Unplugged: Author Interview

Paul McComas on Unplugged:
Unscripted, Unrehearsed, Unabridged

by Laura Allen-Simpson

As I waited for Paul McComas to arrive at Prairie Moon, a relatively new Evanston eatery we’d both independently fallen for and been promoting to anyone who showed the slightest interest in eating out, I worried. I would rave about restaurants I liked–and books. But I would not write a “puff piece.” Since Paul runs the writing workshop I rely upon for the useful feedback and deadlines that keep me writing, however, I didn’t want to alienate him by printing anything that fell short of “glowing.” So, I could only hope that my questions would prompt intelligent, eloquent replies that would tantalize would-be readers into seeking outUnplugged (John Daniel & Company, 2002) and provide those who had already read it with satisfying insights into the author’s life, his writing process, and, of course, the novel itself. Luckily, Paul didn’t disappoint.

LAS: You did something pretty amazing in order to write this novel, something that shows your commitment to making your main character – a rock star named Dayna Clay – as authentic as possible: you wrote some of Dayna’s songs to get into the character. And you didn’t just leave it at writing lyrics; you wrote music, and performed it, and even mixed the selections. What did you discover about Dayna in the process that you didn’t know about her beforehand?

PM: I think I obtained a sense of her at a gut level in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had not participated in a part of her that is so integral to her. She is a musician. It’s not only her career; it’s her aspiration and her “soul occupation.” In addition, I knew that I was going to want to quote from her material throughout the book as it became pertinent to do so. It was nice, at those moments, to be able to quote from songs that actually existed rather than making them up on the spot. Beyond that, as a person who has dabbled in rock music for the greater part of my life, it was an excuse (laughs) – an excuse to go back and do some more of that at a time when, technically speaking, I’m not in a working band.

LAS: Did it give you any other kind of benefit? Did writing the songs affect the story in any other way?

PM: That’s an excellent question and one that I hadn’t contemplated before. Yes, I think that it did. By the time I reached the climax on the mountain top, the fact that I had written songs for Dayna – or, on some level, co-written them with her – probably affected what happened to her in terms of the return of her muse. I probably benefited from knowing her muse firsthand; that may have helped equip me to describe its resurrection.

LAS: The songs were very clear; they seemed to be written by someone who knew herself very well – or, rather, as if you already knew what her issues were and how they would affect her. I kind of thought that you like to discover the character as you write….

PM: I composed “Give Me Oblivion” and “Virtual Virtue” fairly early in the process of writing the novel, and “Hand Over Hand” and “Karma Bomb” fairly late. So it was a circular process. The songs informed the novel informed the songs.

LAS: Right. In the first page or so of the novel, you capture Dayna’s jaded, exhausted state at the end of the tour – how even the crowd’s roar of approval had grown “all but meaningless with nightly repetition.” How did you manage to perceive performing a concert from such a jaded, exhausted point of view?

PM: I certainly had nothing from which to draw, directly, myself, because the times I’ve been on stage, I’ve been so absolutely thrilled to be playing bass and singing – usually backup – in a rock band for an audience – particularly if [I was] lucky enough to get an enthusiastic audience!

LAS: That was my expectation. So it really struck me that you . . . I guess you had to go a step further.

PM: I suppose that I transplanted the memory of my depression into that context. Now, I did play a rock concert once when I was deep in depression [the first Rock Against Depression concert on April 8, 1995 – the first anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide]. But I rallied for the event and didn’t experience it at all the way Dayna did. I was very glad to be there; it felt empowering. Then again, I was on medication at the time. My healing was underway – early, but underway. Dayna was at the absolute nadir.

Essentially, though, that’s what I did: I transplanted my memory of the crushing heaviness and spiritual void of the depression into the concert setting. And I do know what it’s like to be on a stage with people out there loving and cheering for your music, primarily because of the [five-year] Rock Against Depression project [free concerts, geared toward teens, featuring live performances of Nirvana songs interspersed with educational sound bites about depression and suicide prevention]. Those kids didn’t know us from Adam, but we were playing Nirvana, and they loved Nirvana, and that was as close to Nirvana as they were gonna get, given that the band was through and Kurt was dead. So we were greeted pretty enthusiastically across the Midwest at those benefit concerts.

