Twenty Questions: Author Interview

Q & A with Paul McComas:
Twenty Questions for the Author of Twenty Questions

The following Q & A is drawn from three separate 1998 interviews: one that appeared on; a second, conducted by Marla Hart for the Chicago Tribune; and a third, conducted by Erin Brereton for the Daily Northwestern.

Q: This is your first book. Where’d you get the idea to do a collection of short stories instead of a full-length novel?

A: I still consider myself a beginning writer, and short stories are challenging enough in their own right. Only recently have I felt qualified to try a bigger canvas. Plus, pulling these pieces together into an anthology gave me the closure on my short-story work that I needed to tackle a novel.

Q: Are the stories old or new?

A: Both. Some go back to the early ’80s, and others were written quite recently to fill out the collection. In all, it took me 14 years to write a book. . .and not a thick one at that! Then again, 20 stories for $11 figures out to 55 cents per story — not bad.

Q: Did you have any goals for this collection when you wrote it — to get published, or just to finish, etc.?

A: I definitely wanted to get it published. I’ve never been someone who writes just for myself. I don’t keep a journal; I write to be read.

Q: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?

A: I think I’ve felt the urge to write fiction since I first learned to put words together into sentences. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of fiction-writing as telling “lies” that have the ring of truth — recounting episodes that never actually happened in a way that makes the reader believe that they did — and, ideally, conveying some greater “truth” in the process. It’s a challenge, but one that I seem to be up to.

Whenever I perform the monologue version of “Now I Know My ABCs” — a Twenty Questions story about a young woman who develops schizophrenia, told from her older brother’s point of view — people come up to me afterward and ask, “How’s your sister doing now?” I have no such sister. So I guess I must be doing something right. See, all the emotion contained in the brother’s voice is “true,” even though the story is fictitious. Again, I’m using lies to tell a greater truth.

Likewise, the novel I’m writing, Unplugged, is about depression and recovery. I did have [my own] episode of depression a year ago; terrible as it was, it needed to happen in order to force some changes in my life. Anyway, to distance myself from the particulars of my own situation — I’m not writing a memoir here! — I made the protagonist a 27-year-old bisexual woman who’s a rock musician. Paradoxically, because the character of Dayna Clay obviously is not me, I was able to turn around and put a great deal of myself into her.

Q: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

A: Since Twenty Questions is a short-story collection, I’ll mention two of my favorite short-story books: Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips and Cruising Paradise by the playwright Sam Shepard. Phillips’ prose is dense and poetic, Shepard’s lean and gritty, but in both cases, the author’s command of the language is phenomenal. These are both must-reads for fans of the short-fiction genre.

I’m blown away by their craft, but I try not to beat myself up thinking, “I wish I could write like so-and-so.” Because only Paul McComas can tell a Paul McComas story. And only (your name here) can write a (your name here) story.

Q: Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)?

A: I’m currently working on my first full-length novel, Unplugged. I work on a laptop, and I try to write four pages a day, and I re-write each chapter before going on to the next, treating it, I suppose, like a short story. I find that most of my better ideas come to me while I’m out running by the lake. The positive impact of regular exercise on one’s muse cannot be overstated.

I find it quite helpful to keep an “idea book” — a notebook in which I list imagery, ideas, overheard bits of real-life dialogue, and anything else that seems like it might come in handy in some future story, script or novel. Later, when I’m beginning a new piece, I go through the idea book and pull out those bits and pieces from the past that seem like they might fit. Some do — and the others go right back in limbo. (At least, for now.)

Q: Do you write every single day?

A: No. Some writers feel they have to, even if what they come up with on a given day is crap. But to me, writing crap is discouraging! I prefer to use those “off days” to address other areas of my life that need addressing. That way, when it returns, I can give the muse its due.

Q: Any writing rituals?

A: I’m anti-superstitious. I’m likely to go out of my way to walk under a ladder.

Q: Ballpoint, uniball or fountain pen?

