Penetrating Thoughts: Travels with John McPhee

As the pressure mounted in his David-versus-Goliath personal-injury case against two of America’s largest corporations, Jan Schlichtmann, the central figure in Jonathan Harr’s non-fiction legal thriller, “A Civil Action,” battled personal demons, as well as legal ones.

Penetrating Thoughts: Writing Interior Monologues

As the pressure mounted in his David-versus-Goliath personal-injury case against two of America’s largest corporations, Jan Schlichtmann, the central figure in Jonathan Harr’s non-fiction legal thriller, “A Civil Action,” battled personal demons, as well as legal ones. “Sometimes he’d worry about his heart,” Harr wrote, “Other times he’d worry about cancer. A prolonged headache started him thinking about brain tumors. He felt as if he were suffocating under the weight of the case. He could not hold all the things he had to do in his mind, and he was afraid of forgetting something crucial…”

In this passage, as in many others in the book, Harr conveys Schlicht-mann’s inner thoughts and feelings. The presentation of other people’s thoughts in literary journalism relies on two closely related literary devices. Stream of consciousness refers to mental life presented in a fairly free-form way, close to the border separating consciousness from unconsciousness. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is among the most famous examples. In the interior monologue, more commonly used in nonfiction, a subject’s thoughts are presented in a more controlled way, with the author acting as an intermediary, a guide. In her novels, Virginia Wolff used this device extensively.

How can a journalist, writing nonfiction, accurately penetrate the thoughts of another person? Tom Wolfe, who posed this question rhetorically in the introduction to the 1973 anthology “The New Journalism,” wrote, “The answer proved to be marvelously simple: interview him about his thoughts and emotions, along with everything else.” More than two decades later, in an introductory essay included in “The Literature of Reality: Writing Creative Nonfiction,” Gay Talese explained how one writer put this technique into practice: “My mother would inquire of her friends: What were you thinking when you did such-and-such? and I asked the same question of those I later wrote about.”

Does this mean there are agreed-upon standards to which writers adhere? Over the years, any number of authors’ notes in nonfiction books have addressed the way interior monologues were handled. In his note on sources for “A Civil Action,” Harr wrote, “The thoughts and feelings of the characters…are based on what they told me they thought and felt, or what they described as their thoughts and feelings in transcribed court proceedings.” This touches on a common research technique that lies invisibly beneath many nonfiction interior monologues: access to printed documents—letters, diaries, journals, depositions, police statements—made at or very close to the time of the events in question.

In limited circumstances some writers will even accept second-hand information. In Ken Auletta’s introduction to his 1991 book, “Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way,” he wrote: “…in a few instances I rely upon information from someone else with direct knowledge.” Presumably these are sources with whom the writer has forged an especially strong relationship.

Much of journalism is based on trust. While most readers would feel comfortable with a respected professional like Auletta, it’s easy to see that interior monologues could be misused in the hands of inexperienced, careless or unscrupulous writers. When I teach magazine writing, I explain to students what to me is the necessary foundation for the interior monologue.

First, it relies on time spent with a source. In long-form nonfiction narratives, writers spend weeks, months, sometimes years with sources. Having gotten to know individuals over time, I ask myself several questions: Are they prone to exaggeration? How would I rate their credibility when their recollections stand against the facts? Do they have a reason to lie about what they were thinking?

Second, when we ask sources about their thoughts at a specific time, it almost always concerns a noteworthy event in their past or a moment during which we were there with the subject. Recently I was shadowing the jazz pianist Paul Bley in New York for a profile. During one of our many long interviews, he told me that immediately before we’d arrived for the taping of a radio program, he’d been thinking about how to subvert the show’s conventional format. Known for his challenging, free jazz style, he had been considering opening with a fractured but recognizable version of a well-known tune from the 1920s. This was perfectly in keeping with Bley’s iconoclastic personality, and I had no misgivings about including these thoughts.

For writers to use the interior monologue in nonfiction, they must trust their instincts and judgment. Doing so is, come to think of it, pretty much the essence of any great reporting and writing.

David Hayes

Travels With John McPhee

John McPhee has an unremarkable presence. At first I’m looking at an empty table where he was supposed to be sitting. Nobody’s there. I look up again and there’s McPhee. When he entered the room I’m not sure. He is lacking in height. He doesn’t dress notably. No white suit like Tom Wolfe. No handmade ensemble from Italy, no ascot mirroring Gay Talese. Khakis, a faded southwestern vest, a peach button-down shirt, glasses, a salt-and-pepper beard, gray hair combed over. He is carrying a faded canvas tote bag. He just turned 70.

His audience is a group of students at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has come for a couple of days to talk about his work and give a reading.

Tagging along is his wife, Yolanda, as she has done numerous times while her husband has been on assignment for the New Yorker magazine, his place of employment nearly his entire adult life. Some people call his work creative non-fiction. Others say it’s literary journalism. It has been included in anthologies under both categories. The New Yorker calls his work, and the work of others who preceded him—writers such as Alva Johnston, Joseph Mitchell, John Hersey, Philip Hamburger and Lillian Ross—”fact pieces.”

McPhee says, “Write about your passions. The whole enterprise would turn out better if we all followed our passions instead of following market research and trying to determine which way the wind blows.”

