Interview by Lara Lillibridge
About the Book: In this lively and deeply affecting memoir, Rebecca McClanahan tracks the heartbeat of New York as only a stunned newcomer can: in overheard conversations on park benches, songs and cries sifted through apartment walls, and in encounters with street people dispensing unexpected wisdom. Having uprooted their settled lives in North Carolina to pursue a long-held dream of living in Manhattan, she and her husband struggle to find jobs, forge friendships, and create a home in a city of strangers. The 9/11 attacks and a serious cancer surgery complicate their story, merging the public with the private, the present with the past, to shape a journey richer than either could have imagined. (Red Hen Press)
About the Author: Rebecca McClanahan, author of ten books, has received two Pushcart Prizes, the Glasgow Award in nonfiction, the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from Poetry magazine, and four fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, the Sun, and in anthologies published by Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Norton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bedford/St. Martin’s, and numerous others. She teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop and lives with her husband, video producer Donald Devet, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Lara Lillibridge: I loved In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays. I read The Tribal Knot during my MFA, so it was a treat to read another book by you. You’ve written ten books now?
Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, five are poetry, and my craft book, Word Painting, is in its second edition. I have a book of lectures, and The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, which was my first memoir in essays, then the big guy, Tribal Knot, which was very different in some ways, and now the New York book.
LL: There were a few things that really struck me. There is an optimism, an acceptance with joy. You write about these characters with such tenderness. For example, in the essay “Adopt a Bench” you write, “It occurs to me that this strange, pungent-smelling man has a history. He was a schoolboy once.”
And even the pigeons are beautiful—
RMcC: (laughs) —if you get them in the right light!
LL: Right, if you get them in the right light!
If you look closely, in just the right light, New York pigeons are beautiful, resplendent in their rainbow oil-spilled hues, the jewel colors of their backs—turquoise, emerald, topaz, jade—reflecting the variations of the sky. (From the essay, “Sublet”)
You take people and creatures that others might ridicule and paint them with love. It primes us to view this city through a lens of generosity. Are you naturally a sunny person?
RMcC: I’ll say not lately, with everything that’s going on. But I think probably that’s the way I was raised by such a fabulous mother. In the essay “Sublet,” I say “perky is dead,” and I’ve had very dark times, as we all have, but I tend to bounce back and I try to believe the very best of people whenever possible so that I can move forward. My mother taught me that.
LL: Your book does have deep sorrow. You touch on homesickness in the essay, “The Music in the Walls” when you write, “This is it. This is my life. And I am so lonely.” Those simple sentences were so rich for me. Yet, a lot of the darkness exists off the page. From a craft perspective, people talk about how the light can only exist with darkness. Were you intentional with that balance? Or was that just how it flowed?
RMcC: We can’t know joy if we don’t know sorrow. That’s part of who we are. I always think about Faulkner’s quote in his Nobel speech about good writing, that it’s “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I always try to think of that in terms of contrast. Not consciously, I don’t try to put the contrast in there, but the balance between two emotions is important.
I was talking to a student about that the other day. The problem with her draft was that there was a single emotion in the scene she was working on, and I said that I don’t think we ever have a single emotion in any one moment, particularly in heightened emotional moments. The emotions are always twinned, and if we can scratch the surface, perhaps we can see the totality of the feeling we’re having and how many emotions it touches on: jealousy could be connected with fear, love certainly is often connected with hate.
So the student and I were talking about something I believe in, which is the equal opportunity conjunction: and. When you are writing about mixed emotions, there’s a big difference if you use and as opposed to but …I wanted to kiss him and never see him again, compared to I wanted to kiss him but never see him again. But puts the emotions in opposition, when really they are one and the same in that moment, not in opposition.
For instance, in In the Key of New York City, within the same moment, I can be feeling anger, hate, and love for the city. Homesickness but also excitement.
LL: While we’re talking about darkness and the craft of writing, I wanted to talk about your treatment of September 11th. It just really struck me emotionally and on a craft level, that in the essay, “And We Shall Be Changed: Sept. 7-11, 2001,” you never mention the twin towers coming down. The essay holds the silence of anticipation. Then we have a flash piece about a dying pigeon that is really very touching. I mean, the tension, the symbolism, I was in tears. It’s brilliantly done. Then we jump over the event to the next essay, the aftermath. The taping off of windows. The terrorist attack stands as a hole, with essays on either side. Much, I think like the twin towers formed a hole in the city. I thought that was so artistically beautiful. It could have very easily have gotten to be too heavy.
