In 1998, with a sublet lined up but without jobs, Rebecca McClanahan and her husband left North Carolina and moved to New York City. They were well into middle age. (“Isn’t that backwards?” asked one of McClanahan’s nieces. “Don’t most people go to New York when they’re young?”) Expecting to stay for two years, they stayed for eleven—a time frame that included 9/11 and a serious illness.

Out of this experience comes McClanahan’s new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press). Nancy Geyer talks with McClanahan, who has made a dozen contributions to Brevity over the years, about the crafting of her memoir, with a focus on conveying setting.

Nancy Geyer: In your craft book Word Painting, you recount how, when you were starting out, you thought a strong sense of place was essential to being a good writer, and that this meant living in one place all one’s life, as Updike did in New England, for example. It was a dispiriting notion because your family moved frequently when you were growing up. Then Tim O’Brien came along to say that what mattered was not how long one lived in a place but the intensity of one’s time there.

Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, the intensity of time spent is important to the writing. It’s impossible for me to write a memoir or a place-centered essay without writing about the time in which I experienced that place, which always involves the internal landscape of thought and emotion that fueled the experience. Our move to New York was a midlife leap into the unknown. We were outsiders, and, as is the case with most outsiders, our senses were heightened as we struggled to navigate an alien landscape. This intensity affected how we experienced the city—and how I wrote about it. Had I been a native New Yorker, the descriptions of the city would have been quite different.

NG: So, instead of a deeply rooted sense of place, we have an alien landscape navigated with heightened senses. That freshness of experience is well-served by your decision to write about your time in New York in the present tense (for the most part).

RM: That was not a conscious decision at the time of the writing. Most of the essays were written while I lived there, many of them in the midst of unfolding events. The first 9/11 essay began (on my journal pages) before the attacks. I was responding to two events that happened on September 7. That morning, a squirrel had dropped through the chimney into our fifth-floor apartment, and then, in the evening, my husband and I attended the Sebastião Salgado photography exhibit Migrations. Because of the strange connection between the two events—both involving displacement and migration—the next day I began to draft an essay fueled by the ongoing, present-tense drama of the squirrel, since he (I imagine the squirrel as a “he”!) was very much a part of our lives. I don’t want to issue a spoiler alert, so will stop there, except to say that after the attacks occurred, all three events—the Salgado exhibit, the squirrel, 9/11—came together. I finished the essay a few months later, but it was animated by the forward movement of the experiences leading up to the attacks.

NG: You mention journal pages. These essays are so rich in detail that I thought you must have been jotting things down soon after they happened. 

RM: I have been a journal keeper for decades, though the journals take the form of a writer’s notebook where I not only record events but also respond to books I’m reading and often draft the beginnings of what might become new essays or poems. Later, in the revision stages, I consult my journals as a researcher or fact-checker might, conducting what I think of as “I-search,” and often in this stage I discover details that I might have overlooked. This happened with the cancer essay, when I read not only my own journals but also my mother’s, which she’d kept when she came to New York to care for me before and after the surgery. Because I was so out of it during that time, her descriptions of the hospital, the weather, my hospital roommate, my distress and my recovery helped to enrich the narrative.

Nancy Geyer

NG: The “Key” in your memoir’s title: At its most obvious, it suggests music—the sounds of New York City, and also your love of music. Can you say more about what you wish to convey by this word?

RM: “In the Key…” is of course related to music, and music weaves its way throughout the book: in the sounds heard through apartment walls, the cacophony of the streets and subways, the music I hear during the 9/11 prayer service, the backstory involving my own musical training, and even in the hospital segment when I hear the dying man’s wife echoing his cries. Music touches the deepest parts of our experience; it transcends language. “Song,” as the epigraph to one of the essays suggests, is the highest form of grief. So the book opens with music and ends with it. But I suppose the “key” to New York could also be seen as an object, something that opens the door into a new experience.

NG: In one of your craft essays for Brevity, “Forest in the Trees,” you mention recurring patterns or motifs as a way to unify a book. They can also reinforce the feel of a place, right? I’m thinking of your squirrels and park benches. 

RM: Yes, recurring motifs seem a natural way to unify a book and to situate the reader in a place. And you’re right about animals and park benches! Squirrels do indeed scamper now and then through the book’s pages, but quite a few other creatures make appearances as well—pigeons and ducks, including the duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the dogs in the park, and even the baby bird that the homeless man shows me nesting in the lining of his jacket.

And yes, the park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers, who were always eager to share their stories and their sometimes strange but always intriguing wisdom. In that way, a park bench is where the public and private meet, right? Which seems to echo the experience of living in New York. At least my own experience during the time we lived there.

NG: And mine, as a frequent visitor—through the first week of March of this year, anyway.

RM: If I were to return today, Central Park—and the park benches—would feel quite different. Given the pandemic, I would not feel free or safe to sit close to a stranger. And I wouldn’t be able to unsee the images of the makeshift field hospital and morgues in the East Meadow and along the perimeter of the park. If I wrote about the park now, even if I wrote about my past experiences there, my present-tense grief and anxiety for the city and its people (including my nieces and great-niece) would be impossible to separate from my physical descriptions of the place.

NG: I’m glad you captured your experience as you were living it. Of course, there have been changes other than the pandemic too, good and bad, since then.

RM: I’ve often heard the phrase “a place where time stands still,” but I’ve never believed that such a place exists. Time has its way with the character of a place just as it does with human characters: a neighborhood changes, a farm, a forest, a whole city. Even the most seemingly static place cannot help but change, even if that change is reflected more in the eye of its beholder than in physical changes in the place. And just as real-life characters move forward in time after our memoirs or essays are written and published, so too do the places that we write about. As I say in the author note to the book, life moves in strange and marvelous patterns; the memoir runs panting behind the life but can never catch up.

Rebecca McClanahans eleventh book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays, was released by Red Hen Press in September 2020. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, The Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, Brevity, The Sun, River Teeth, and in anthologies published by Simon & Schuster, Beacon, Norton, and Bedford/St. Martin, among others. Recipient of two Pushcart prizes, the Glasgow Award in Nonfiction, the Wood Prize from Poetry, the Carter Prize for the Essay, and the N.C. Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of the Rainier Writing Workshop and Queens University and in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.

Nancy Geyer’s writing has appeared in journals including After the Art, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, and NER Digital, and in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W.W. Norton) and The Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press). She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, the Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, Iron Horse Literary Review’s Discovered Voices Award, and the Award in Nonfiction. She lives in Washington, D.C.