Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview With Writer John McPhee

On Point Radio's Tom Ashbrook conducts a lively interview with writer John McPhee.

McPhee has written on an astonishing range of topics but holds special interest for me for his books on geology.... part field manual...part conversations with a geologist....part literature.. The first one I read was Assembling California which I think was his last detailed book on geology.

Mussel Rock is a horse. As any geologist will tell you, a horse is  displaced rock mass that has been caught between the walls of a fault. This one appeared to have got away. It seemed to have strained  successfully to jump out of the continent. Or so I thought the first time I was there. It loomed in the fog. Green seas slammed against it and turned white. It was not a small rock. It was like a three-story building, standing in the Pacific, with brown pelicans on the roof. You could walk out on a ledge and look up through the fog at the pelicans. When you looked around and faced inland, you saw you were at the base of a fifty foot cliff, its lithology shattered beyond identification. A huge crack split the cliff from top to bottom and ran on out through the ledge and under the waves. After a five-hundred-mile northwesterly drift through southern and central California, this was where the San Andreas Fault intersected the sea.

I was hooked...

You get a sense of the effort it takes to write one of these geology books as Mc Phee describes the entire process from initial interviews to field trips to the numerous drafts to the vetting from a specialist to make sure he has got the science right.

It's been quite a while since Assembling California...1993 I think.. I hope he writes another one...

Meanwhile, the interview is terrific listening. Its not just about the geology books but more about his wider involvement in the art of writing and what makes him tick.


  1. make sure you get the full collection, Annals of the Former World.

    Craig(fsu geostudent)

  2. yeah..it will be good to have his writings in one volume..