INTERVIEWER

Why have you avoided specializing in one field?

MCPHEE

I’ve always thought that the thing I bring to my subjects—one thing—is a fresh eye. And the fresh eye is important, because you’re learning. Certain pieces you can only do once. You can only introduce lacrosse once. The fresh eye is a distinct asset.

I’m not an expert in anything, true enough. But how about twenty years in geology? Did that come about because I decided to spend twenty years in geology? Never. I had an interest in geology from high-school days, and when I stepped into geology I thought I was in it for a short period of time.

When I proposed writing about geology to Shawn, he was very sober about it. Well, he said, go ahead. Go ahead. Readers will rebel. But you go ahead; you’ll figure out a way—but readers will rebel.

He was right. I’ve never had an experience like that. Readers strongly support it and strongly rebel, and seem to be split in camps.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that is?

MCPHEE

Two cultures. There are some people whose cast of mind admits that sort of stuff, and there are others who are just paralyzed by it at the outset, no matter how crafty the writing might be. A really nice thing that happens is when people say, I never thought I’d be interested in that subject until I read your piece. These letters come about geology too, but there are some people who just aren’t going to read it at all. Some lawyer in Boston sent me a letter—this man, this adult, had gone to the trouble to write in great big letters: stop writing about geology. And it’s on the letterhead of a law firm in Boston. I did not write back and say, One thing this country could very much use is one less lawyer. Why don’t you stop doing law?

Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee

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