Pulitzer prize-winning author John McPhee has another accolade to add to his collection after the Center of the American West presented him with the Wallace Stegner Award Thursday. With 28 books under his belt and 48 years contributing to The New Yorker, this award counts McPhee among “those who have faithfully and evocatively depicted the spirit of the American West.”
McPhee’s seminal 1971 book, Encounters With the Archdruid, is the foundational text for the Center of the American West, said Patty Limerick, the Center’s director.
The book profiles David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club, and his interactions with Charles Park – a mineral engineer, Charles Fraser – a resort developer, and Floyd Dominy – Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation at the time.
An audience of well over 300 people filled the Old Main Chapel past its seating capacity and welcomed McPhee, who turned 80 this year, to the stage with loud applause. With the lower and upper sections full, some of the crowd had to sit on the small stage behind McPhee and Limerick. A few people stood on the balcony above the stage.
When asked by Limerick what genre best describes his writing—nature writing, creative nonfiction or new journalism—McPhee said he gave up on trying to categorize his work a long time ago.
“My work is about real people in real places,” he said.
McPhee, who teaches writing at Princeton University, gave an insight into what helped shape his writing during his school years. His high school literature teacher made his class pen three pieces of writing a week, each to be turned in along with a structural outline, he explained. After seeing the benefits of this practice, he now makes his students at Princeton submit structural outlines with their work too.
“Writing is a suspension of life,” said McPhee in response to a question from an audience member about which he found more difficult—researching or writing.
There’s a big difference between riding a coal train through Kansas and Nebraska and trying to write about it, he said, in reference to a two-part story on coal trains he wrote for The New Yorker.
“I believe that so-called writer’s block is something that any writer is going to experience every day. But in a way you break through some kind of membrane and then you go into another world where time really goes fast,” he said. “It’s hard as can be to get there and it frightens me.”
The quality of McPhee’s oeuvre is proof that he knows just how to break through that membrane.
“Readers who pick up a book by John McPhee have an unusual experience of piece of mind and confidence,” said Limerick. “Every word is there because he thought about it and put it there.”