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John McPhee

When people think about prolific writers, they rarely think about John McPhee.  Yet, he is one of America's greatest living journalists.  Known for the sprawling range of his subjects, he has written about geology, history, sports, nuclear energy, canoes, nature, and a French-speaking winemaker in the Swiss Army.  He researched his own family tree and traced it back to a Scotsman who moved to Ohio to become a coal miner, and then he wrote about him.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1931, McPhee has lived there almost continuously.  As a high-school student, he was active in sports and a star basketball player.  But it was in the classroom where he really excelled.  His English teacher required her students to write three compositions a week, each accompanied by a detailed outline.  McPhee learned early in life how to research a subject, and he's been outlining his work for more than half a century.  When he completes a project, he reads each word aloud to his wife before sending it off to his publisher.

As a college student, McPhee was a regular guest on a weekly radio and television program called Twenty Questions.  The experience further taught him how to research, gather facts, and interpret their meanings.  It also taught him that he wanted to be a writer.  When he was graduated from Princeton and Cambridge, he went to work for Time magazine.  In his free time, he submitted articles to the New Yorker, but they rejected every piece for more than 14 years.

"I tried everything," he said about his quest to make good at the magazine, "sometimes with hilarious results.  I think that young writers have to roll around like oranges on a conveyor belt.  They have to try it all."

After receiving a tip from his father in 1962, McPhee drove to Princeton to write a profile of an amazing young basketball player there.  The player was Bill Bradley.  The New Yorker published the piece and then hired McPhee as a staff writer.  The profile turned into McPhee's first book, A Sense of Where You Are (1965).  McPhee quickly became one of the New Yorker's most popular and durable writers. 

In the early 1980's, McPhee decided to write a geological history of the United States as read from the road cuts carved out of the landscape for Interstate 80.  He spent the next 18 years writing about what he learned.  The result was his book, Annals of the Former World (1998), which garnered him his first Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.

To date, McPhee has published 29 books, although he rarely writes more than 500 words a day.  He tried writing longer and even had himself tied to a chair in front of his typewriter, but nothing worked.  "People say to me, 'Oh, you're so prolific,'" he said.  "God, it doesn't feel like itónothing like it.  But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart."

Commenting on McPhee's remarkable accomplishments as a journalist, Robert Bittner wrote, "If you haven't heard of or read John McPhee, he is a long-time staff writer for the New Yorker and something of the modern model for every nonfiction writer aspiring to high-quality, in-depth journalism.  For my money, William Howarth's 17-page introduction in The First John McPhee Reader is worth the price of the entire collection.  Although the text discusses McPhee's dogged approach to research and in-person interviewing, it offers valuable insight into the writer's techniques for organization and developing structure for a piece..."

As for McPhee, he takes a more practical view of his writing.  "I'm describing people engaged in their thing, their activity, whatever it is."

John McPhee has received many literary honors, including the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.  He currently writes, teaches, and lives in Princeton with his second wife.

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