John McPhee’s new ‘Patch’

The first “LARB Radio Hour” of 2019, from the Los Angeles Review of Books, has an interview with John McPhee, that pillar of The New Yorker, master of narrative non-fiction (on everything from frontier Alaska to the trade in oranges), and long-time teacher of writing. His latest book is The Patch, which an editor at his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has described as “a covert memoir”. Much of it is comprised of what McPhee calls an “album quilt”, stitched together from extracts from magazine pieces and unpublished material.

  The interview is preceded by a chat between the hosts, who say several times that McPhee is “a legend” (the kind of tabloidism one can imagine the man himself discouraging in his classes). It gets going properly about three minutes in (though it’s interrupted again halfway through for a book-of-the-week recommendation). Towards the end McPhee is asked about the pressure on writers these days to promote themselves via social media and turn themselves into brands. He mentions a couple  — both former students of his — who have managed to prosper without doing that. One is Peter Hessler (“there is no better non-fiction writer writing in English”), whose first book about China, River Town (John Murray), has long been a favourite of mine. It’s a tender, empathetic work about his two years in Fuling, on the Yangtze, teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I searched online afterwards for Hessler, who joined The New Yorker himself in 2000 and is currently working for the magazine from Cairo. There is a Twitter account in his name. Its single tweet, posted on May 14, 2009, says: “Writing.”

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