Here Paul pauses to think and appears to be pleasantly surprised by what he’s begun to recall.

PM: Actually, much of the imagery from the novel’s first scene came from a concert I attended with my wife, Chris – a Collective Soul concert. It was the night of the day I was laid off from my last “real job,” running institutional communications for a VA hospital in Chicago. I didn’t like the job; I was relieved when I was laid off. I told Chris over coffee, and we celebrated. She said, “Now you can do what you want to do. You can follow your dream.” And in fact, I did get the first five chapters of Unplugged’s twelve written in the six months that followed while I was on unemployment.

But that very night in the spring of 1997, when we went to Collective Soul, I was just starting to conceive of Unplugged, and I noticed things like the intersecting spotlights and the fog machine. I even went to an employee at the concert hall and asked, “About how many people can ya pack in here?” to get an attendance figure.

LAS: So you were doing your research that night, through Dayna’s eyes.

PM: I was. Fittingly, that same Collective Soul tour later was cut short, with the band’s lead singer/songwriter citing “exhaustion.”

LAS: I’ve heard you talk about Dayna as being more like you than any other character you’ve created, and I wonder how that came about. Was it intentional, or did it just happen as you got into writing?

PM:may have said that; if I did, I’m not sure it’s true. There are probably characters in some of the Twenty Questions stories who are a little more like me overall by virtue of the fact that they’re also male. Still, Dayna is very much like me, and I suppose that was intentional.

It was important for me to switch genders for a couple of reasons, one being that part of the inspiration for this story was the life of Kurt Cobain, but I did not want to write the life of Kurt Cobain or anything like it. I wanted mine to be an original and unique character. That’s also one of the reasons why I made her someone who abstains from recreational substance use – the other reason being that I abstain, and I try to write from experience. I have no idea how it feels to be addicted as Kurt was.

The other reason why I switched the gender is that I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to secure the objective distance from the character needed to turn around and put a lot of my heart and soul and psyche into her, and I suspected that would be a way to do it. I’ve gone through nothing more dramatic in my life than depression and recovery. It’s the closest I’ve come to being in a war. You write about those most dramatic points in your life, and for me this was it. So it’s an intensely personal topic. By making my protagonist female, not male; bisexual, not heterosexual; a rock musician, not a writer; and 27, not . . . I guess I was 35 when I started writing it – I was able to establish Dayna as, on the surface at least, very clearly not me. And I think that did give me the objective distance I needed to go back and put a lot of myself into her.

LAS: That sort of brings me to the next question.

An elevated Chicago Transit Authority train rumbles by, obliterating all other sound.

PM: Yeah, that is gonna be an issue periodically.

LAS: I know. We’ll have to maybe speak up or repeat ourselves.

PM: (leans in, addressing tape recorder) That was the el train.

LAS: I was just wondering if you ever found a desire to express your truth and your understanding of how it feels to be depressed, or your recovery, or anything. Was that ever at odds with your character’s truth and your character’s experience? Did you ever want to say things your way but find that your character had to have her own say?

PM: I don’t think that ever occurred.

LAS: Never happened?

I didn’t contemplate that until you asked it, but I don’t think that ever occurred….Her experience of depression was, essentially, mine – even though I recovered from mine under quite different circumstances. For starters, I was in a small-urban setting – Evanston, Illinois – rather than in the wilderness. The details were different in a number of ways, but my experience of the illness and recovery was nearly identical to hers.

LAS: Was there any issue that she ever encountered or a time when she spoke for herself, and you felt like, “Well, I wouldn’t have resolved it that way, but….”

PM: Some of the choices that Dayna makes are probably different from choices I would have made – for example, her initial refusal to take medication. Though very much informed by my life and experiences, she is a discreet, unique character.

LAS: Right. And that brings me to another thought. Dayna was abused as a child, she’s suffering from a deep depression, and she’s a woman who has a bisexual orientation. With all of that loaded in there, you’ve tapped into many kinds of experiences about which people tend to have really strong opinions and feelings.

PM: Mmm.

LAS: At times, that must have worried you, or at least affected your confidence in your portrayal of the character. I mean, just writing from a woman’s point of view can be a stretch for a male author.

