New Yorker writer John McPhee joins us for an interview about geology, recollections of his mother and his new collection of personal essays, entitled "Silk Parachute." Click through for an excerpt from the book and our extended interview!
Excerpted from Silk Parachute by John McPhee. Copyright © 2010 by John McPhee. Published in March 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Extended Interview, Part 1 (transcript)
Extended Interview, Part 2 (transcript)
Extended Interview Pt 1
John Hockenberry: It’s the kind of fact that just tantalizes the mind, that stops you cold: NASA determining on its GPS detectors that the city of Concepcion, in Chile, after the 8.8 magnitude earthquake, moved about 10 feet, 10 feet to the West. It’s just the kind of fact that would delight New Yorker writer John McPhee, who joins us now to talk about his new collection of personal essays entitled Silk Parachute. But McPhee is the author of 28 other books, including a number of extraordinary books on what the earth tells us, its geology, particularly North American geology, and John McPhee joins us from his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Good morning, John.
John McPhee: Good morning.
JH: So first of all, you posted on the New Yorker website some days after the Chilean earthquake, this story that was from your book, I believe, waiting for a ship or looking for a ship?
JM: Looking for a Ship.
JH: Looking for a Ship. About how, a long time ago, Charles Darwin, laying on his back on an island in the Galapagos, possibly experienced the one earthquake that we know of that had a greater magnitude than the Chilean earthquake. What motivated you to post that story?
JM: Well, first of all, I didn’t post it. I thought it was interesting and sent it to John Bennet, my editor up there, as an email just to amuse him. Next thing I know, Bennet calls me up and says, “Can they put that in the New Yorker’s blog?” which was fine with me. Another factor is that when Darwin got off the Beagle and lay down in the woods and experienced that earthquake, he was in Chile, not in the Galapagos.
JH: Uh huh. And you know, when he experienced that motion, which you say went on for about two minutes, which he, I guess, suggested went on for about two minutes—
JH: —the story of what was going on beneath him sort of opened itself up to him, which is very how you write about geology. How the story is in the stone or the story is in the view from the satellite.
JM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the thing that—you were saying that the jump in Concepcion was about, what, eight?
JH: Ten feet, ten feet with NASA.
JM: Ten feet. And that is a different kind of fault than San Francisco 1906, but the jump at the epicenter up there was something like 20 feet. It’s very interesting when things really move all of a sudden like that. Mountains in Nevada will rise; I think it was 10 or 15 feet in the 1915 earthquake and so on—and these very small increments over time add up to the Andes.
JH: There are also very small snapshots in places around the world. Do you think you’ve been able, in your retelling of the geological stories in your books, to shrink the planet, to allow people to see with a bigger gaze of what’s going on independent of just a fossil here, a crack there, a look in the fossil record in another place?
JM: Well, the fossil record is paleontology, and it’s a related but separate topic. The thing that I was most preoccupied with was tectonics, the story of the 20-odd major plates and numerous micro-plates and how they move around, interact with each other, create mountains, create oceans over time.
JH: And, you know it’s a really interesting contrast—you’ve written so much about geology. Have you ever experienced an earthquake yourself?
JM: No, to my regret.
JH: And you wish that you could.
JM: Yeah. I mean, a nephew of mine was in California whenever one of those happened in Southern California, in the Whittier Narrows earthquake or something, and he was in a grocery store with Campbell’s soup falling off the shelves and I envied him no end.
JH: And what is it about the motion that you want to feel, which sort of describes the story that you have told again and again in your geology books?
JM: Well, it would just be interesting. I mean, I can imagine it all right because I’ve read so much about it but I’d just sort of like to feel it. The mobility of the earth is something a lot people don’t think of until it moves underneath them.
JH: And, you know, the geology stories that you tell in your many, many books—is a story of an impersonal planet of rock and magma and soil, moving at the behest of forces that are very, very difficult to understand. This book of essays that you’ve just come out with, this is a very personal story of a lot of your choices as a journalist, and—I mean, could bring out a lot of particular stories in here, but the one that the book is named after, “Silk Parachute,” talks about your mom. Who was something of a critic of Alfred Knopf, back in your early days.
JM: Well, I was a critic of Alfred Knopf because when I wrote something as a—I was actually a college student, and I sent it to Knopf and they rejected it and a professor of mine said, “write and ask them for the reader’s report, they might help you, you could find out things.” So I wrote to Alfred Knopf and he writes back and says, “If you had the reader’s reports they might discourage you completely.” I still have his letter. But, I mean, I was not a critic of him until that moment.
JH: And you showed that to your mother and what did she say?
JM: Someone should go in there and K-nock his block off.
JH: And no one ever did.
JM: No, I guess not.
JH: But she would be the first candidate in my book to do that. Is it unusual that you’ve turned to these personal stories at this stage in your career? And I don’t want to prejudge your output—28 books, man.
