The layers of geological strata that so fascinate Princeton author John McPhee are an apt metaphor for how he structures his own work. In “Season on the Chalk,” the second essay in his newest book, “Silk Parachute,” McPhee weaves together layers of geological, historical, and present time, punctuated by extrusions of grandfatherly pride, humor, philosophy, and details of champagne production and of sexual escapades on chalk sculptures. The result is a multidimensional prose poem.
McPhee will read from “Silk Parachute,” Thursday, April 22, at Labyrinth Books in Princeton.
The idea of writing about the chalk formations that run from the southeast of Great Britain, across the English Channel, and into the champagne- and cognac-producing regions of France was one that came to McPhee long ago, by way of a geological drawing by John Clark. “What it shows is a big slice of the earth down through rock formations, and then it shows the human scene on top — horses hauling a phaeton,” says McPhee. “I had it on my wall for years, and what I had in mind — I wanted to do a story that dealt with geology under a human surface and have things going on on the surface too.”
McPhee decided that the geography of the chalk would provide his organizational skeleton. “Where the chalk intersects the Thames — there are only 15 miles where chalk is the uppermost rock — seemed to suggest itself as a beginning,” says McPhee. And so the essay opens with a picture of his 10-year-old grandson, Tommaso (the son of McPhee’s daughter, Jenny, who lives in London), who breaks a piece of chalk and uses it to write graffiti, “Rock on,” on a wall next to the river.
As the tale proceeds, the reader views the white cliffs of Dover; takes a trip with McPhee and his old friend, Harold Doyne-Ditmas, to Breaky Bottoms, where a fine English sparkling wine, similar to champagne, is made; then travels through the Chunnel, which sits in chalk, and arrives in France. This journey ends near Maastricht, in the Netherlands, at Sint Pietersberg, a huge chalk quarry in the Maastrichtian level of chalk where the dinosaurs died.
Mined since Roman times, the quarry is full of graffiti scratched in its walls over a couple thousand years, which McPhee compares to the different layers that make up the Cretaceous period — with human time echoing geological time.
During World War II the quarry served as a Pilots Line to freedom, where downed Allied soldiers connected with Resistance forces who led them to Belgium. The earlier drafts of this section, says McPhee, were based on information shared by their guide at Sint Pietersberg, but during the New Yorker’s fact checking process (the subject, by the way, of another essay in “Silk Parachute”) these details had to be corroborated.
McPhee dutifully located a book at the Princeton University library about the Pilots Line — only problem, it was in Dutch. So when two fact checkers from New Yorker arrived at McPhee’s office in Princeton, McPhee had in place a Dutch graduate student who read and translated the entire book to them. The result? “A lot of changes had to be made,” says McPhee. “The stuff I picked up from the guide and the person in Maastricht was less than perfect.”
Once again connecting daily life with the big ideas of geological time, McPhee shares a story about his six-year-old granddaughter, Livia, who, noticing him madly taking notes in Maastricht. After explaining in kindergarten terms how the dinosaurs got bigger and bigger and then disappeared from the earth, he asked Livia, “Have you ever wondered what killed them?” Her immediate response: “Asteroids, or volcano.” This story then becomes a jumping-off point for McPhee to philosophize on the speed at which new science — in this case a seminal paper about the Cretaceous extinction published in 1980 — becomes conventional wisdom. He observes, “By now, the discovery has been so well established that it has made its way down through the grades and even to preschool.”
Another characteristic McPhee flourish is the wry humor he sprinkles through his work. In one example, slyly joining humor to a bit of grandfatherly bragging, he writes, “Tommaso goes to Fulham Prep, and recently bet a number of his classmates a pound apiece that he would not win the Form Prize. He won the Form Prize and went bankrupt.”
McPhee has written about geology frequently and won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction in 1999 for his book of essays about geologists and their work and theories titled “Annals of the Former World.”
McPhee is a master of precision, both in the images he uses and the words he selects. The perfect image may occur to him either as he is constantly taking notes during his research or as the manuscript settles into one of its four separate drafts. But McPhee’s “search for the mot juste,” the right word, usually happens during the fourth draft, he says, and its results can be a comeuppance, even for intellectuals who consider themselves well beyond the New York Times’ 11th-grade reading level. Just a single essay can send even the most astute readers to the dictionary several times.
So, is McPhee a showoff with a superhuman vocabulary? Not so. “I never use a word just because it is obscurer than a word that would be better,” he says. “That’s no criterion; that’s a blind alley, a bad way to go.”
But as he writes draft after draft, he carefully boxes words that do their work only imperfectly. McPhee explains, “There’s a word that you’ve used in your text so far that is perfectly serviceable — it’s right; it checks out with Webster — but something is not quite on the money about it, something one way or another is not satisfactory. It could be a matter of rhythm, or the sense is okay but not perfect.”
When he is finally sufficiently far into a piece that the stress level is down and he is ready for “fender polishing,” he surrounds himself with seven or eight different dictionaries, starting with the Oxford English Dictionary. McPhee likes a dictionary with a good set of synonyms, including definitions that distinguish these related words, which McPhee calls an “awning with stripes of the same color but different hues.”