PM: Right.

LAS: So how did you ensure that you would do justice to your character’s experience of life – you know, that what you were writing would ring true?

PM: OK. I probably need to address that part by part.


PM: In terms of her sexual orientation…(laughing) “some of my best friends are queer.”

LAS: (laughs) And you checked in with them; you had them read it?

PM: Yeah, absolutely. A number of them were in the review committee. And, in fact, if you count, you’ll notice that of the 22 people I thank in the front of the book for having reviewed earlier drafts for me, 15 of them – more than two-thirds – are female.

But back to orientation. Although I’m heterosexual, if we take out the whole realm of actual sexual/romantic desire, then I have an essentially bisexual outlook in that I’m drawn to men and women as friends and acquaintances completely regardless of gender. I share Dayna’s views, as expressed in her interview, about gender and about the Mars/Venus construct being reductive and a crock. My experience of people has been, as Dayna says, that there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us, if we let it.

I did find it helpful to read the book Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, which is credited in the back as one of my four published research sources for Unplugged. One’s about the Badlands, one’s about bisexuality, one’s about trauma and recovery, and one’s about shamanism.

LAS: So you did your homework.

PM: Yeah. The four major…thematic pillars on which, I suppose, the book stands–I read about each in turn [having already read extensively about – and lived through – depression].

LAS: Did Trauma and Recovery [by Judith Lewis Herman, MD] have the kinds of case studies and details. . . ?

PM: It was very helpful.

LAS: OK, because Dayna goes into such detail about her experience with abuse, when the memories take over.

PM: Yeah. That book was very helpful, and it did deal with case studies: their histories, their treatments, their outcomes. In addition, when Chris and I were at an American Art Therapy Association meeting [Chris is an art therapist] a few years back, when I was working onUnplugged, the keynote speaker discussed sexually abused children. I took assiduous notes, and I believe we spoke with her afterward. One of the points she made was that the abuser’s attentions can be flattering on some level, the abuse can “feel good” on some level – in terms of both ego and pure physical sensation – and that can create enormous conflict and guilt. I hadn’t thought of that before, but it was fascinating to me.

LAS: Sure.

PM: So I was able to draw that in, particularly in the extended flashback on the mountaintop.

LAS: That was a beautiful scene, by the way. (And no, this is not puffery slipping in. I was expressing a genuine opinion.)

PM: Thank you. So anyway, gender never felt like much of an issue to me. People write historical fiction all the time. If someone can get away with writing from the point of view of a 14th-century Latvian fisherman, then surely I who have dealt with women and girls every day of my life can write from a female point of view – a contemporary, American female point of view. Most of my friends are contemporary American females; it’s easy for me to write from their viewpoint. And in fact, to a person, each member of my review committee told me something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t have known it was written by a man if I hadn’t known you wrote it.”

LAS: High praise.

PM: Yeah. That’s what I was going for.

LAS: Right. I wasn’t worried so much about the female perspective; I felt like you did a good job with that. But not knowing what it’s like to have suffered abuse myself….

PM: Yeah.

LAS: I guess I was more concerned with how you made sure that you were going to be true to the people who’ve suffered it. But you’ve answered that really well.

PM: Thanks. Not to diminish in any way the experience of people like Dayna, I arguably suffered emotional abuse as a child [from peers], and perhaps there’s not that much difference, finally, between types of abuse; I don’t know because I haven’t been physically or sexually abused. Certainly there’s a lot of common ground, even if there are differences. So I was able to draw from that to some extent.

I suppose that another reason why Dayna ended up being bisexual – a fact I didn’t discover until Chapter 2, when she picked up the hitchhiker and it became an issue – is that while I do feel that the similarities between men and women are far greater than the differences, there may be some difference between falling in love with a man and falling in love with a woman. I’ve never fallen in love with a man, but I’ve fallen in love with women, and that fact probably affected the romantic path that Dayna took. I did want to write from experience, and I do know what it’s like to love a woman.

LAS: And to make love to a woman.

PM: Right.

LAS: So you can write to that. Although, possibly, women making love to each other is different.

PM: Possibly, yeah.

ALERT TO WOULD-BE NOVEL READERS: If you would prefer not to have one of the novel’s subtler points brought to your attention and explained beforehand, skip down to “It’s safe to begin reading again here.”