R McC: I was very aware that it could be too much. Everyone that I know had a particular experience of the actual moment that particular day, and that memory is theirs to have and to hold. The pigeon—that very brief piece—was the reader’s time to fill that in before I come with the aftermath. I felt that I needed to hold that space very strongly. We had been in New York City for two years when it happened. As a newcomer, I stepped carefully around those emotions. I was trying to honor each person’s individual reaction. In the final edits it was a choice, of course. I think some people thought, why don’t you just talk about your feelings, and I did in “Tears, Silence, Song,” when the brokenness occurred for me—in the aftermath of the event, not while it was happening.
LL: You rely a lot on reader complicity. You trust your reader; you don’t give a lot of backstory. For example, you don’t say you moved with no job, you show Donald going to an interview, the narrator having endless time on her hands. I think for a new writer the impulse is to over-explain things. You have a beautiful way of giving us enough to know what is going on and then trust that we’d figure it out. Is that intentional?
RMcC: It is in revision. I tend to be an over-writer—a lot of [early drafts] is me talking to myself then by page seven or eight, I’m in it. I have such respect for readers. I need a lot of help as a reader to know basic details—is that a duck or a goose, is that the mother or mother-in-law—but I don’t need to be told how to feel. So in revision, I go through with a rake. I feel like, okay this is the readers’ job to do, they don’t need me to do this for them—they aren’t babies. I love to revise. That’s where the decision is made—not early, not as I’m drafting. It’s all I can do to get the sentence written in the initial writing.
LL: You said that you love to revise. That’s not something that students ever say. But many say that you have to come to love revision if you’re going to be a writer. How do you learn to love it? Can you speak a little about revision, either the art of it, or the feel of shaping it, how to love it?
RMcC: I teach in two MFA programs and I hear that a lot. I think the pressure to revise everything is unnecessary. Only about half of the things I draft ever get to revision. They are practice exercises, rehearsals. Things that haven’t found their whole self, and I sense they never will, so I release them. I put those aside.
You have to really love the work you’re in the middle of, feel that it’s the real thing, in order to revise. That’s just a sense that you have. If I have a piece that’s not emotionally true, if it’s not catching fire and never will, I set it aside. I see students trying to revise and revise and it is not only inefficient but no wonder we don’t like revision if we think everything we write has to go through every stage. I was joking with my students that I’m buying myself a DNR stamp for some of my drafts. Sometimes we think that it was so much work we don’t want to step away. Be easy on yourself. Those pieces that will not let you go, I don’t care how long they take—some of them take 7 or 8 years, because I know they are real and from my truest self as a person and a writer, and I’ll do anything to make them work. The other ones I just let go.
LL: I’ve harvested a single paragraph from 10 pages. You can scavenge some past material, right?
RMcC: The essays in the book were written over a long period of time. Most of them were published, one was in Best American, and I felt they were full and real and whole as essays, but when I put them all together to shape what I hope is a whole, they got revised again. Some got cut drastically, one got cut into three pieces. The pigeon one you mentioned was part of the original essay Ginkgo Song. I eviscerated some of these essays in obeisance to the book.
LL: Previous essays aren’t locked?
RMcC: Of course. The biggest change in there, “Early Morning, Downtown One Train,” was first published as a poem, but I dismantled the line breaks. The wording is exactly the same, but I made it into prose, because it deserved to be there, it was the spirit of the book. I was trying to make a memoir in essays, not an essay collection—they are two distinct things. I have a craft essay in Brevity called the “Forest in the Trees” about the difference between a book of essays and a collection of essays. I think they are two very different animals.
LL: I’m making a very abrupt shift here, reading my notes—
RMcC: You’re like a segmented essay, taking that leap.
LL: Exactly. You have this love of language, of taking apart language, and the examination of it. In the beginning of “Sublet” you write, “the first time I encountered the word, my brain misread it as subtle.”
