Wednesday, May 12, 2010

John McPhee on William Shawn: Paris Review Interview

I’m starting to reap the benefits of all those literary journals I subscribed to at AWP as the mailbox is filling up, and I’ve been poking around new issue of The Paris Review.

Last night, I read the interview with nonfiction writer John McPhee, part of the journal’s famed interview series. I’m always a sucker for old-school New Yorker tidbits, so I found this amusing, about McPhee’s early days as a staff writer at the magazine:

“Interviewer: Was it hard to come up with things to write about?

“McPhee: I was really quite at sea about that. Let’s say I wanted to write about clams. I’d go to [William] Shawn [the magazine’s second legendary editor] with that idea, and he would say, Oh no, no. That’s reserved in a general way for another writer That’s reserved in a general way. Isn’t that amazing? Shawn never mentioned one writer to another. Shawn operated at the hub of an old-fashioned wheel, with the spokes going out all over the place, and the spokes were the writers and no one every touched another. He kept this amazing thing going. He had thought beforehand about an amazing number of subjects, so the odds were if you brought something up, Shawn had pondered it in some context before. He always knew what he thought immediately. Sometimes he said that it was reserved for another writer, and sometimes he just wasn’t interested. If that was the case, he’d say, Oh no, that’s not for us.

“At any rate, that first month, January of 1965, I go in there and we’re having this conversation—Oh no, that’s not for us. Again and again. And then finally I said, Well I have another idea. It’s a piece about oranges. That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges.

Oh yes! Oh yes! he says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”

Eventually, McPhee wrote an entire book about oranges.

Also amusing: Shawn wouldn’t let McPhee write about Alaska:

“Oh no, he said, that’s not for us. I discovered later that the reason it was not for us was because it’s cold there. It wasn’t reserved for another writer in a general way, it was reserved for no writer in a specific way, because it’s cold there. He didn’t want to read about cold places. Another time I tried to get him to agree that I write about Newfoundland. And he said, right back, Is it cold there?”

You can read an interesting (and helpful) explanation of McPhee’s writing process in an excerpt from the interview here. Totally worth reading: my beloved index cards are involved! Though he’s talking about structuring a long nonfiction piece, I think his ideas could translate to structuring a novel.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: Paid for this subscription with my own cash, though the AWP price was a sweet deal indeed.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.