LAS: I don’t want to “tip your hand” too much in this interview, but I am curious as to how you came up with the device of the hand.

PM: When I was working at Northwestern Medical School as Associate Director of Publications and P.R. [1988-1995], I got to write a lot of profiles of physicians and departments and alumni of note. One of the articles I wrote was about the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC)….

[W]hile I was working on that article, one of the people I interviewed was a physically disabled woman who worked at RIC, counseling recently disabled men and women. She was paraplegic, and one topic she discussed over the course of our interview was new ways to be intimate: the notion that when the “normal” ways are not available, you need only find new ways. She said it could be something like the web between your forefinger and thumb; that could become your intimate, sensual, private place. I think that lodged in my head and, later, brought about the whole “hand” theme inUnplugged. It struck me that maybe someone like Dayna who’d been invaded top to bottom, inside and out, might – unconsciously, in all probability – keep some part of herself as intimate and private.

LAS: It’s just a beautiful concept and a really inspired notion. Very nicely done. (I swear, there’s not even a smidge of a puff here. Read the novel and you’ll agree.)

PM: Thanks. She’s a real survivor; she fights and she copes. I figured that even at – what was she, 12?

LAS: I read it too long ago.

PM: It’s been a while since I read it! Even at 12, unconsciously if not consciously, she might be able to come up with some way to keep a part of herself protected. The problem comes, of course, when she doesn’t let go of that – when she becomes 18, 20, 25, 27 and is still holding that back [and] not just the left palm, of course, but all that it represents.

It’s safe to begin reading again here.

LAS: Yeah. This is your first published novel.

PM: Yes.

LAS: Your previously published book, Twenty Questions, was an anthology of short stories. In what ways is writing a novel different from writing a short story?

PM: Don’t believe the people who tell you that writing a short story is harder because you have to accomplish what you set out to accomplish in fewer pages. For me, it’s the difference between juggling three balls and eleven. Now, coming as I did out of short story writing, I addressed each chapter in turn as I would a story, which is why each chapter has an arc.

LAS: Which is why I wondered if there was a comparison to be made between putting together chapters and putting together an anthology of short stories.

PM: I think there is. And that’s the grounds for comparison: story to chapter, not story to novel.

LAS: Right.

PM: In a novel, when you make something happen in Chapter 2, it has repercussions in Chapters 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12. And if you go back and decide, “Y’know, what I did in Chapter 2 just doesn’t sail,” then you have all these loose ends to tie up. But I think I ran into precious little of that. This piece – it didn’t write itself, but there was an internal logic and a…is cohesion a word?

LAS: Sure–or cohesiveness.

PM: One or the other! There was a cohesiveness to it that I felt able to tap into. You’ve heard me talk in class about how we can draw upon our unconscious and make it our partner in the writing. I felt very much informed by that in Unplugged. There were times when I actually felt, in the writing of it, as if I might have tapped into something beyond myself. As a person who is sort of post-religious but fairly spiritual, I guess I’d call that the Divine.

LAS: Yeah. A lot of novelists talk about that, how they feel at some point that they’re a conduit rather than the creator.

PM: Or maybe a little of each.

LAS: Both, yeah. Did you find that the novel form seemed to require a different treatment or writing style, maybe a less subtle treatment than the short story?

PM: What I found was that I couldn’t express my love of ambiguity in the same way.

LAS: I noticed that. It struck me as a very…

Another el train intrudes.

PM: (announcing into tape recorder) “That was the 6:27…”

LAS: (laughing) “It’s [going to come] about every ten minutes.”

PM: (again leaning into tape recorder) “…for those of you keeping track at home.”

Now, part of that [inability to be as ambiguous in the novel] may be because this stuff is so close to me. It’d be hard for me to be sardonic about depression and recovery. Some of the stories in Twenty Questions are fairly sardonic, although others are pretty sincere. With Unplugged, I wanted the reader to become very invested in Dayna – I certainly became invested in her – and I didn’t want to leave her future uncertain at the end. It seems to me that would be a betrayal, of her and of the reader.

