Writer John McPhee on his book ‘Tabula Rasa’

Great writers often have notes for ideas that never quite fully bake. Those notes may not have become books, poems or stories yet, but they continue to simmer in the writers' imaginations, waiting for the chance to catch fire and take form – maybe that would be flambe. Our next guest can help me fix my mixed cooking metaphors – John McPhee, the New Yorker writer of 32 books over seven decades that have helped invent a form now called creative on subjects that range from nuclear energy, the Alaskan wilderness, coal trains, the Mississippi River, tennis, basketball and oranges. He's gone through notes and memories for his latest book, “Tabula Rasa: Volume 1.” John McPhee joins us from Princeton, N.J. Thanks so much for being with us. JOHN MCPHEE: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure. SIMON: You say in this book you're particular titles. You just don't leave them to editors and publishers. So why “Tabula Rasa”? MCPHEE: Well (laughter), because I think it's a good title. I mean, titles aren't necessarily original. I just don't want an editor putting a title on – lopping a title off my work and putting one of his own on. SIMON: Tabula rasa more or less means a clean slate. But what are you doing in this book? Are you cleaning off your desk? Or are you floating ideas for the future? MCPHEE: No, I think the idea is that the slate is clean because I never wrote these pieces. Ideas stream by nonfiction writers, just one after another after another. And it takes a long time to do one. So the ones that you don't do accumulate in your memory and your notes and your whatever, and they remain tabula rasa because they're not written. SIMON: Yeah. Let me get you to talk about a few. You write in “Tabula Rasa” about a job you had when you were 14 that sounds very grim. You're living in Princeton then, and you drowned fruit flies. How and why? MCPHEE: Well, I worked for biologists in the biology department of […]

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