John McPhee: A Reporter's Reporter John McPhee has written at length about fish, geology, oranges, nuclear power, basketball... and the list goes on. At 75, the great reporter feels he has plenty of words, characters and subjects left to explore.
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John McPhee: A Reporter's Reporter

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John McPhee: A Reporter's Reporter

John McPhee: A Reporter's Reporter

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

He's written 27 nonfiction books over the past 40 years. That's more than 6,000 pages on fish, geology, oranges, nuclear power, basketball, and more. John McPhee's newest book is called Uncommon Carriers. It's a collection of stories about freight and the people who sort it, float it and truck it. The Pulitzer Prize winner talked about this book recently with NPR's Howard Berkes. They began their conversation with a tour of McPhee's office at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Mr. JOHN MCPHEE (Author): It's a very private, quiet, high-ceilinged place to - I read - I do all my writing here. I'm here all the time, every day.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

I imagined a room lined with bookshelves. There are some.

Mr. MCPHEE: Yeah.

BERKES: But...

Mr. MCPHEE: I don't know where to put all the books. You know, most of them are at home. And there's a bunch of geology books in the middle, which will stay there. And reference books are at the far end. And then everything in front of you right now on the floor is junk that - I mean, it's good junk, but it's junk. It's something I should deal with.

BERKES: And these little memo books here...

Mr. MCPHEE: Those are...

BERKES: ...those little pocketsize ones...

Mr. MCPHEE: The little memo books are the things I always have in my pocket, they fit in my pocket and off I go.

BERKES: Do you mind showing us one of these and seeing what...

Mr. MCPHEE: I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCPHEE: Three, it says. This is from the first story in this present book, Uncommon Carriers. It's - I'm in a tractor trailer with a truck driver, going across the continent from Southeast to Tacoma.

BERKES: Could you read a little bit of it?

Mr. MCPHEE: Lush green eastern Nebraska, soy, corn, soy, corn, a little wheat, beautiful, sea swell pastureland, entering Lincoln with red lights, and the monoethylamine kicking like a baby.

See, you feel the kick of the load when you stop at a red light, say, that you can't stop that slosh, the surge. And so, wham! It hits you in the back. It really makes you sit up. It's interesting that I picked that up, which was just lying around. I called it junk. I apologize, but I happened to pick up this notebook, a complete random, and it's - it relates to first piece in this book.

BERKES: Let's sit down and talk.

Mr. MCPHEE: Okay.

BERKES: Uncommon Carriers opens in this big rig that you're riding in, a tractor trailer that's cruising across the country with driver Don Ainsworth and a variety of loads. What compelled you to take that trip?

Mr. MCPHEE: Well, I wrote a book some years before called Looking for a Ship, and it was about being on a merchant ship and going to South America. And Don read that book, and he wrote to me, out of the blue. And he said, well, if you go out on the ocean with those people, why don't you come out in a truck? And I wrote to him and said, why don't you tell me what you do? And he wrote down the cargos he had carried over a couple of years, the destinations, and I found that interesting.

I wrote back to him and said, you know, some day I'd like to do this. And I think it was four years after that, and an occasional correspondence. But then I got to a point where I thought, oh, I'm looking for something to do, and that truck driver sounds interesting, I'll do it. And then he calls up and says he's going into Georgia to drop off some WD40, and then pick up monoethylamine to take to the State of Washington.

I left for the airport. I mean, I didn't even go home. And I went down there and got in the truck. And then says, you know, this may not work out. And if it doesn't work out, you can get out anywhere you want to. Don't worry about it, you can get out. Well, I got out in Tacoma, and he was right. I mean, it could have been a disaster. But it was anything but, in my view.

BERKES: So he came to you first.

Mr. MCPHEE: That's unusual.

BERKES: That is unusual for you.

Mr. MCPHEE: Very. A piece of writing in response to a letter where you say, you know, the idea came in a letter, that's happened to me maybe twice in 40 years.

BERKES: This one scored big time.

Mr. MCPHEE: Well, I'm glad he wrote to me. I'm really - and I'm glad I know him.

