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John McPhee gives a rare interview

March 1, 2010 | 10:01 am

Johnmcphee

For many years, people have known where to find John McPhee -- in the pages of the New Yorker, teaching at Princeton -- but one place they didn't expect to see him was in the media. Famously interview-shy, McPhee even removes himself, elegantly, from his nonfiction.

Until now. His new collection, "Silk Parachute," includes the 78-year-old author as a real presence. And he's talking to the media: Susan Salter Reynolds interviewed him for Sunday's Los Angeles Times.

In the past, McPhee's strategy had been to explain a little bit about why he is writing -- about oranges, tennis, trains, geology, fish, Bill Bradley, David Brower, you name it -- and then get out of the frame. Sure, he leaves traces: We feel we might know his voice if we heard it in a coffee shop, and we can taste his presence, his influence over a generation of journalists and essayists. But we would not recognize him if he were seated next to us....

McPhee, who normally bicycles 15 to 16 miles every other day for exercise and is rarely idle, blames recent hand surgeries, with the attendant resting and medication required, for the fault line that has opened up. "I just started writing. I guess I'm not used to all that spare time," he says, surprised. "I usually know where I'm going with a story. A novelist can feel her way with a story, but that's not the case in nonfiction. It's a central theme of the course I teach: Know where you're going." ...

McPhee has described writing as "mind-fracturing, self-enslaved labor." Each day, he says, brings a "new form of writer's block." He elaborates: "You suspend the normal world to reproduce the normal world. It is a suspension of ordinary life."

Read the complete article here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: John McPhee in Princeton, N.J., in February. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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