Monday, August 31, 2020

TBR: In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays by Rebecca McClanahan

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Can we pretend it’s a high-rise elevator (it’s a New York City book, after all) so that I can take 3 long sentences? I’m pushing the elevator button now. Here goes:

Alternating between brief vignettes and sustained narratives, this memoir-in-essays tracks the heartbeat of New York through the ears of a newcomer: 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 life in North Carolina to pursue a long-held dream of living in Manhattan, the author 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.

Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?

Since my book is a hybrid (a memoir-in-essays) rather than a collection of essays, it’s difficult to separate my process of writing the independent essays from my process of shaping the full book, but I’ll do my best: “Signs and Wonders,” the opening piece, was fun to write, as it represents the briefer, voice-propelled essays in the book. For me, this kind of essay comes naturally, as I can snap into my musical history (I was a vocalist) and delight in the sounds and rhythms of the lines. This is not to say that I don’t attend closely to the language of the longer braided, segmented, or narrative essays as well. But because longer essays require so much revising and reordering and reshaping before they are finished—a process that often stretches into years—I tend to remember their hard labor rather than the more joyous moments that were of course part of their making as well.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Oh dear, do I have to? Chronicle the lows, I mean? Following up on the “hard labor” note above, I prefer to be like those women who claim not to remember the pain of childbirth. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a long road we traveled—the book and I—on the way to publication. But each step (or misstep, perhaps) brought the manuscript closer to the book it was destined to become. I guess what I’m saying is that the highs and lows merge in my memory. Both were necessary, as I imagine they are for all writers who are committed to remaining on the long road of writing, wherever it may take them.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Writing begets more writing. Meaning grows on the page. And this, from William Faulker’s Nobel speech: “. . . the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about . . . “

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Every sentence I write is a surprise; I’m always amazed to witness words growing into sentences and then paragraphs or stanzas and then, if I’m lucky and hang on long enough, into whole poems or essays or stories or books. However successful or flawed the final product might be, the process itself always feels miraculous to me. Imagine: we writers have only the alphabet to work with, yet so many possibilities arise! As for this particular book, what surprised me was how organically related the essays actually were, once I discovered the threads that connected them. Though the pieces vary in length, timeline, form, and thematic emphasis, they all touch on what I imagine as the soundtrack—or heartbeat—of my New York experience. I was delighted when early readers of the manuscript heard this soundtrack. Their responses led me to the final title of the book: In the Key of New York City.

Who is your ideal reader?

In some ways, my ideal reader is always the same for every book: a reader who is willing to step into the pages with me and complete the transaction I’ve begun. I covet readers who are emotionally smart, who can do the work that I believe readers want to do: to make the text their own in any way they can. In the case of this book, of course I hope to touch any reader who has some connection to New York. But I hope that the book’s reach extends beyond that—to anyone who has ever been uprooted or who has felt like a newcomer or outsider, who has longed for connection, and who has been lucky enough to experience a place that changed them in remarkable ways. Maybe that’s reaching too high, but that is my aim. I am grateful to each and every reader. Readers make books possible.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

In one of the essays, I write about offering my homemade cookies to New York apartment neighbors—and the Con Ed guy—to entice them to become friends. Sadly, the scheme didn’t work too well, but the cookies were excellent! I used the traditional Toll House recipe for chocolate chip and the inside-lid recipe on Quaker Oats for the oatmeal ones, which were the Con Ed guy’s favorite, by the way.

[Editor’s note: Here’s the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies…a favorite in my house!]


READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “’And We Shall be Changed’: New York City, September, 2001”:‘and-we-shall-be-changed’-new-york-city-september-2001/


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.