Once John McPhee was looking for a ship, but now he is looking for a train. It's late afternoon on a Wednesday in December, and he has just come from visiting his mother, who is 97 and in a nursing home in Sykesville. And here he is in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station, an hour before he is to catch a train to Trenton, N.J., where his wife, Yolanda, will pick him up and take him home to Princeton.
John McPhee is one of the most famous journalists in America, one of the best-known writers the New Yorker has ever published, but you could bet 20 bucks that not a single soul in the busy station can identify him. As he awaits an interviewer and photographer, he blends easily into the commuter bustle. He is all browns: hair (some turning to silver), horn-rim glasses, sweater. Norton Dodge, the subject of Mr. McPhee's 23rd and most recent book, "The Ransom of Russian Art," says when he encountered the writer on a train leaving Washington, his first image was of "this rumpled, grizzled professorial type."
Mr. McPhee is a little reserved. He doesn't like posing for photographs and isn't crazy about interviews, either. Once on the train, he relaxes noticeably, and on the two-hour ride he chats about a variety of topics, from his approach to writing (essentially, no pain, no gain) to how he feels about the new New Yorker (he recognizes he probably can't write the long pieces for it that he once did).
Mr. McPhee, 63, has always felt that a journalist should write and not be written about. This unobtrusiveness has aided him immeasurably. Legendarily shy and self-effacing, he has established a reputation as someone who could write a book on practically anything, from the Merchant Marine ("Looking for a Ship") to the Swiss army ("La Place de la Concorde Suisse") to tennis ("Levels of the Game") to a piece of fruit ("Oranges"). He's written about Alaska ("Coming Into the Country," his biggest seller) and New Jersey ("The Pine Barrens") and a young Princeton basketball player named Bill Bradley ("A Sense of Where You Are," his first book, published in 1965).
All his works have the trademark of exhaustive research and exquisite detail. And if his writing comes only after months of torment and hard work, his books are pure pleasure for his readers.
Mr. McPhee knew little about Russian painting before sitting next to Norton Dodge on the train, but he was so intrigued by Dr. Dodge's stories that he built that chance encounter into "The Ransom of Russian Art," just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He documents the story of Dr. Dodge, a retired professor of economics at the University of Maryland who helped bring out of Russia thousands of paintings by dissident artists in the 1950s and 1960s.
Since that book had its beginnings with a chance encounter on a train, perhaps it's appropriate that Mr. McPhee conducts this interview on the rails as well.
In a media-conscious age in which many journalists want to be a part of the action rather than report on it, John McPhee is different. In addition to giving few interviews, he won't allow his picture on the dust jackets of his books, has never appeared on television and doesn't have an agent.
He once told an interviewer, "I'm the most provincial person you'll ever meet," which explains why he still lives in Princeton, the town in which he was born. He tends to attach himself to institutions. He attended Princeton University and has also taught a celebrated writing course there for the past 20 years. After several years at Time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he's worked at the New Yorker ever since. He has stayed with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for all 23 of his books.
"I suspect that not having an agent has cost me a big advance or two," Mr. McPhee acknowledges, "but I have the freedom to write about what I want, and that's enough for me."
Then he tells the story about conducting a book negotiation with Roger Straus, his publisher. Mr. McPhee asked if not having an agent was costing him money. He says Mr. Straus answered, "Not as much as you might think." Mr. McPhee says this with a laugh.
"John's attitude is that if what you are doing, you enjoy, and that gives you pleasure, and that's where the happiness comes from, then that's enough," says James Kelly, an assistant managing editor of Time magazine who took Mr. McPhee's "Literature of Fact" course at Princeton. "A lot of people get into the world of magazine journalism because they want to get on television or get a big book advance or go to cocktail parties in the Hamptons, but he's about none of that.
"I don't know how to say this without sounding corny, but studying with John was like hanging around a Buddhist monk," adds Mr. Kelly. "The way he chose to go about his career and life was as important a lesson as how he taught us to write a sentence."