John McPhee: Notes From The Field

November 15, 2006


Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the interview with NPR's Howard Berkes.

Berkes points to a pile of colorful notebooks on the floor of McPhee's office at Princeton University.

Berkes: And these little memo books, these small pocket-sized ones, are those what you take notes on?
McPhee: The little memo books are the things I always have in my pocket... 
Berkes: Do you mind showing us one of these?

McPhee reaches down and picks up a small spiral notebook with the number three scrawled on the red front cover. 
McPhee:
I have no idea…[McPhee pauses]. "3," it says…

McPhee flips through the pages of the notebook, which contain handwritten notes. The words lean slightly to the right. Capitals and small "f's," "t's," "p's," "y's" and other letters with long stems, rise high and dive deep, framing low humps of companion letters. It's a casual, unhurried script, decipherable but not much better than the scrawl that earned me an "F" in handwriting in elementary school.

McPhee: This is from the first story in the present book, "Uncommon Carriers." I'm in a tractortrailer with a truck driver going across the continent from the southeast [United States] to near Tacoma [Wash.]. And I just sit with these notebooks and scribble while he talks. There's nothing else for me to do. I had a tape recorder, but I never really needed it…

Berkes: Could you read some of it?
McPhee: Gee whiz. [Reading]…We're in IOWA!! [Mileage is] 8,325. His tractor was new and it had gone 8,000 miles. Now we're in the mid plain and Loess Hills. Set back. Look like mountains in the summer haze. So we ride on another five miles and…[Talking now] It says… [Reading again] breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at…[Talking] Oh. This is our daily routine. We had breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at THREE. No wonder he had steak for breakfast, and eggs, etc.
Berkes: That made it into the book. That entry. 
McPhee: That remark did. That point did. It's a long time between six and three for lunch…[Reading again] Lush green eastern Nebraska. Soy. Corn. Soy. Corn. A little wheat. Beautiful. Sea swell. Pasture land. Big AGP grain elevator complex on 2…[Talking] That's Nebraska (Route) 2. We left the interstate and angled up toward Lincoln on Nebraska 2…[Reading] Entering Lincoln with red lights and the…monoethanolomine kicking like a baby.

McPhee: See [that's] the stuff in the back of the truck that had filled the tank. So, if you're off on a so-called horse and buggy highway, you're not on an interstate, you feel the kick of the load when you stop at a red light. You can't stop that slosh, the surge. So, WHAM! It hits you in the back, it makes you stand up.

Berkes: That's another entry that made it into the book. I remember that.
McPhee: Yeah. [He laughs] Remember, writing's selective. In these little white spaces between the notes, I'm not doing anything.

Berkes: How much time [is there] between the spaces? Hours?
McPhee: Could be overnight…It could be moments, hours. Berkes: So, Don Ainsworth, the subject of this chapter, wasn't constantly entertaining on this drive?

McPhee: Well, we were together for 24 hours a day for 7 days, or 6 days. No, Don likes to talk and he spent a lot of time talking. But, still, it's a long trip and we had quiet times…It's interesting that I picked that [particular notebook]… which was just lying around. I called it junk. I apologize. But it's waiting on the floor, waiting to be filed by someone else, waiting to be filed by me. I happened to pick up this notebook at random and it relates to the first piece in this book "Uncommon Carriers."

McPhee tosses the notebook back onto the pile on the floor. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall, 2006 issue.