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Writer John McPhee Explains His 'Old-Man Project'


The writer John McPhee is a pioneer in the field of narrative nonfiction. At age 88, he has 30 books behind him, deeply reported works about everything from oranges to birch bark canoes. McPhee also keeps a long list of topics he meant to write about but never did. He spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about turning that list into what he calls his old man project.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Here's how John McPhee writes about this enterprise in The New Yorker.

JOHN MCPHEE: When I was in my prime, I planned to write about a dairy farm in Indiana with 25,000 cows. Now, taking my cue from George Bush, Thornton Wilder and countless others who stayed hale doing old man projects, I am writing about not writing about the dairy farm with 25,000 cows.

BLOCK: In other words, instead of his typically intense immersion in a subject, McPhee is just taking a gentle swing at those saved-up, cast-aside ideas that have been on his intended list - a brilliant bridge engineer, a broiling drive through Spain, a small plane crash.

MCPHEE: Ideas for nonfiction pieces of writing just stream by in huge numbers all the time. They're there. And so the big question is, what would make a person pluck one thing out of that stream and concentrate on it for two years, 15 years, and then let the rest go? So think of the rest.

BLOCK: As for the rest, McPhee is nibbling at those in short pieces for The New Yorker - capsules, he calls them, one of them just a paragraph long. These are ideas he's been collecting over the years on notecards and in computer files.

MCPHEE: There's a long list. I haven't begun to scratch it.

BLOCK: How long is that list?

MCPHEE: I don't know - about 40 or 50 items at the moment that I haven't written about, maybe more than that. I keep thinking of them.

BLOCK: And how long has he been thinking about this old man project?

MCPHEE: (Laughter) Well, not forever because it takes one awhile to decide that you're an old man.

BLOCK: In The New Yorker, McPhee writes about an encounter with the author Thornton Wilder years ago. Wilder was 66 at the time. McPhee was about 30. And over lunch, Thornton Wilder described his latest project. He said he had decided to read and catalog all 431 plays of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

MCPHEE: And so it's a project that would never end, but I didn't understand that at the time. What I said to Wilder was, why would anybody do that? And Wilder turned on me. His eyes burned, and he said, young man, don't you ever question the purpose of scholarship. So I was catatonic for the rest of the lunch.

BLOCK: But now, McPhee says, with the benefit of age, he's answered his own question. Why would anybody do that?

MCPHEE: What I figured out was it was a project meant never to end, something you could keep going and keep going and, therefore, keep yourself going.

BLOCK: Here's the dilemma, though. By publishing these vignettes, McPhee realized he was defeating the purpose, which is, as he puts it, to keep the old writer alive by never coming to an end. Here's the solution. It came from a friend who told McPhee, just call it Volume I.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOSHIO MATSUURA GROUP'S "L.M. II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.