BERKES: Well, could we do a reading?

Mr. MCPHEE: Sure...

BERKES: Would you mind reading from...

Mr. MCPHEE: ...not at all.

BERKES: ...from Uncommon Carriers, in that first chapter.

Mr. MCPHEE: Yeah, okay. It's about Don. He spoke trucker.

A dump truck was a bucket. A moving van was a bed bugger. A motorcycle was a murder cycle, driven by a person wearing a skidlid. A speedo was a speeding violation. He also used words like paucity, and spoke of his circadian rhythms. He frequently exclaimed, Lord, help us! He said sh-- and f--- probably no more than you do. He seemed to have been to every jazz festival from Mount Hood to Monterey. He had an innate pedagogical spirit, not always flattering but always warm.

BERKES: And he, Don Ainsworth, was on an incessant hunt for what he called the Walleye.

Mr. MCPHEE: Yeah. The Wall Street Journal, which is what he calls the Walleye, is not available at every truck stop in America. And Don knows where they are, and he will go barreling through St. Louis, in and out to some little place. Boom! He stops the truck and he gets in, there's the Walleye. And he loves the Wall Street Journal.

BERKES: I found it interesting, though, that that description we just read is 27 pages in. But well before that, in the book, you describe the truck and it seems to be as much a character as its driver.

Mr. MCPHEE: Well, I mean he just absolutely loves that truck. The truck is very beautiful. Its stainless steel tanks stretching way back there is like any mirror you ever saw. And it's in beautiful shape. He even claims that, you know, people look at the truck in the way that people look at beautiful women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: He says he understands.

Mr. MCPHEE: He says he understands what it's like to be a beautiful woman to have people glancing at you, when his truck has just come out of the wash (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCPHEE: And so on.

BERKES: One of my colleagues always says that in a story there's a bigger something. You weren't starting with the idea of a bigger something. You were basically just curious about something.

Mr. MCPHEE: See what their life is like out there, what they do, who they are, and to describe the people. I mean, what my work has in common, a hundred percent of it is that it's about real people in real places. Period. Everything else is so miscellaneous, from tennis and nuclear energy to some trapper in Alaska, but they're all people. And that's what I do, is do sketches of people.

BERKES: John McPhee, let's talk about, again, Uncommon Carriers. You mentioned Don Ainsworth, the trucker that you - you sat in his cab across the country, and you rode on a boat pushing barges down the Illinois River. And you had several experiences where you were entering other people's worlds. Did you feel accepted in those situations?

Mr. MCPHEE: Generally, yes, or almost a hundred percent. I mean, I'm trying to think, as you're asking that question. I mean, I certainly, by Don Ainsworth, certainly by the conductor and the engineer of the coal train that I - trains that I rode in. The guys on the towboat were - they were telling me I was, in effect, that I'm lazy. I don't do any work. I stand around just scribbling notes all day. I go to bed at 10 o'clock at night. What - and I've been standing in - 16 hours in the pilothouse of this tiny space that we're in. And now they're making fun of me for that.

But all this was - these remarks were product of our knowing each other, rather than of anything else. I mean, I had a good time on that boat.

BERKES: So when one guy said to you on that boat, one of the crewmembers...

Mr. MCPHEE: Why don't you pick up a broom?

BERKES: Why don't you put down your notebook...

Mr. MCPHEE: And pick up - yeah.

BERKES: ...pick up a broom and do something useful.

Mr. MCPHEE: I just looked at him, Rick Walker. I mean, you know, what was I going to say? It was not an awkward moment or anything. It just amused me.

BERKES: Also, in this book, you take a journey yourself with your son-in-law, up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, in a canoe, following the route that Henry David Thoreau took. In that chapter you have some terrific metaphors. You talk about the real river with its clothes off, a free-flowing water not encumbered by a dam.

There are others. You see a golf cart on the shore with an umbrella, and you call it a rickshaw from NASA. The whole book is filled with these sort of golden nugget metaphors, and I just wonder if you have, you know, a process that you go through for coming up with these things, or do they just pop in your head?