JM: No, but I wonder about that. I think that, you know, as years pass there’s more touches like that in the work, I mean this piece, this book Silk Parachute just consists of pieces that I’ve written recently, but almost each one has some kind of autobiographical component that kind of explains why I’m interested in the overall subject at all.
JH: And if you’re a student of John McPhee’s work and you read Silk Parachute, you get all sorts of insights into what led you to go here and write this book, or that book, or—you know, a lot of the favorites are absolutely in there. John McPhee, thanks so much for being with us.
JM: Oh—you’re most pleasant, thanks a lot.
JH: New Yorker writer John McPhee, joining The Takeaway from his home in Princeton, New Jersey.
Extended Interview Pt 2
JH: Talking with New Yorker writer John Mcphee, author of 28 books, his latest Silk Parachute a new collection of essays. John, I’m looking at this story, or this essay “My Life List.” Right?
JH: And I was thinking, “My Life List,” and I was like, John McPhee’s life list? I mean, the things he wants to do, is this going to be his bucket list? What’s this going to be? And it begins with this fantastic story of you comparing yourself to fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, who you call Sandy. And what is the principle difference between the two of you, or the source of your admiration of him?
JM: Sandy is a consumer of extremely odd edibles. Ants, bees, grasshoppers, mayflies—he’ll eat anything. And that’s not me; I eat what I have to eat in the course of my work, and if it’s a grizzly bear or something like that it’s in the line of duty, whereas Sandy is a true aficionado.
JH: And, you know I’m also a big fan of Ian Frazier’s work. But why do you think he eats this stuff? Is he trying to impress you? Does he really like the taste of mayflies?
JM: I don’t know you’d have to ask him. I mean, he says that if you’re eating mayflies, you know, they’re like potato chips, that you can’t just eat one.
JH: Heavens, they’re tasty.
JM: You know, Sandy is off some kind of wall and I’m not exactly sure what that wall is part of.
JH: Well, the story leads to some really, really interesting insights into one of my favorite books of yours, which I read a long, long time ago, really at the beginning of my career. Coming into the Country I believe is the title—your Alaska book?
JH: Which started as a suggestion to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, that he rejected pretty resoundingly.
JM: Yes he did. And his reason was that he didn’t want to read about a cold place; didn’t like cold places.
JH: And of course he did live in New York, where it does get cold for a certain amount of time. Did it surprise you that he was so absolutely definitive in his judgment?
JM: It did at that point. And there came a day when he was turning over certain aspects of his work to other editors, and he said that Mr. Bingham would approve or disapprove of story ideas from now on, he said. And so I immediately got Mr. Bingham to let me go to Alaska.
JH: So you were basically on the plane once it was clear that there was any wiggle room at all for you to go to Alaska.
JH: What did you end up eating in the course of your investigation of what it was like to be in Africa—and this is circa, what, 1976, ’77?
JM: You don’t mean Africa.
JH: I mean Alaska. Circa 1976?
JM: Um, 75-6-7.
JH: What is it that you ended up eating?
JM: Well, grizzly bear. I mean, in Alaska, were there other things? I don’t know. A lot of the odd things I ate in my work were in the state of Georgia, and so forth; but definitely the grizzly bear, and moose. A lot of moose, I mean moose is just sort of like beef up there with a lot of people in the bush. So I guess just those two. I’m not thinking of others.
JH: Well let’s just talk about grizzly bear for a moment. Did you develop a taste for grizzly bear—did it leave an impression?
JM: It was remarkably good. I went to somebody’s cabin for dinner. This is up the Yukon River as far as you can go without going into Canada, and I went over there for dinner and—Mike Pots is his name, and he had shot a grizzly, and there was a great platter of meat on the table and—there were about six of us or eight of us there—and it was piled up, you know, eight inches high. There was moose meat, and grizzly meat, and it was very interesting to watch that platter because the grizzly went right on down and disappeared, it was so good; and the moose meat, much more slowly. You would have thought it was the other way around
JH: Moose for leftovers again, we’re out of grizzly.
JM: I brought home moose burger, frozen moose burger I had with me all wrapped up one time and fed it to my children without telling them what it was. As I said in the thing, some of them still talk to me.
JH: Is there a place that you would go to do as ambitious a reporting of a place as you did in Coming to the Country now in your life?
JM: No, I don’t think so. I think I would probably function closer to home. I’ve thought about that, although you know I go to Europe sometimes to do a piece, but that’s not exactly arctic Alaska. And I seem to be writing shorter pieces now, which is in part a function of the changing times, and seem to be finding them closer to home.
JH: But we’re not going to see you writing for The Economist anytime soon, right?
JM: Not tomorrow.
JH: All right, good, good. Just keep the word count up, I would say. I’m always regretful when your pieces are finished.
JM: Thank you, John.
JH: You once told, I think, my colleague Robert Siegel, that the whole geology books that you wrote, the whole thing came to you in a piece. That in your first encounter, with I believe the first character in the first of the geology books, it occurred to you—
JM: That is right—
JH: Now how does that happen?