And you go on to take apart the word jade:
I’m not that jaded yet. Jade is a strange word, depending on how you turn it in the light. Jade: deep green mineral, known for its ability to take an elegant polish; the harder you rub it, the more it shines. Jade: a dull, exhausted, ill-tempered horse…
I love as a writer those kinds of tangents. And it’s obvious to me that you just love words and language.
RMcC: Yes, thus the OED that I can hardly lift. Not the IUD—
LL: Yes! That was a funny moment. That’s totally my sense of humor. But you shifted my thinking of writing from something cerebral to these words are your materials as an artist has paints or clay. By delving into these definitions and derivations, it made me think about writing itself a little bit differently.
RMcC: I love word derivations. We can express emotions in many ways, but as writers, we’re sentenced to the sentence. And to words. That’s all we have, these black marks on the page. You can’t create emotion without each particular word and its relation to the next one. And because I am a poet, I really listen to the rhythms, I listen to the sounds that words make. Our words and sentences are like the soundtrack to a movie. As a reader, you might not notice the soundtrack, but it moves you.
LL: Do you always read your work out loud? At what point?
RMcC: When I’m at the final revision, or when I think I am, I will read aloud most pieces, at least parts of them. Not the bits of research, that’s something different, but in narrative yes, and in dialog, definitely. You really have to hear what you remember hearing in the spirit of the moment. I test that with the ear. I was a music major to begin with so I’m very drawn into the music of sentences.
LL: How did you go from music to writing?
RMcC: I changed majors several times, I was interested in so many things. But I was not good enough in math to do the musical theory or composition courses. I was fine with the vocal—the singing, I could do that. I made my way through college singing, as I said in the book, but mathematics and music are so closely related, and I’m just not good enough at math. And then I got so hooked into poetry and literature.
LL: I don’t write poetry, but I try to read poetry every day, I think that’s one the best things you can do as a prose writer. Are there poets or poetry websites you recommended?
RMcC: So many. One of my hobbies is memorizing poetry. I know around 100-110 poems. It’s part of my writing practice. I begin almost every workshop in any genre by reciting a poem that I admire. One thing that gets lost with a lot of literary nonfiction writers is that attention to language. We get so lost in the story or the character that we forget that creative nonfiction aspires to the condition of art. And one way we aspire to that condition is through the sounds, the attention to language. I have a little journal and I write by hand the poems I’m trying to learn. Each month I try to learn at least one new one. It doesn’t leave you. My mother has advanced dementia. We’ve been helping to care for her for the last seven years. Some of the last things to go are nursery rhymes, poems, songs. They are deep within our hippocampus.
LL: What are you working on now?
RMcC: I’ve been writing for the last seven years what I call care-grieving essays. The briefer ones are on my website, they are about caring for parents and dementia. That’s what’s been the center of my life for the last several years. The most recent Pushcart Prize has a two-part essay called “Stories That Fit My Hands” that talks about this part of our lives. These care-grieving essays are very different from my long narrative essays or the lyric essays. A lot of them are almost like little plays. And some are very brief. Maybe that’s because I was so on-call with the traumas of caregiving that I didn’t have long stretches of writing time. Maybe it’s similar to what young mothers face when they’re trying to write.
Some of the care-grieving essays are longer, though. I have a long piece that just came out in River Teeth about my father-in-law’s suicide, but it’s connected again to my parents’ caregiving. So many people are facing this now, it’s one of our national challenges.
LL: My father has dementia as well. I do know exactly what you’re talking about—grieving while they are still alive.
RMcC: But there are moments of light— a surreal quality. It’s so strange, you have to kind of look down at yourself as a character. I’m sorry to hear about your father. The experience of caregiving is so universal yet feels so individual at the same time when it happens to you. I won the lottery with my mother as a person, her spirit and soul. And with my father as well; he is so alive in my memory. She and my father have small roles in In the Key of New York City, but are so large in my life experience. And they will come forward as the main characters as I continue to write the caregiving book.
On the other hand, I have fifteen nephews and nieces and twenty-two great nephews and nieces, several in town, and when things get tough I get to play with them and be reminded of this circle of life.
LL: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
In the Key of New York City released September 1 by Red Hen Press.