So the way I decided to express ambiguity – because ambiguity is a linchpin of my whole philosophy of writing – was not through an ambiguity of “inconclusion,” leaving the ending open, but by being ambiguous as to the question, “Where does her healing come from?”

ALERT TO WOULD-BE NOVEL READERS: To avoid learning more than you might want to know about a few key events of the story, skip down to “It’s safe to begin reading again here.”

PM: A completely non-religious, non-spiritual person could read Unpluggedand enjoy it and believe that Dayna derived her healing from the medication and a positive attitude and the positive influence of Kayla and Drake and some of the other people who came into her life. All of those were certainly elements of her healing. Another person might read it and conclude that the lion’s share of her healing came from the Divine, from nature….

LAS: From the bighorn sheep.

PM: Right. The ram in Chapter 11. Is it leading her? Or, is it simply fleeing, and she is able to witness its path? I don’t know.

LAS: That’s where you got your ambiguity in.

PM: Right. Plot points like that – and there are a number of them. So I…I can’t remember what your question was, but I think that’s an answer to it.

It’s safe to begin reading again here.

LAS: I wondered if the novel required a different writing treatment, a less subtle treatment, because I missed the ambiguity of Twenty Questions. You had such rich sensory details in your stories, just where you’d want them, and then you’d back off and leave things somewhat symbolic, whereas I think inUnplugged you wound up with more of a symbolic, metaphorical kind of thing weaving through the whole book. You have metaphors for all sorts of things going on, but there isn’t the same light touch.

PM: That’s probably accurate. And it may be necessary, given my closeness to the material. It’s possible that if I’d waited to write the book until I had more distance from my own depression and recovery, I might have taken a lighter, less direct approach. I don’t know. It felt right at the time. And I think I did downplay some of what you’re talking about with successive drafts.

LAS: Speaking as somebody who’s gone through depression myself, I know there’s a desire to describe it and get it right.

PM: Right.

LAS: And to really let people know: this is what it feels like; this is what you go through; these are the thoughts you have. It’s almost like describing the labyrinth so that other people can get through it after you.

PM: That’s exactly right. I think that on one level, I was trying to draw a road map so that they [depressed readers] can say, “Well, my life is different from Dayna’s, I’m different from her in these ways, but here are the common areas from her journey that I might be able to take advantage of, too.”

LAS: Right.

PM: I’m thinking of two friends of mine, both young women, who read Unplugged. Both liked it, but one said, “I don’t think you quite did justice to the severity of depression,” while the other one said, “I’m going to give this to my boyfriend to show him what depression is like, because he has not experienced it, and I have.”

Of course, every experience of depression is different. And so, some who have “been there” will read Unplugged and feel that it’s dead-on; others will feel that it doesn’t go far enough; and perhaps some will feel that it’s overstated.

One of the challenges for me in the early chapters was making it a bearable reading experience. How do you do justice to the severity and seriousness and pain of depression in a way that doesn’t send your reader running and screaming from the book?

LAS: Just as a side note, that’s one of the beauties of Alice Sebold’s approach in The Lovely Bones. She puts her heroine in a safe place from the start; you can tolerate hearing about the trauma she’s gone through because you know she’s OK.

PM: That’s right. There’s a comfort level to the voice from the first page on.

LAS: Exactly.

PM: Even when she’s describing this harrowing initial scene of abuse and murder, the voice informs you that she’s all right now, in the afterlife. That’s brilliant, isn’t it?

LAS: Yeah, it is.

I think that part of what makes Dayna’s situation so extreme is that she has to go through walking away from her old life, changing her name and appearance, and even temporarily losing the crux of her identity – her voice – in order to find her true or authentic self and begin to heal. That’s pretty radical; it’s going through a transformation the hard way. It’s so absolute, and all those areas have to be stripped away. People who believe in astrology would say she’s going through a really rough Saturn return.


LAS: So I think that some people might say, “Well, this is too radical.” What would you recommend to the reader who identifies with Dayna’s predicament at the outset of the novel yet isn’t prepared to walk away from everything the way she does?

PM: I guess I’d recommend to walk away from what you should and can. Depression provides an opportunity for self-reinvention. Depression knocks the pieces off the chessboard and gives you a chance to bring back the ones you want and put them in the order you desire.

