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 writing quick prompts on little strips of paper, like Chinese cookie fortunes – whatever came to mind. They ranged from small memories, like “the time Dad cut down the holly tree,” to broad historical events, like “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Tiny things and large concerns. I just wrote them quickly and taped them to the wall.  I did this for about a week.

When I got about a hundred of them, I began every morning asking myself, “What would I like to write about today?”  It was a game, a pleasure.  No pressure.  I’d walk along the wall, pick a slip that interested or compelled me, and write, or research. At one point, a composer friend came to town, visited my studio, and took photographs of my wall. By then I had close to two hundred little white paper slips fluttering up there; he said they looked like birds’ wings.

When I left the residency, I transferred the slips to 3X5 cards and taped them up in other places, developing some, adding more and trashing others.  Eventually I had a lot of writing and had to make order out of what appeared to be chaos – a collage, really — which took a lot of time, but was also fun. I had several voices going: a personal, intimate voice, the long-view historian’s voice, the snappy reporter’s voice. Those had to alternate in satisfying ways. I kicked out a lot of stuff. In the end, I probably kicked out about a third of what I wrote.

CCP: I am really interested in the blend of the personal and external. You say that research triggered the book with that Google search at the Davis Mountains residency. What is it about the external that led you into the memoir?

AM: The personal was always there; that is what led me in, had been leading me in for years, not the research. I had already written about my parents and, to an extent, Florida, in other essays. Googling the Apollo program was just something I could do late at night – an easy task after a big meal and lots of wine.

And, I knew I would not remember enough. I was a teenager during the Apollo missions, unaware of everything going on. I needed a historical framework. There would be no reason, for me, to write a memoir unless it was part of a larger story, an inquiry on more than one level. We all exist in a larger context, and failing to understand that is to risk misunderstanding the self. I was curious about the whole picture. That was the picture I wanted to try making.

CCP: How did you come to return to Florida to investigate the time of your memoir?

AM: I first went back a dozen years ago for a high school reunion. I attended out of curiosity, wasn’t really interested in renewing ties. Yet to my surprise, I connected with old friends, as well as classmates I hadn’t known well.  Our class, 1969, had a special bond; Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon a month after we graduated, and many of us had witnessed the Apollo 11 launch. Our families had been part of the whole run-up. I was also amazed by how beautiful the natural areas around the town, Titusville, were. The undeveloped beach, protected by NASA, was the same. The wildlife refuge that had become a public attraction was very well maintained. I took the Space Center tour. It all stuck with me when I decided to write the memoir.

In 2011, I had a sabbatical and rented a place for a month in Titusville. I wrote, talked to people, visited old haunts.  Later, I went back for another reunion, and in 2014, when I began to research Marjorie Rawlings’s life in Florida, I returned to the town again, several times.

CCP: We have talked about the impact of the natural world on your work, for instance, on River Music. Could you discuss that in relation to the new book?

AM: Well, the natural world is a significant layer. Florida has a huge environmental story, to say the least – a saga of the natural world ruined by human development. The Florida dream and the commercial forces behind it have compromised the state’s lush beauty for well over a century.  On a personal level, my mother, an outdoorswoman from the northeast, was drawn to Florida’s wilder landscapes before my sister and I were, because as youngsters, we took it for granted.  When our family moved to Florida, from Washington, D.C., our mother took a position as director of camps for the Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale area) Girl Scouts.  As part of the job, she visited campsites or rural land the Scouts were considering for use. The swampy wilderness fascinated her. My sister and I often got dragged along – no baby-sitters for us. But those experiences were invaluable, and though we didn’t know it, they would shape us, to some degree. First landscapes are like genetic material.  I haven’t lived in Florida for decades, but when I visit, it’s as familiar as grandma’s house.  Like our mom, my sister is an outdoorswoman. You can find her on the trails and rivers of western Colorado, active in land conservation and protection.

CCP: Thinking about that and River Music, which is about a musician/natural historian, do you consider yourself a “nature writer”?

AM: No. I abhor genre and marketing labels. How limiting and misleading they are!  I often shy away from “writer” because it leads to inevitable, unanswerable questions, like, “How do you become a writer?”  If I had to identify myself in familiar terms, I’d say, “I’m a classical-type musician who writes books and essays,” because I still consider myself a musician and think of musicians as my family of origin.  Better yet, “I’m a person who enjoys making stuff.”  “Author” works, because it refers generically to books that are finished and published – in the past.  Well, you can see how uncomfortable I am with the whole idea of public definition.  I come from a long line of reserved people. One of my aunts even specified in her will that her death be kept secret, even though she named heirs, who would have to be informed.

CCP: Would you talk more about how your development as a musician led to your development as a writer?

AM: I started learning the clarinet at 11, but also enjoyed reading and writing. A lot. Yet music won out. Hands down, no contest.  Because even though you’re not composing the music you’re playing, you are interpreting or even reinventing it, and it requires the whole body to do it. There is no substitute for that full, visceral engagement, and you share it with others, even if you’re performing with just one othe