Wyatt Williams The Oxford American:
In the winter of 1965, an ambitious writer met with William Shawn, the famously autocratic editor of the New Yorker, to discuss his next story. After some considerable effort, the young man had published an expansive profile of a basketball star in the January 23 issue of the magazine. While going over final proofs of that story with Shawn, he had even talked his way into a job as staff writer. But now they couldn’t agree on the writer’s next assignment. The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”
According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”
It is a fitting origin story for an idiosyncratic writer whose work has followed the farthest limits of his interests wherever they lead. Descriptions of McPhee’s career inevitably fumble with the broadness of it—he has written books about sports and nature and canoes and doctors and fish and nuclear physics. McPhee is a patient writer, aware of time and yet existing a little outside of it. Around the same cultural moment that, say, Joan Didion was collecting her essays for The White Album, a book that spans the upheaval of a decade, McPhee was beginning to map out a comprehensive survey of North American geology, a book that spans the upheaval of billions of years. Twenty years later, when he finally published Annals of the Former World, a seven-hundred-page monument to rocks, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.