Twenty Questions: Author’s Note

The following was written for, and appears in the back of, the third printing of Twenty Questions.

“The stories,” wrote L.A.’s Next Magazine of this collection, “turn out to be questions, and the answers aren’t in the back of the book.” While I’ve no intention of rendering false this apt analysis, I would like to take advantage of this third printing (and two previously blank pages) to offer some thoughts about Twenty Questions four years after its debut. I do so, however, not in order to provide answers, but to clarify why I don’t — and won’t.

I see far more gray in my own life and the lives of others than I do black and white. Moreover, true “endings” in life are few and far between and are recognized, I believe, chiefly in retrospect. Thus, as a fiction writer I tend toward ambiguity and a lack of narrative closure: I conclude each story in such a way that the characters’ lives remain in process, their fates uncertain. My hope is twofold: 1) that the characters consequently will “live on” in the reader’s mind in a way that they wouldn’t were everything tied up in a bow, and 2) that the reader, faced with this lack of closure, of necessity will bring something of him- or herself to the ending of each piece. To wit:

In “Wedding Dress,” Corry is left to watch his ex-lover’s gown flapping vacantly in the evening breeze as he assures her — and himself — that there’s still hope. But does even he believe this assertion? (Do you?) At the end of “Fremd Colors,” what is the “something else” for which Luke and the narrator cheer: the recollected glory of youth, or perhaps their own friendship? To my mind, the two epistolary stories that comprise the book’s centerpiece offer, in Susan and Johnny, dueling unreliable (or, at best, semi-reliable) narrators. Whom do you trust: him, her, neither — or elements of both?

“Triangle Park” is similar in some regards to “Wedding Dress,” though it concludes more decisively: Randy leaves. (This being the longest story in the book, I perhaps felt morally obligated to help its protagonist escape his self-inflicted limbo.) But what will happen back in Bethesda when he and Brandie inevitably run into each other again? How will she respond to his having left — and just how resolute will that departure turn out to be?

My own favorite Twenty Questions story, “Now I Know My ABCs,” absolutely must end ambiguously in order to do justice to the baffling, harrowing uncertainty that is schizophrenia. (Of course, the current ending would never make it to TV; if “ABCs” were on ABC, Megan would be miraculously cured, then train for the US Olympic Swim Team and come from behind to “medal” under her brother’s proud poolside gaze.) Megan McIntire remains at the story’s conclusion what she was at its midpoint: a troubled young woman in a decent facility with capable staff. She’s getting the help she needs, but her prognosis is far from certain. Thus, when Terry dials the mystery number from his dream, the phone on the other end rings and rings. “No one is home,” indeed — but the line is neither dead nor disconnected. The ending, to me, is not particularly hopeful, nor is it hopeless; it’s just true.

After Twenty Questions I tackled my first novel, Unplugged, slated for publication by John Daniel & Co. in late 2002. Toward the end, the book’s rock-musician heroine, Dayna Clay, finds herself (like the protagonist of “Tracks”) stranded out in the wild, her life in real danger. This time, open-endedness was not an option: having guided the reader through 90,000-plus words’ worth of Dayna’s trials and triumphs — and having become, it’s safe to say, rather emotionally invested myself! — I could not in good conscience leave my lead character dangling off a proverbial precipice, her fate up for grabs.

Elsewhere, though, ambiguity prevails. Dayna’s gradual recovery from major depression is marked by a string of peculiar events with plausible material explanations but which may bespeak the engagement of a sacred or spiritual dimension.

From what force or forces does her healing come? Again, that will be for the reader to decide; I’m only here to ask the right questions.

Paul McComas, February 2002