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Writer John McPhee on his book 'Tabula Rasa'


Great writers often have notes for ideas that never quite fully bake. Those notes may not have become books, poems or stories yet, but they continue to simmer in the writers' imaginations, waiting for the chance to catch fire and take form - maybe that would be flambe. Our next guest can help me fix my mixed cooking metaphors - John McPhee, the New Yorker writer of 32 books over seven decades that have helped invent a form now called creative nonfiction on subjects that range from nuclear energy, the Alaskan wilderness, coal trains, the Mississippi River, tennis, basketball and oranges. He's gone through notes and memories for his latest book, "Tabula Rasa: Volume 1."

John McPhee joins us from Princeton, N.J. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN MCPHEE: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: You say in this book you're particular about titles. You just don't leave them to editors and publishers. So why "Tabula Rasa"?

MCPHEE: Well (laughter), because I think it's a good title. I mean, titles aren't necessarily original. I just don't want an editor putting a title on - lopping a title off my work and putting one of his own on.

SIMON: Tabula rasa more or less means a clean slate. But what are you doing in this book? Are you cleaning off your desk? Or are you floating ideas for the future?

MCPHEE: No, I think the idea is that the slate is clean because I never wrote these pieces. Ideas stream by nonfiction writers, just one after another after another. And it takes a long time to do one. So the ones that you don't do accumulate in your memory and your notes and your whatever, and they remain tabula rasa because they're not written.

SIMON: Yeah. Let me get you to talk about a few. You write in "Tabula Rasa" about a job you had when you were 14 that sounds very grim. You're living in Princeton then, and you drowned fruit flies. How and why?

MCPHEE: Well, I worked for biologists in the biology department of Princeton University. I worked for four or five of them, but a great deal for Kenneth Cooper and his wife, Ruth, who were geneticists. And they had fruit flies in little half-pint milk bottles, and they would anesthetize the fruit flies, look at the colors of their eyes and everything, put them back in the bottle and then give the bottles to me to take down to the janitor's closet in the basement and drown the fruit flies. I wasn't popular with the janitors because I was no good at keeping the fruit flies from getting out.

SIMON: Has that given you any thoughts over the years about, well, mortality, revenge, any of that?

MCPHEE: Well, I have a thesis that I articulate in this book also that when you die, you face all the creatures you killed in the world, see? And when I croak, I will be facing millions of fruit flies.

SIMON: You've got a whole short section here on basketball timeouts and why you don't like them. Why not?

MCPHEE: Well, because they seem to me to take too much away from the players. And also they are programmed now to occur every four minutes and every four minutes, this thing is called timeout on the floor. On the floor means stand by for a commercial. And this wasn't the case when I was young. And coaches don't have to take timeouts because the commercials are going to take time out for them. Therefore, they can save up their timeouts to the end of the half so that they could take two or three timeouts within one minute's playing time or something. And the end of a basketball game is a drudgery of non-playing time and so forth.

SIMON: Yeah, it can be excruciating. I mean, the last two minutes can take 15.

MCPHEE: Exactly. That's my complaint. Because I'm so old that I remember when that wasn't true.

SIMON: I want to read some of your words to you because there's a little section in here, I think, about contemporary cliches, and I'm just going to read it.

It's called "Generation P," and you write, (reading) we process grief. We process failure. We process trauma. We process cheese. We are Generation P, the word processors. Thinking through is not what we do. We have wrapped our heads around the most amazing things - quantum mechanics, orgo. How did it go? Crushed it. What's your icon? A suitcase - it's full of assumptions. A suitcase is full of assertions, instructions, amendments, concepts and ideas. We unpack all that, then we wrap our heads around it. The pushback is not impactful. And will you be doing so in the future? Let me walk you through it, going forward. As said on NPR, we're interested in what's going to happen going forward.

Well, NPR can take a joke every now and then, but what's your concern...

MCPHEE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...About some of these cliches?

MCPHEE: It's not so much a concern as an interest in the development and passing of them across time. When I was a student at University of Cambridge, my academic supervisor would give me hunks of paper with a swatch of prose or poetry on it, and he wanted to know what decade of what century the piece was written. And the thing is that this is frame of reference - what's going on at the time. Frame of reference interests me a great deal. And so a frame of reference for right now, and maybe that Generation P is getting a little old already - if somebody read that, they'd know - they would say, you know, 2022 or something or whenever I wrote it.

SIMON: You're in your 90s. Do you write every day?

MCPHEE: Not every day, but most days.

SIMON: Do you always find something new to write about?

MCPHEE: Well, these tabula rasa pieces keep me going. They were a big division between, you know, the long pieces I did year after year. And when I got into this, five years ago about, my daughter sent me this letter that said, did you ever write about Extremadura? And that really started me off on this, and - because I hadn't and always had meant to.

And it feels different. I was full of anxiety every day writing in the past and having a terrible time getting through the day's writer's block before I could get going as a writer by 5 o' clock or something out of panic that I wasn't getting anything done. And these things are very different. I just turn it on and look at it. And for one thing, they're short. So very often you've done before you know it.

SIMON: This is pointedly called "Tabula Rasa: Volume 1," isn't it?

MCPHEE: Yes. You want to know why?

SIMON: Yeah, exactly.

MCPHEE: (Laughter) Well, the thing is that my idea when I did this was, I'm an old man. And to keep writing is to keep going, to keep living. And I didn't want to publish any of it. I mean, in fact, I intended not to publish it. OK, so, but then I began to itch to publish it.

And I confided this problem with Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, who was in my writing class here at Princeton in 1982. And I told him, you know, what can I do? I want to - I'd love to publish some of this, but the whole idea is not to finish it because you want it to keep you alive, you see? Achenbach says, there's no problem. Just call it Volume 1.

And that's what I do. And I have a contract for Volume 2, 3, 4. I made a contract with Farrar Straus that calls for another book someday and someday after that. The whole idea is not to die.

SIMON: Well, we'll look forward to talking to you about all of them.

MCPHEE: (Laughter) Oh, that would be great. Well, hang around for another five years or something. I don't know. I actually have written 25,000 words toward the next one now.

SIMON: John McPhee - his new book, "Tabula Rasa: Volume 1," more to come. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCPHEE: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.