An excerpt from an interview at the Paris Review…McPhee talks about submitting to the New Yorker for ten years to no avail…the money shot comes at the end when McPhee describes how William Shawn gives him a staff job.
The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write.
You spent seven years at Time before you started at The New Yorker. What was useful about that experience for you?
Time was where I was trained. I spent five of my seven years there in the show-business section, and the show-business writer did a lot more of his own interviewing than some of the others at the magazine did. Cover stories on Jackie Gleason, Richard Burton—I did all the reporting. Jack Benny comes to New York and I get into a taxicab with him and conduct an interview. Whereas if you were writing in the foreign-affairs section, as it was called then, you’d be writing out of files that people sent in from foreign bureaus. The sheer business of turning out five structured stories, however short they were, every week, was excellent training for me.
Now, throughout that period I was in dialogue with The New Yorker. I even sold a brief reminiscence piece to them, but spoke with an editor only over the phone, and did not advance one cubit toward a future there—I had written the piece for another magazine, and it found its way into this one kind of by accident. But there was a guy there named Leo Hofeller, who was reputed to spend a good bit of his time at Belmont Park. And Leo Hofeller, like almost no one else there, had a title. He was the executive editor, and his job was to talk to people off the street. He was William Shawn’s screen—his office was right next to Shawn’s. Leo Hofeller said he wanted to give me a little tryout. Would I think up six Talk of the Town ideas? I wrote these sample pieces, and I sent them there.
Do you remember what they were?
One was about somebody growing corn on the Lower East Side. But there was no discussion about any of them going into the actual magazine. Then, Leo Hofeller called me up and said he wanted me to come in. This is old Leo Hofeller of Belmont Park. This is nowhere near William Shawn—you don’t see William Shawn, who’s right through the wall. I went there, all excited, and he sits down and says, These pieces are pretty good. And then he turns around and says, I said pretty good, not very good! I’m sitting there shaking like an aspen leaf. Then he said he wanted me to think up three ideas for somewhat longer pieces. And then he said, And don’t come in here with that basketball player! We just did a basketball player.
Bill Bradley was already playing?
Bradley was playing at Princeton at this point. I was so caught up with him—not just that he could hit a jump shot, but that his story was so interesting. I had soaked up Bill’s story for a couple of years around Princeton, with my father being the doctor of the team. So I sat down and I wrote a five-thousand-word letter to Leo Hofeller. A lot of that letter is in A Sense of Where You Are. I mean it was seventeen thousand words in The New Yorker, and the letter was five thousand words long, and I probably used three thousand words from the letter. And what I said was, I’m so caught up with this subject that I’m going to write this piece on a freelance basis for somebody and then I’ll come back to you with some other idea. But then I just babbled on about Bradley.
I get this back from him: Despite what we said, we would be interested. But he told me that there were no guarantees, of course. I wrote the story and sent it in, and then Leo Hofeller called me to say that they were going to buy it. I showed up at his office, and he said something like, You will never speak to me again. From now on, you will speak to Mr. Shawn, and you’ll forget about me. Forget anything I ever told you, forget everything. It’s a blank slate. Then he leads me eight feet around the corner. And it’s, Hello, hello, Mr. McPhee. And that was the beginning with Shawn.
And then there’s this —
After the last proof had gone to press, before I was leaving, I told him that I wanted to join The New Yorker staff. Ooh! The tone changed. Shawn turned from this wonderful and benevolent editor of words into a tough customer. He said, Oh, how could he encourage that? How could he know this wasn’t a one-shot deal where somebody produces something good because of their intense commitment to it? And furthermore, I had four children. How on earth could he encourage me to give up a job with a salary and benefits? He said, Morally I can’t do that. He was guiding the conversation toward a real flat dead end.
I said, Having had this experience—publishing these seventeen thousand words, with the spirit of it that the writer be satisfied—how can I go back to writing shorter pieces at Time? And I said, If I can’t work on staff here, I think I’ll go work for a bank or something, and try to write pieces independently for The New Yorker.
And Shawn goes, Oh. Oh, oh. I see. Well, then you might as well join the staff. And that was it. I walked out. That was the very beginning of ’65 and that was the moment I became a staff writer.