Rebecca McClanahan on Scientific and Imaginative Observations and “In the Key of New York City”

As I read the essays in Rebecca McClanahan’s newest collection, In the Key of New York City, something kept poking at me. It was a sensation that I couldn’t quite place, but it had to do with the feeling that I, the reader, was “watching” the author “watch” life around her. With each essay, as Rebecca settled into the frenzied yet beautiful life of a New Yorker, the feeling became stronger. I was utterly entranced. And then it hit me: Rebecca McClanahan is not just a lovely writer; in many ways, her approach is that of a thorough, thoughtful scientist. 

Readers will pick up In the Key of New York City, which traces the eleven years of Rebecca’s mid-life migration, and know the basics about the eponymous locale. Within the first few pages, however, they will come to see New York City as a being. With each sentence, her words zoom in to give readers a microscopic understanding of a city alive with turmoil, kindness, trauma, beauty, possibility, and humanity. From her own newcomer-ness, to the earth-shaking of September 11, 2001, to her diagnosis with a serious form of cancer, Rebecca (the artist, through the lens of a scientist) studies it all. When readers close the book, they will possess a more thorough understanding of the anatomy of this great and complex city.

But to refer to Rebecca’s “scientific method” should not in any way diminish the lyricism with which she writes. As readers of her previous works know, she is a writer with a discerning eye and strong heart. Her love affair with lexicography leaps off of almost every page, and her passion for uncovering human condition follows close behind. I found myself taking notes throughout, capturing lines like, “three young men joined at the clipboard,” “used to curl up in the middle of the grownups’ talk,” and, “if you look closely, in just the right light, New York pigeons are beautiful, resplendent in their rainbow, oil-spilled hues.” This is, quite simply, one of my favorite essay collections, and it was an honor to interview Rebecca McClanahan following its release.

In the author’s note, you write, “Life interrupts the memoir.” I’m sure you never predicted how accurate that phrase would be when a global pandemic shook the world and particularly New York City and your publication was moved from May to September of 2020. How involved were you, as the author, in that decision? How involved was your heart?

My heart was definitely in charge. As I’m sure you recall, two months before the book was scheduled to appear, New York and its people were in deep distress. Like many citizens, I was overcome with worry and grief for the city. Also, I have two nieces, a baby great-niece, and many friends and former students in New York, and because the 9/11 attacks figure strongly in several parts of the book, I did not want readers — especially New York readers — to imagine that I was equating the events of 9/11, horrendous as they were, with the seemingly unrelenting crisis of the pandemic. So I was relieved when my editor agreed to hold off until September for the book’s release.

In the Key of New York City is a “memoir in essays.” Do you prefer essays to longer, more narrative work? What do essays offer the reader that make them unique? Do they afford any “superpower” to the writer?

I love both forms and don’t prefer one above the other; it all depends on what the book itself calls for. I’ve written a single-arc ancestral memoir (The Tribal Knot) as well as books of essays and now this memoir-in-essays. Many of the essays in In the Key of New York City, especially the longest ones, are in the narrative mode, though others are propelled more by sound or image, acting almost like prose poems. But if we take to heart what Poe wrote about the power of the “unity of effect” in a short story, perhaps that answers your question about what briefer pieces offer the reader that more sustained works cannot.

What particularly struck me as I read is something I have always admired about your writing: the blend of scrutiny and imagination that make up your acute observations. Have you always possessed this skill?

If I do possess this blend — thanks for the compliment — it may be due in part to having been a military brat whose family moved often. That would account for the “acute observation” part of the blend, anyway. Most military children, at least the ones I’ve known, learn early on how to survive as an outsider, and that adaption requires powers of observation, watching for clues — the lay of this new land, the cultural and societal norms, the social interactions. I often tell my students that writing from the stance of the newcomer (or outsider or novice) requires you to pay close attention to the new world that you’ve entered. Your feelers are on high alert. You notice even the smallest details. As for the role of imagination, I believe that all humans are naturally imaginative; we make new connections, images, and ideas all the time, though we may not always trust them or act on them. A writer, in my opinion, learns to trust the processes that engage these innate powers of imagination. The more we trust that process, the more we will allow the imagination to play its natural, and integral, role.

Related to your powers of observation, I believe, is the fact that, as I read, I started to consider you as almost a scientist: looking at New York City in both macro- and micro-views. You emerge off the page as an anthropologist, sociologist, zoologist (with a sub-specialty in squirrels), and more. What -ists am I forgetting?

Maybe etymologist. I love tracing the roots of words, especially words that I’d always thought I understood. Discovering the roots of a word — and thus its branches and leaves — opens up whole new possibilities for writing. When I was revising an essay about a great-aunt who was very important in my life (“Aunt” appears in The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings) I realized that I really didn’t know where the word came from. What a delight to learn that in old French, “aunt” traces to “ante-” — as in a room off the main room. And that the Latin root is “amma”: mother, or “amare”: to love. Which led me to “amigo” and “amour” and, finally, to “amateur,” a discovery that helped me understand the complex, deep connection I had with Aunt Bessie. She cared for me not as a mother but rather as an offshoot of mother. And perhaps because she had no children of her own, she was an amateur in the best sense of the word: someone who works for the bare love of it. That discovery helped me not only in my personal life but also in finding an ending for that essay.