JM: That is right. What happened…. I’ll try to—It’s a— Let me see if I can get this condensed. I wanted to write about geology outside New York City, one outcrop, talk to a geologist, go home, write a “Talk of the Town” piece and you’re all done. And then I thought, oh. Well, so, this Ken Deffeyes, the Princeton professor was willing to go with me to look at such an outcrop. And then I got—while we were waiting to do that, I thought, what if we went farther? What if we went up the Adirondack north way and did a longer piece? And Ken said, “Not on this continent.” And what he meant was, if you go north-south, you’re going along the same sort of structure. If you go east-west you’re traversing physiographic provinces. And so then I get an ambitious idea, what if we went from New York to San Francisco? What if we went across the whole continent? And Deffeyes picks up on that with me, and the next thing I know I’m in Nevada with him, which is sort of actually where this project started. And what we did was concoct an idea for traversing the entire country with different geologists, himself included, but several others, and he identified who they might be and we got in touch with them. And then I had a project I thought was going to take about a year and when I got the notes back from all those initial trips with all those geologists I realized that I was in for a much bigger thing than I thought, and so I broke it down into components and wrote it over 20 years—
JM: Interspersing other things, like Looking for a Ship.
JH: Sure. Another great book. And did you write Founding Fish, about the shad, during that geology time as well?
JM: No, that was actually maybe 10, 12 years later.
JH: Ten to 12 years later. You know, probably wasn’t the first time somebody called an editor at The New Yorker and said, you know, this is a little bit longer than I imagined, but perhaps the only time that it was four books longer than the “Talk of the Town?”
JM: Four books longer. You know, many of my pieces have started as “Talk of the Town” ideas, and then they just kind of grow. Sometimes they end up as “Talk of the Town” pieces, or did. I haven’t written one of those in recent years. But a lot of projects-- The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed was about an experimental aircraft here in New Jersey, and that was a “Talk” piece that turned—and I called up Mr. Shawn and say, what if I—this is sort of interesting—what if I make this a slightly longer piece? And it ended up 60-some thousand words long, and it was in three New Yorkers, which is something that doesn’t happen nowadays because the magazine is a little shorter.
JH: Well, and again, it’s another one of my favorite John McPhee books. You know, it brings me back to the beginning of this conversation when we were talking about you and Ian Frazier, and your admiration of him, and the things that he eats, and the kinds of things that he does. You know, it evokes for me, as I’m reading this essay, this sense that there’s some sort of common room for all of you New York writers, particularly the ones that go back a ways, to the Shawn days, and there’s some couch in there, and a coffee machine, and Ian’s sort of in a chair over in a corner eating mayflies, and you’re looking at maps and stuff. Is it like that at all?
JM: No, but I certainly recognize what you’re saying. When I was in college, and so on and so forth, I imagined a New Yorker just like that. I also imagined that there was some kind of committee, although the word would never appear there. But you know, the New Yorker editors were some mythical thing that I thought of who passed judgment on things. So what I didn’t realize was that all of this boiled down to one person, William Shawn. There was nobody else. He was the whole committee, the entire show, and in terms of buying pieces, and deciding what’s in a magazine, and all the rest. So this scene with Sandy Frazier on a couch over by the water cooler, washing down mayflies, is mythical, but then where Sandy and I fish together, I have a cabin up the river somewhere that we go to with Mark Singer and Pat Crow, who’s a New Yorker editor. And we’re sitting around acting like very small children most of the time.
JH: That’s great.
JM: So there is such a place, but it isn’t in New York.
JH: Well, I’ll continue to dream.
JM: For us, there’s such a place, I mean for the few of us. But I’m sure all kinds of other people have similar milieux.
JH: Before we go, referring back to the Chilean earthquake, just for one moment. You know, in all of your writing about geology, do you think it’s possible to make sense of a 90-second event that unfolds a narrative that’s millions and millions of years in the making? Have you become better at understanding an event like an earthquake?
JM: Well, I don’t know. But one thing I wouldn’t have thought of for—well, actually, it was a pretty long time ago when I first studied geology—but the thing is, the incremental effect of tectonics and so forth, is a fantastically slow, and human life by comparison is very fast and short. And so the two don’t intersect all that often, but sometimes they do. In 1989, Loma Prieta, and this year in Concepcion, they intersected, and so forth. And that intersection is extremely dramatic in human terms, and in geologic terms, it has something to do with the gradual elevation of the Andes. So it’s a really strange interface, as it were, but it’s there and it happens when these two pairs cross, when human time and geologic time intersect.
JH: And a tiny event in geologic time becomes a huge, maybe historic event in human time.
JM: Yeah, exactly.
JH: Well, John McPhee, thanks as always for putting things into context, for just sort of rambling with me here. It’s been an absolute delight. New York writer John McPhee, author of Silk Parachute, a new collection of essays which are absolutely a delight, and also of course the author of 28 other books. Thank you, John.
JM: Thank you.