A: Ballpoint. Or purple-ink Flair.

Q: Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions, or similar events?

A: At book-store reading/signing events and elsewhere, I tend to perform my short stories as monologues, one-act plays and performance-art pieces, thus allowing for immediate feedback from my listeners/readers. I enjoy that immediate feedback. My preference is to recite, to make eye contact. Book stores, art galleries, coffeehouses and theater spaces afford an intimate atmosphere in which to bring one’s work directly to the audience — and, often, discuss it afterward.

Q: Aren’t writers supposed to be solitary?

A: Writing can be a solitary existence; I enjoy my privacy, but less so the solitude. By keeping a hand in acting/monologue/performance, I minimize the solitude, and I’m certain my work is the better for it.

Q: Can we recognize your adopted hometown of Evanston in Twenty Questions?

A: In the story “If I Had A Hammer,” a guy disempowered by his joblessness steals an enormous hammer, which is based on the hammer outside Lemoi’s Hardware on Davis Street. But please, kids: don’t try this at home!

Q: You mention Kurt Cobain a couple of times in your book [in the story “Tracks”]. Do you remember where you were when you heard that he’d died?

A: Absolutely. I was working in San Diego at a convention of the Association of American Medical Colleges. I was in my hotel room and caught [the news] on CNN. I went back down to the convention thinking, “This is maybe the most important artist of the decade that’s just died,” and I wanted to talk to someone. I knew I was in the wrong profession when no one I spoke to knew who he was.

Q: What’s the worst job you’ve had?

A: My first job out of grad school was a low-level editorial job describing dental products for a series of monthly catalogues. The worst job, though — for anyone — has to be the one with the worst boss. Don’t get me started on that.

Q: Tell us some more about your book.

A: Twenty Questions is my first published book. It contains 20 stories that end somewhat ambiguously; hence the title. Several of the stories have appeared before in literary magazines. I have a Master’s in Film, and numerous people have described my writing as “cinematic.” I suppose this is an accurate description.

Q: Are you planning to adapt any of your stories to the screen?

A: I already have. I wrote the screenplays for and acted in adaptations of three of the stories — “H.O.D.,” “Wedding Dress” and “Desert Slacks” — and one of them [“Slacks”] I also directed.

Q: What’s more important: characters or plot?

A: My emphasis is on characterization. Before plot, before setting and imagery, before even theme come the people. If they are fully and authentically realized, then the rest will grow organically out of them. If not — then start over.

Sometimes I do some very basic outlining, but usually I don’t. Either way, I never know the ending when I begin. That’s crucial, because I want the characters to show me where the story is heading — not vice versa.

Q: How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in fiction writing?

A: Believe me, I’ve collected a rainforest’s worth of rejection slips! So there’s that aspect of it, which is tough. You need to have a strong ego. You need to believe in yourself.

Also, I spent 13 years in institutional/public relations and editorial jobs of various kinds, treating my own writing — fiction writing — as, I see now, a kind of hobby. When I was laid off in August 1997, I decided not to throw myself back into corporate America (where I was never very happy anyway) but instead to concentrate on what really matters to me: fiction writing. Granted, I am working part-time in some other areas — I teach fiction writing classes, and I work as a figure model for art classes all over the Chicago area — but my writing career is my primary focus. As a result, I am (as of February 1998) 200 pages into my first full-length novel. In contrast, it took me 14 years to write Twenty Questions.

Treat your writing (or acting, or painting, or whatever) like a hobby, and a hobby it will be; treat it like your life’s work, your ambition, your dream and your mission, and maybe you’ll get somewhere with it. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself lately. I guess I’ll find out in the months ahead.

Q: Are you going to keep writing and doing only part-time work, or do you see yourself eventually going back to a full-time, corporate-type job?

A: The plan for now is to keep doing what I’m doing and see where it leads.

Q: Any last thoughts for our readers?

A: Thanks for reading this interview, and I hope you’ll check out Twenty Questions, because when all is said and done, I need to eat.