In one essay, “Bookmarks,” you mention a loved one (and former librarian) gifting you an envelope of found bookmarks, which for you serve as “bits and pieces of strangers’ lives, hundreds of markers of personal history.” What bookmarks from your time in New York City would you like to throw in an envelope (or a giant box in the back of your closet)?

Okay, what would fit in an envelope? I’d start with objects that you might guess I’d include, given that you’ve read the book. Certainly my MetroCard, as I used the subway so much and the crosstown buses too. I couldn’t forget to save my public library card. Ticket stubs from theaters and free concerts. Maybe a ginkgo leaf from Central Park. The ballpoint pen with the name of the hospital where I had my cancer surgery. My New York driver’s license. My certificate of jury duty. But oh dear, your question has reminded me of so many New York experiences I wrote about that did not end up in the book. I’d need to include receipts from the Strand Bookstore, the neighborhood deli where we met friends, and the secondhand dress shop on Third Avenue, where, according to the proprietor, I always chose items that had belonged to the same woman. I’d save one of the dozens of tiny metal admission pins from the Metropolitan Museum. And, oh yes, the punched-out tickets for the MetroNorth Hudson line (I taught at Hudson Valley Writers Center for nine years and absolutely loved the view from the train window) and my YMCA card (I taught at the Writer’s Voice at the Y for years.) I’m sure there are many more “bookmarks” I’m forgetting, but that’s enough for now to fill the envelope. Great question, Tracy!

For personal reasons, I am particularly struck by and enamored with your essay “Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy.” You beautifully capture the surreal tragicomedy of spending time in a hospital, focusing on your own healing, noticing the heartbeats of the life around you. Is writing about your own health a challenge? If not, how would you classify it?

Hospital experiences are surreal, aren’t they? And even the most tragic events sometimes hold within them moments of light, even humor. It’s absurd, after all, to be exposed — literally and figuratively — and to be at the mercy of caregivers. There’s a kind of unavoidable surrender involved, no way around it. And as I say in the essay, in my opinion denial has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Sometimes denial is a survival tool, as is removing yourself from yourself — the self in pain — and panning out, in your imagination, to a larger view where you see yourself as only one character among many in this surreal drama. There was heartbreak and grief and death all around me in that hospital. But I was one of the lucky ones, which may be why I was able to write about it at all.  

You and your husband left New York City in 2009, after 11 years of living there. Thinking of the book’s essay “Our Towns,” and about Emily’s ability to go to the past against others’ advice, I wonder if there is any experience(s) that you’d like to go back and revisit, re-see — even against the Stage Manager’s advice?

Given the pandemic, it is impossible to return to those Central Park benches I loved and to all the conversations with strangers opening up their stories and lives to me. But yes, if I could go back to that time and place in New York, that’s where I would go.

If you were to dedicate a bench to those 11 years in New York City, what would your plaque say? Where would you put it?

I’d have to choose from so many spots in the park, each with its own reason to be chosen. But I would probably choose a bench in Shakespeare Garden, which seemed to be a hidden gem, a place where I retreated when I needed to pause, to grieve, to escape, or just to get my bearings. I’d place the bench near the “mercy seat,” as I call it in the book, a bench named for a couple with the last name Mercy. As for a plaque, I’d consider “Our lives are sublets. Catch and release!” Or maybe, quoting that beautiful, wise man on the subway, “Let Calgon Be Calgon!” Of course, unless someone had read my book, they wouldn’t get the reference.

Several powerful themes emerge throughout the memoir. Music, wilderness, water, the human body and bodies of work, and the cycle of life. Being a stranger in a strange land, loneliness, discovery, curiosity, investigation. Which of these have you carried into the writing you’ve been doing since you left New York? Which new ones seem to grab on to you now that you’re back in North Carolina?

Every event we experience is potentially life-changing, right? And every move we make — to a new city, a new decade, a new job or relationship — requires us, to one degree or another, to be a stranger in a strange land. When we left New York, it was in part to be closer to our parents so that we could begin to care for them in the years to come. Those years arrived more quickly than we’d imagined, with all the accompanying difficulties and rewards that every journey entails. We’re still in the midst of that journey, and I often still feel I’m a stranger in a strange land. As for themes that are emerging in the “care-grieving” essays I’ve been writing for seven or eight years now, yes to music and literature (the body of work), yes to the human body, loneliness, the cycle of life. And surprise, even in the midst of grief and pain — a theme you didn’t mention but that continues to arrive with each new year.

In the Key of New York City
by Rebecca McClanahan
Red Hen Press
Published September 1, 2020