Mr. MCPHEE: That's one thing you don't plan, you know? If I look at that thing and thinks it's a - it looks like a rickshaw. There's a scene earlier with the golfers, you know, so where did that come from? Maybe it came from that very moment, and I just, you know, wrote it down and then kept paddling. Or, more likely, it pops up when I'm doing the writing.

BERKES: Another...

Mr. MCPHEE: That's the fun of it, you know. If you can't have fun writing, you might as well not do it.

BERKES: There's something about the stories in the book that show people in sort of isolated lives and work, and I'm - I was just wondering if you were trying to say something larger about that kind of circumstance of all of us being isolated in some way, so consumed by what we do every day.

Mr. MCPHEE: Not consciously. You know, I mean, I think so many, many things are in the eye of the beholder. Writers have different missions. I mean, there's writers who want to get some point across, and that's the most important thing, and none of this - you know. But my approach is that the reader is gonna collect this material and then think what she/he thinks about it, that it's likely to be more effective that way than it is if I'm telling the reader how to vote.

BERKES: You're not on a mission.

Mr. MCPHEE: No. If I have a mission, it's to do a good piece of writing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: You end the book, in part, in a way that warms the hearts of us radio people because you end with a sound. You've returned to ride with trucker Don Ainsworth, and you describe a truck stop and the sound of that truck stop. Would you mind reading part of that section?

Mr. MCPHEE: Not at all.

Eastbound, we had overnighted at a TA truck stop, which we reached in the evening just before Ainsworth's shop clock ran out. The lot was all but full. Nearly 250 trucks were there, a large number for the Northeast but below the size of big truck, truck stops nationally. Bankhead, Georgia, 500 trucks; Walcott, Iowa, 800 trucks.

As we walked through the lot carrying our gear, the hum of the many trucks was not deafening. It was just voluminous. At night anywhere, if it's very hot or very cold, Ainsworth goes into a motel instead of sleeping in the truck, because he prefers not to run the engine just for heat or air-conditioning.

This does not seem to preoccupy his colleagues. The hum of a truck stop in the dead of night is one of the sonic emblems of America, right up there with the bombs in air, the (unintelligible) rockets, the stern, impassioned stress. You have not heard the sound of creature comfort until you have heard hundreds of huddled trucks idling through the night.

BERKES: Is there something about that sound that evoked for you larger meaning through the entire book?

Mr. MCPHEE: Yes, there was. I mean, I have no trouble answering that. You know, you brought this kind of subject up before, but I've always been really annoyed by, for example, busses from Dartmouth or Yale or something that sit outside Jadwin Gym here in Princeton from two o'clock in the afternoon until the basketball game is over at 11:00.

And all that time, those busses are humming as the diesel fuel is consumed. It always bothers me, and the idling truck stops, you know, really triggered this reaction that I long had about idling vehicles and the consumption of fossil fuel.

BERKES: I think we caught you trying to convince people of something in your book.

Mr. MCPHEE: Well, you bet. I mean, every once in awhile Rumplestiltskin bursts out from behind his, you know, thing and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: So sometimes something is just so...

Mr. MCPHEE: Once in a while you can't restrain yourself.

BERKES: Any chance that you'll write about yourself someday?


BERKES: Because?

Mr. MCPHEE: I don't know. I'm not interested. I am popping up in my pieces all the time, and in this book, right near the beginning, I'm in this truck in Oregon, Don's truck, and I make the point that, you know, that I went to bad drivers school in New Jersey. I went to the New Jersey Driver Improvement Clinic.

And then pretty soon I make the remark that I often, when I'm in a car, I'm usually nervous 'cause my wife is driving if I'm not, and she also went to the New Jersey bad drivers school in the same year. And so - well, these things come out, and that's the way I prefer it to come out, little touches here and there that are relevant to what you're doing.

BERKES: John McPhee, thank you very much.

Mr. MCPHEE: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure talking with you, Howard.

BERKES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Writer John McPhee speaking with NPR's Howard Berkes. You can read Howard's essay about the visit at our Web site

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