John Hockenberry: … John McPhee joins us from his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Good morning, John.
John McPhee: Good morning.
JH: 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: 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: 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: 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.