Over the years McPhee’s passions have included geology (“Annals of the Former World”), Alaska (“Coming Into the Country”), family physicians (“Heirs of General Practice”), canoes (“The Survival of the Bark Canoe”), a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner (“Levels of the Game”), basketball-player-turned-politician Bill Bradley (“A Sense of Where You Are”), New Jersey’s pine barrens (“The Pine Barrens”), a conceptual designer of nuclear bombs (“The Curve of Binding Energy”) and oranges (“Oranges”).

The students listen. It could be any college classroom in America— a blank blackboard, some padded chairs, a long table at which McPhee sits. McPhee also happens to be a professor. He teaches at Princeton one semester a year, usually to a dozen handpicked writers who call him Mr. McPhee. Every other week he edits their work with them, word by word, line by line, in his tiny office with a massive world map on the wall and the biggest dictionary you have ever seen near the desk. On his shelves are dozens of books written by former students. Four of them are Pulitzer Prize winners. They all won before he did.

Recently he added a course for freshmen. What his regular students chew on over a semester, McPhee packs into an hour at Pitt. His nuggets of wisdom come without much flair —simple, direct, often lyrical sentences, the very character of his prose.

“I never know how long something is going to be when I’m going in,” says McPhee, whose typical New Yorker fact piece ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 words.

“Readers are smart, more sensitive to the subject matter than I am. You have to be careful.”

“Don’t bang them over the head with a mallet.”

“If you can see yourself doing something else, then do it. You probably don’t have the compulsion to see through all the bumps and impediments.”

“The lone dread is what’s waiting for a writer in his room.”

Were McPhee writing this piece, he would have hung out with himself for a long time, perhaps until he caught himself telling the same story a third time. Some people call this immersion. McPhee calls it reporting. Along the way he would have taken notes in a reporter s notebook. There would be a lot of notes. He writes nothing from memory, even if he was climbing up the side of a mountain or canoeing through rapids. Whatever is not in his notes is not in his story. The notes get typed. Depending on the subject, McPhee might have a hundred pages or a thousand. They go in a binder.

He carefully reads these pages for connections, relationships. Invariably before long some key words begin popping up from the notes, and he puts these words on 3-by-5 index cards. Before computers McPhee would label various parts of his notes with these key words, then cut them out and file them according to subject matter. Now his computer does it for him. He calls the thing his “$5,000 pair of scissors.”

He starts writing again. McPhee says, “Don’t finger the material.” The comment brings to mind Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of Writing. In “Death in the Afternoon,” Papa wrote:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

McPhee says, “If something is a joke, don’t say it’s a joke. Don’t hold your reader’s hand. They will figure things out.”

I am reminded of the way he slipped into the room without my noticing. He has written 27 books— first published in the New Yorker, in most cases—all in quiet, understated language, a collection of facts constructed without calling attention to them. They do not scream “This is interesting!” or “How’s this for funny?” or “Would you believe people are eating dead animals off the road?”

On April 28, 1973, McPhee published a piece in the New Yorker called “Travels in Georgia.” It concerns a young woman named Carol Ruckdeschel who hightails it through Georgia with a man named Sam and a “little Yankee bastard” who happens to be John McPhee. On his first night with them, McPhee eats a weasel. At various points on their trip, they come across a number of D.O.R.s. He never provides a concrete link between D.O.R.s and the phrase “dead on the road.” An excerpt:

Although Sam was working for the state, he was driving his own Chevrolet. He was doing seventy. In a reverberation of rubber, he crossed Hunger and Hardship Creek and headed into the sun on the Swainsboro Road. I took a ration of gorp-soybeans, sunflower seeds, oats, pretzels, Wheat Chex, raisins, and kelpand poured another ration into Carol’s hand. At just about that moment, a snapping turtle was hit on the road a couple miles ahead of us, who knows by what sort of vehicle, a car, a pickup; run over like a manhole cover, probably with much the same sound, and not crushed, but gravely wounded. It remained still. It appeared to be dead on the road.

McPhee once published a piece about a professor who used a computer that read his work back to him. It takes McPhee four or five pages to use the word “blind.”

In the evening, the students follow McPhee to a large lecture hall to hear him give a reading. It’s a full house. Yolanda accompanies him. He reads from “Rising From the Plains,” his 1986 book about Wyoming and a geologist named David Love. It is one of four geological books that McPhee combined into “Annals of the Former World,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

McPhee begins, quickly getting to the subject of David Love’s mother, a schoolmarm named Ethel who graduated from Wellesley College and traveled to Wyoming in 1905. Suddenly McPhee stops reading, and Yolanda begins. She reads a few lines and then looks over at her husband, who begins reading again.

His wife reads some more. I say to a friend, “I love how he doesn’t mention why in the world his wife is reading.” My friend says, “D.O.R.” I wish she had said, “You’re fingering the material.”

Minutes later, in describing Love’s mother, McPhee says, “She wrote in her journals.” Yolanda has been giving voice to Ethel Waxham Love.

Michael Rosenwald

David Hayes is a freelance writer in Toronto and is on the faculty of the School of Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter for the Boston Globe.