PictureWriting Out of the Worlds You Know: An Interview with Ann McCutchan

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters

​Ann McCutchan is one of those enviable people who has managed two artistic careers. She started musical studies at an early age and worked professionally as a clarinetist for many years.  But in her mid-30s, writing began taking over her life, by way of a job as music critic in Austin, Texas. The first of her five books was Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute (1994), a music biography.  Her second book, The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak About the Creative Process, quickly found readers interested in all sorts of creativity.

In her third book, Circular Breathing: Essays From a Musical Life (2011), McCutchan wrote of, among other things, the small Florida Space Coast town in which she spent her teens, and how she yearned to leave it for a more culturally rich environment. In Where’s the Moon?, a memoir and her fifth book, released in October 2016, she revisits that town, which she had avoided since age 23, when her parents died in a car accident.

Where’s the Moon? traces McCutchan’s childhood and coming of age, and the ways her adolescence in the 1960s intersected with the Space Race that for a brief time, made Titusville, Florida, nationally significant.  When Ann was in Denton for a book launch party in November 2016, she and I discussed the new book, and other things.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Please talk about the origins of Where’s the Moon?

Ann McCutchan: It started with an essay published in 1997: “Circular Breathing,” about my parents’ death in a car accident, and my response to it. They died in 1974, my first year of grad school. Two other essays having to do with my Florida upbringing were included in the collection, Circular Breathing.  But it wasn’t until 2010, when I was finishing River Music, a book about Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, that the notion of a Florida memoir arose. At the time, I was in the Davis Mountains (west Texas), at a residency for environmental writers and thinkers. When I got there, I had one chapter to go on the Atchafalaya book. The first week, I had a dinner conversation with Dick Bartlett, the gentleman who provided the residency, and it turned out he had grown up in the same part of Florida as I had, about fifteen years ahead of me. We reminisced about the area. I went back to my studio that night and said, “This is it; I’m doing it.” I didn’t know what I would write, or what form it would take. I just knew I wanted to investigate that time and that place, figure out how my experiences, and my family’s, fit into it. So I sat down and Googled the Apollo Space Program.

In the midst of writing River Music, I’d had a feeling there was a memoir coming on. My subject, Earl Robicheaux, and I, both had memories of the Space Coast’s natural environment, and my imagination began to drift in that direction.  But it was talking with Dick Bartlett, and later, his wife Joanne, that got me going.

That was the genesis of it. Over the next few years, I wrote bits and pieces. I couldn’t
possibly impose a form on this project; form would have to evolve. But I knew it wasn’t a Me-Moir, limited to I was there or this happened to me. It was a time and place book, and I was a character in it, and my friends and family were characters in it, and so was the community, and world politics and geography and so on. I had to think about how all those themes and layers would progress contrapuntally — several stories, voices, moving together at once – even though, strictly speaking, they’d be presented sequentially.

I like to imagine writing as more than a progression of words on a page — as a solid, three-dimensional object you can view from more than one angle, for instance, or as an orchestra, which produces music in time, not in a simple linear stream, but with a rich verticality that informs and transforms the horizontal line. One of my practices, adopted from a composer, is to print out whole essays or chapters and tape the pages to a wall. With that sort of distance, I can more clearly see and feel, for example, run-on paragraphs or breaks in narrative rhythm.  I can move along the wall, reading aloud, and hear any wrong notes, awkward phrases, or where the equivalent of a chord progression needs to swerve.


Anyway, I tried something new with this memoir. I happened to be at another residency, in Woodstock, and the first morning in my studio started