The result is a word that is more apt but hopefully not more obscure. “Most of the time, when the search is successful, the word I eventually come up with is a much simpler word than the one I am replacing, but sometimes it’s the reverse,” he says. “I’m looking for the right word, not the jazziest word.”
In all but two cases in the last 45 years, McPhee has come up with his own subjects, despite suggestions from many of his fans; both ended up in the book “Uncommon Carriers.” The first, from the second mate of a merchant marine ship, resulted in a trip along the west coast of South America. Then, after the hazmat (hazardous materials) truck driver Don Ainsworth read that story in “The New Yorker,” he sent his own letter to McPhee, which said, “If you’re going to go out on the ocean with those guys, you should go out on the road with us.”
After McPhee had corresponded with the truck driver for about five years, he was ready to join Ainsworth, whose agent only gives him a couple of days notice about where he’s going next. One day McPhee got a call from Alabama: Ainsworth was on his way to Gainesville, Georgia, to get rid of a load of WD40. He would then do a wash to completely remove the WD40 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, then go to eastern North Carolina to pick up a hazmat and take it to Takoma, Washington. McPhee got on a plane and met Ainsworth at a truck stop west of Atlanta. After the six-day trip, the two men met again for another short run and stayed in touch until Ainsworth died of cancer.
McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction in 1999 for his book of essays titled “Annals of the Former World.”
Although as a rule McPhee likes to see the writer stay out of the writing, sometimes it just makes sense to fess up to the writer’s presence. McPhee explains, “I, the self of the writer, would not appear in the text at all unless it was necessary, as opposed to hey, look at me, with no purpose. But if it is necessary or serves a purpose, I have no hesitation at all.”
The opening essay of “Silk Parachute” is autobiographical, with an edge, but usually McPhee will put in just enough of himself to provide some context. In his 17,000-word essay on the game of lacrosse, “Spin Right and Shoot Left,” he takes a page or two to explain why the subject interests him, in this case, because he fell in love with the game after playing for a year in high school. “It informs the piece,” he says. “It isn’t just coming from somewhere in outer space; it’s from somebody who has had a lifelong absorption with something, taking it up to write about it.”
A more subtle way that McPhee admits to inserting himself in his work is through humor. “I can’t resist the humor thing,” he says. “If you say something funny and the reader is on the same wave length and thinks it’s funny, the reader cannot help being made conscious that it is the author who is being funny.”
McPhee has wanted to write since age 10 or 12. “I never had another ambition,” he says.
He was born in Princeton and never left, except for research trips and a gap year at Deerfield Academy between high school and college. His father, Harry, was a physician who specialized in sports medicine and treated athletes at Princeton University. According to the “Dictionary of Literary Biography,” his father had also served for 20 years as the United States physician at the Pan-American Games and the winter and summer Olympics. McPhee’s mother had taught French in Cleveland and during the early years of her marriage.
McPhee was born on March 8, 1931, and grew up on the Princeton campus, hanging out with the university’s football, basketball, and baseball teams after he was done with his own soccer, basketball, and tennis practices at the high school. “I was a bat boy of the baseball team, and when I was a little kid, I ran with the team,” he says. “When there was a football goal, I stood behind the goalpost and caught the ball.” That last job, he notes, has been replaced by a big net.
After attending Princeton (Class of 1953) and a year at Magdalene College in Cambridge, McPhee spent a year as a freelancer, writing one-hour, stand-alone plays for live television, a couple of which were produced on NBC. “What I learned was that it wasn’t really my cup of tea — to be involved in something in which so many other people were involved,” says McPhee. “Even though you are the writer, you were one small wedge in a large pie. I wanted to make the whole shoe — to throw metaphors.”
In 1957 he married Pryde Brown. They had four daughters — and divorced 12 years later. Laura teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and is the author of “No Ordinary Land,” a book of landscape photography. Jenny and Martha are both novelists: Jenny is the author of “No Ordinary Matter,” “The Center of Things,” and “A Man of No Moon”; Martha is the author of “Bright Angel Time,” “L’America,” and “Gorgeous Lies” — the latter was nominated for a Nation al Book Award. Sarah is an associate professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta. (Pryde Brown has her own photography business in Princeton, Pryde Brown Photography, on Nassau Street.)
After his year of freelancing McPhee was hired by Time magazine to work on its internal house organ, FYI, where several young writers at a time were taken on as a kind of an internship. “The deal was — you have six months to find yourself a job on one of the publications of the company or you were out,” recalls McPhee. “When I came in, there was a nice guy I worked with. A day came, and he wasn’t there. His time ran out.”
McPhee ended up with an entry-level job writing Milestones — deaths and marriages, and Miscellany — one-sentence stories each with some kind of pun as a title. During his seven years at Time most of his articles were assigned, which was different from his ultimate career path. “It was someone else’s fault that I had to do this, so you could sit and rage in your mind at your editor,” he says, “but you can’t do that if you’ve chosen that subject.”
