“We’re living a quiet life,” renowned author and journalist John McPhee tells us from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, Yolanda. “The pandemic was no problem for us. We were already sequestered at home.” McPhee taught his last group of students at Princeton in 2020. “It’s very pleasant and very quiet, but the point is that there’s plenty of time.” Time for writing—more on that in a bit—and time for listening to audiobooks.
McPhee has been an audiobook fan since the 1980s, when he started listening to them after a visiting friend extolled the virtues of “recorded books.” But even before that, McPhee understood the importance of hearing his words out loud. “Reading aloud is such a large component of the composition process, the writing process, for me. I’ve never published a word that I haven’t read aloud to this person or that person.”
Now that he’s 93 years old, audiobooks continue to be more important to McPhee than ever. “I have such severe glaucoma that if I don’t listen to audiobooks, I don’t read books. I have 150 of them on my device.” His interests, unsurprisingly, are wide ranging. Currently, he’s listening to MIDDLEMARCH. “One of the reasons I’m listening to it is that daughters of mine told me that Juliet Stevenson is a terrific reader. Well, they’re right!”
McPhee also advocated for narrating his own audiobooks, and he continued to do so until, as he says, he couldn’t see well enough to do the recording process. His final narration was of his 2017 memoir, DRAFT NO. 4: ON THE WRITING PROCESS. After that, he asked his publisher, “‘Just see if it’s possible to get Grover Gardner to read my books.’ And it was successful, and I’m so pleased because I couldn’t have a higher opinion of him.”
Golden Voice narrator Grover Gardner has performed new recordings of several of McPhee’s classic books to acclaim, including ORANGES, ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ARCHDRUID, and THE PINE BARRENS, first published in 1968. McPhee says that he listened to the new recording of THE PINE BARRENS, about a forested area in the middle of New Jersey, with huge interest. “I hadn’t read it since I last proofread it all those years ago. I had a flood of nostalgia listening to him read this because, after all, it was so long ago, and I spent so many months going down there.”
Last year, Gardner won an Earphones Award for McPhee’s most recent work, TABULA RASA: VOLUME ONE, which was also named one of AudioFile’s Best Audiobooks of 2023. It’s a collection of McPhee’s ideas that, for various reasons, were never fully realized as books or magazine articles, and for John McPhee fans like himself, Gardner says, it’s tantalizing. “His droll wit, and his ability to hone in on the most interesting aspects of a topic . . . no matter what he’s talking about, there are always some little sidebars, some little digressions, and you always learn remarkable facts. A lot of ‘ah ha!’ moments.”
His writing process now, McPhee says, is a matter of getting suddenly inspired. “And because these pieces are short, I don’t have time to get upset and nervous, so it’s very pleasant, and it just happens almost any time of day between sunrise and sunset. I also follow the advice of Mark Twain about things like this: Write what pops into your head. If you were in the middle of something else, forget it! Write about the new thing. You can come back to the old thing.”
Just how many more volumes of these brief digressions into topics that piqued McPhee’s interest can we expect? “I’m now about 35,000 words into Volume Two,” McPhee says. “That’s out there in a year or two. But I have a contract for Volume Three, Four, Five . . . The idea is, if you keep writing, you won’t croak. So I have this infinite contract. It was mentioned in the contract for Volume One that there would be an indefinite number of them in the future. It’s a contract running into the 22nd century,” McPhee says with a laugh.
Keep them coming, Mr. McPhee.
Jennifer Dowell is AudioFile's Managing Editor.
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John McPhee photo by Yolanda Whitman.