A.I.R Reflections: Deb McCutchen

Deb McCutchen has her feet firmly planted in two worlds: the nebulous imaginings of writing and earth-bound rationality of science. To name a few of her many preoccupations, she is a full-time lecturer for the College of Natural Sciences at Umass Amherst, a writer, a zoologist, a researcher, and a mother of two energetic children. Deb has been a Puschcart Nominee, Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship finalist, and a frequent participant in public readings and workshops, most recently in ArtSake: Commonwealth Reading Series at Forbes library.  She attended Byrdcliffe’s A.i.R program in early May and is working on her next book, ICE. More information about her and her work can be found on her blog (http://blogs.umass.edu/dkmcc2/).

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– What provoked you to apply to Byrdcliffe and what did you work on while here?

I’m intrigued by the word “provoked.” I supposed I was provoked to apply by having no time to write during my working school year, by a homeschooler ruling the roost at home, by wanting a place close to the Hudson River, which is part of the system I’m writing about… It really was luck though. Byrdcliffe popped up on an internet search for residencies and I thought, “why not?” And evidently they thought the same about me.

– Where does the book’s plot take place?

My setting is the Great Lakes Waterways, my protagonist travels from Chicago to the Oswego Canal via ice-boat and sail-skating after climate change has tipped the world towards ice. As the world thaws again, he sails down the canal to the Hudson River and the sea.

– How does this work differ from your other work? (Who is it written for? age? audience?)

My current work is aimed at YA (young adult) an age group that is very new for me, but in which I read extensively in my own wasted youth. My first book, Whale Road (Random House NZ, 2004, Blake UK 2006) was creative nonfiction about sailing with whale researchers in the South Pacific (my brother and his family are down there now recording the effects of climate change on reef systems (berkshiresweetgold.com) – so an obsession with environmentalism runs in the family). My second book, JELLYFISH — as yet unpublished — is a short step into the future, removing species and adding climate disasters. It was an experiment, half lit, but with an eye for trade, definitely for adults, and might be best typed as a gender-bender post apocalyptic cultural coming-of-age story. JELLYFISH won finalist for a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Fellowship, and one of the judges was a YA editor. She asked to see the ms. We both agreed that JELLYFISH certainly wasn’t YA. So I started to write a prequel with the same main protagonist but with a YA audience in mind. I’d say it is still aimed at the older end of the YA spectrum.

-What else can you tell us about your book?

ICE is also speculative fiction and as scientifically accurate as I can make it. The story begins with a long-lived, intersexed kid (in the tradition of Peter Pan, or Orlando) climbing out of the chimney of a house buried under more than 30 feet of snow. He/she slides down onto the ice of Lake Michigan, and finds a family of Inuit living on the lake, fishing and scavenging in the buried city for materials to make their ice-boats. He travels the Great Lakes Waterways with the girl who finds him. They ice-sail Michigan and Huron, skate-sail across Erie to Niagara, hang-glide over the frozen waterfall and travel down Lake Ontario to the Oswego canal system and down the Hudson River, as the world thaws, in search of the unfrozen water of the salt-sea. ICE is primarily a survival adventure, contextualized by current environmental issues and their possible outcomes in the near future.

-What else can you share about your experience at Byrdcliffe?

Bring your hot water bottle! Byrdcliffe was so interesting, and I got so much writing done. I wrote two-thirds of ICE during the two weeks I was there. I learned a lot from the visual artists, and some of the art I saw while there, and at DIA in nearby Beacon, has sneaked into my novel in odd places in the landscape. I came off nine months of teaching wondering whether I would ever write again, but – despite the need for the hot water bottle – Byrdcliffe provided a quiet, productive, and inspiring setting. It kicked me out of my rut and helped me transition from teaching to writing again. I haven’t been nearly as productive since I got home, but at least I know I can be. Oh, and best part about Byrdcliffe is that some of the buildings are either haunted or they should be. Mary Shelley would be envious.

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