McPhee met one of his closest friends, Calvin Trillin, while he was editor of the show business section, where Time used to try out writers from bureaus around the country. Most of their articles never ran, and the stayed in the boonies. Not so with Trillin. McPhee says, “I heard this guffawing coming from the senior editor’s cubicle. He comes down the hall, hands me a little piece — it was one paragraph, short but really funny. At the right-hand corner it said ‘Show Business (Trillin).’”
Knowing that he wanted to write for the New Yorker from the age of 18, McPhee kept sending stuff, all of which was rejected, except for one short piece. “They weren’t making a mistake,” says McPhee. “Writers develop slowly. Except for an isolated phenomenon like John Updike, it takes years to keep running things through your head and over the keyboard and gradually you grow as a writer.”
After some time writing trial Talk of the Town pieces and getting some encouragement, Leo Hofeller, a former executive editor, asked McPhee to propose some ideas for longer pieces, but made clear he had no interest in an earlier suggestion of McPhee’s about Bill Bradley. “Don’t bring that basketball player,” said Hofeller. “We just did a basketball player.”
After McPhee looked up the earlier article, about basketball player Bob Cousy, and found it had been five years earlier, he submitted a 5,000-word letter to The New Yorker in support of a profile on Bradley, and he managed to convince Hofeller. Much of McPhee’s letter became part of the ultimate profile.
With that Bradley piece, McPhee got to be a New Yorker staff writer or, as McPhee characterizes this role, “an unsalaried freelancer with an interesting relationship with the New Yorker.” He explains, “When people hear that term, they think you are sitting around with some big salary that you get annually, but that’s not the case; you get nothing unless you produce an article and sell it to them.”
In 1975, 10 years after the Bradley profile, McPhee’s career took a little veer when he was asked to substitute for a visiting Princeton professor who had quit unexpectedly. He filled in that spring in the writing workshop with no idea that this affiliation would continue indefinitely.
McPhee’s pattern has been to teach one semester a year, two years on and one year off. “It has worked out very well,” he says. “I think I have written more over time with that amount of teaching than I would have without it.” But he never writes anything of his own while the semester is going on. “I’m paying attention to the students’ writing and relieved not to have to deal with my own,” he says. “I feel better about my own when I go back to it.”
The class is a seminar, with some assignments but a great deal of free choice. “The core of the thing is a private conference when I pretend to be the student’s editor and go over the piece from top to bottom,” McPhee says. Of his 400 former students, many have written books that now sit on a big bookshelf in McPhee’s office. Some of the bigger names include David Remnick, now McPhee’s boss at the New Yorker; Jim Kelly, who was managing editor of Time; Rick Stengel, who replaced Kelly; Joel Achenbach, staff writer for the Washington Post; Marc Fisher, metro columnist at the Washington Post and author of “After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History”; and author Richard Preston and his wife, who were English department graduate students. Preston is the author of “The Hot Zone,” “the Cobra Event,” and “The Devil in the Freezer” and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker.
One technique McPhee uses in his class he picked up from his English teacher at Princeton High School, Olive McKee, who he had three out of his four years for English. McKee, who McPhee describes as “the drama coach and a very thespian sort of person,” emphasized writing in her class, requiring three pieces of writing a week, each accompanied by some kind of structural presentation — it could be a doodle, a formal outline, or a sketch. “This was the architecture of the piece,” says McPhee, adding, “And what do you suppose is required of my course at Princeton?” He finds that it helps his students figure out where they want to go with their material.
Although McPhee’s daughters tease him sometimes about not noticing what is going on around him — an elephant could walk through the room, etc. — in the midst of a story, things actually are very different, says McPhee. “I am extremely observant when the pressure is on me to be so. I’m thinking about this when I’m asleep, and looking around for anything I can soak up that might be helpful to the ultimate piece. There’s a nervous tension that goes with soaking up material, but when that falls away and I relax, an elephant can walk through the room.”
Two of McPhee’s daughters, Jenny and Martha, are writers. When asked whether he has mentored them, McPhee responds, “They both took up novel writing and are not interested in the kind of writing I do.” Noting that Martha sometimes does little pieces about cooking and other subjects, McPhee says, “She just regards this as a lower form of life that she practices to make money for the family.”
When the girls were growing up, McPhee did not try to train them in the family business, but they understood that McPhee was passionate about his work. He shares a story about Jenny at age 10, when she came with him to a panel on writing in Princeton where he spoke. “Jenny scolded me afterward for being so negative about how hard it is, about the masochism of it,” McPhee remembers. “She said, ‘You know you have fun, too; why don’t you bring that out? Why do you say just how bad it is?’”
McPhee took her advice seriously. “I’ve been mindful of that from that day to this,” he says. “She is right. There are some really pleasant moments as well as the imprisonment.”
Author Event, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. Thursday, April 22, 6 p.m. John McPhee, author of “Silk Parachute,” which first appeared in the New Yorker, will read from his new book. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com.