Illinois with “interpreters” (as Sturbridge has) to explain to him how old-time mining went.
    Anyway, he doesn’t seem to be trying to project what comes next, but I’ll be glad to see us get away from the assembly-line man (glorified robot), and away from the kind of dependence that says you probably don’t have truly affordable health care unless you have an established employer. Why hire someone when I have to worry do they have un-admitted-to acne someplace in their past. I’ll wait for Medicare for all, and then take on board some non-illegal aliens.
    See my link above for the interview; it’s the topmost feature at WFCR.

    • Perullamafarm

      We have socialized police, fire and highway departments. This country rates 38th in life expectancy (Cuba, as an impoverished nation is ahead of us), and every single one has a form of either national or socialized medicine. Yet we spend more per capita than any other country on medical care. I get my care at the VA, and it is soocialized. They order whatever tests the condition warrants, regardless of what “is covered.” The same with medication.

      It is best that we stop dropping words that are intended to terrorize us, and start a dialogu about facts. That way, we might just life healthier… and longer.

    • Modavations

              dON’T hold your breath.I just read the current Nation and they hAVE ADMITTED The demise of Socialism.They were flabbergasted that Europe has now unanimously rejected the philosophy.Don’t give up Ellen,the males on the Nation, are “limp wrists’.Katrina Van could kick their “pansy”butts

  • Gene

    Loved this show. Have kind of misplaced McPhee. Have enjoyed a few of his works. I’m getting his most recent – Silk Parachute ToDAY! Thanks for the rebroadcast.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    @Julia: A good number of On Point listeners are on an enforced extended vacation (frequently unpaid) through no choice or fault of their own.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your statistics; the onPoint listening audience is no doubt more diverse than the folks who frequent the comment threads of this web site.

    I’ve pretty much stopped reading here because the comments have moved away from direct response to the actual content of the shows and moved toward personal comment-blogging: using this site as a platform for what probably ought to be a personal blog.

    The regulars here use this site as a water cooler and that’s fine but it also makes it less than welcoming for folks commenting for the first time.

  • Cory

    Too bad the show is a rebroadcast.  Labor Day in America seems like easy pickings for a great topic!

  • Modavations

    If you like this guy,might I suggest another effete-elite,Richard Brautigan(?):Trout Fishing In America.By the way,whenever I have trouble sleeping,I pick up one of those tedious,25 page essays.I’m unconscious after pg.2.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m waiting for a chance to get all political again.  Obama does a preview of his jobs speech today in about 15 minutes, at 1:15.  I don’t know why Boehner gave the president a motivation to come on AFTER the Republican debate.  I definitely want to hear if Huntsman in the debate is more daring in his proposals than Obama in actual contest with Congress (or Congress as motivated by the People).  
       As to this rebroadcast, I heard Tom ask McPhee why he doesn’t go for the emotionally complex issues.  I think he described what he meant as “scandalous” subjects, and I think I know why McPhee does not.  It’s like oil and vinegar.   Writers who refine and analyze and elaborate with exquisite verbiage are not the ones who go for the jugular in that way.  Such writers are a great vacation from human-hurricane/tornado issues.  It’s really nice to know that the mind CAN apply itself to this and that, and artfully so, without getting blown away.  But if that were my craft, I’d avoid the Manson murders and Tiger Woods’ intimate relationships too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183167269 Peter Mulshine

    I wonder if he ever read Harry A.Franck? He graduated about 1908 from Mich.State & made a bet to travel around the world for less than $200.Vagabonding the World,& Vagabonding The Andes,etc.Really insightful stories about how the rich treated the peasant descendants of the Incas.

  • Vqqb12a

    I am also call to hear the rerun and am glad that it can be found online. I love this writer, although I had to really wade through his geology series.

  • Vqqb12a

    I like the Pine Barrens. I grew up in eastern North Carolina which reminded me so much of, apparently, New Jersey. I also first heard of Jimmy Carter in one of McPhee’s essays when Carter was governor of New Jersey.

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