That was my experience: I came out of recovery a different person than I was going in. In a way, “recovery” is a misnomer – re-covery.

LAS: It’s more like a re-birth.

PM: Yeah: starting over. I didn’t recover into who I was before. I don’t think you can.

Now, not everyone is gonna be able to pick up and leave the city and go off into the wilderness to live. But they may be able to go there for a week, or a long weekend, and that may feed their souls. Or they may be able to find those places within the urban environment that feed their souls in a natural way. Not everyone is going to be able to quit their career, only to see it paradoxically thriving in their absence so that they then get to decide, later, how much of it to reclaim.

LAS: Right. She does get a little magical help there, doesn’t she?

PM: Well, but it seemed plausible to me that a mysterious disappearance and protracted absence might fuel the career of a rock musician.

LAS: It’s just not the norm; that’s all I meant.

PM: Right. So, she has a lot of advantages, by virtue of being a star and having the money to do something like this. But, y’know what, if anyone wants to literally follow in her footsteps, the cost of living in Interior, South Dakota is exceedingly low.

LAS: (laughs) Uh-huh.

PM: You could stay in a cabin out there, or in a cheap motel, for quite a while without spending a lot of money.

I had a nightmare one night, back when I was working on Unplugged. I dreamt that the book really took off, the movie version became very popular, and the Badlands turned into an overpopulated tourist trap.

LAS: Like a Disney World for naturalists?

PM: Yeah, as people roamed around from relevant site to relevant site, re-tracing Dayna’s path and obliterating all of the natural beauty in the process. That’s a little off-point, but it came to mind, so….

LAS: Well, you make it pretty clear in the book that you really need to know what you’re doing out there.

PM: That’s right. I guess technically, you’re not supposed to climb the formations [as Dayna does], although the rangers out there saw me climbing, and they never told me not to. You do have to be careful. You want to avoid disturbing the topography too much, not only for its sake but for your own.

And certainly, the metaphor at the heart of setting Unplugged in the Badlands is this notion of becoming more and more adept at scaling formations without a stable foundation. This is not rock; it’s dirt, silt, and clay compacted, and so it can and sometimes does give way underfoot or under hand.

LAS: Yes, I wanted to talk about the Badlands. We’ve talked a lot about Dayna, but as author William F. Nolan points out on your book jacket, “The novel’s rugged background, the Badlands of Dakota, is so vividly rendered that it becomes a character as sharply etched as Dayna herself.” Would you talk a little bit more about the role the Badlands played in your creation of the novel?

PM: Sure. It has become, over the years, my sacred space. I encountered it first with my family on a western driving vacation when I was five; I didn’t get back there until the summer of 1989, when I was 27. I was working on an indie film that I wrote and was acting in, and we did some location shooting there. I really fell in love with it. I remembered it from years before, so I said to the director, “Let’s shoot some of this in the Badlands,” and we did. As soon as I got there, I recognized it and understood why it had made such an impression on me. It’s like nowhere else on earth. It’s so stark, so quiet. I think Dayna describes it as “ghastly and gorgeous” when she first encounters it, and it is. I then took cast and crew back there for another shoot in ’93; we spent a week out there in September, on location, shooting a short narrative film.

I think on some level I was looking for an excuse to go back there, so if I set my novel there, well, there’s the excuse. Once the novel began to take shape, there was nowhere else it could take place. As I mentioned before, Dayna becomes quite skilled at climbing formations without a stable foundation. Well, that’s recovery! And it’s so quiet, so still and serene, that it makes you confront yourself in a way that more lush natural environs might not.

I made several trips out there while working on Unplugged, filling notebook pages like crazy while I experienced the land as Dayna, essentially, watching the metaphors pop out left and right, and then bringing what I’d seen and heard and felt back to Evanston for the writing – but going back out west periodically to renew that sense of wonder, that sense of the place.

LAS: So, now that the novel is in print, what about it, if anything, do you wish you could change?

PM: (laughs) There are two typos!

LAS: (mockingly) Oh, no!

PM: And on the Web site, there is in fact a “Typo Alert” to call attention to them.

LAS: (serious now) Do they change the meaning?

PM: One of them does, but in a way that works. It’s odd. Toward the end, right before she goes to the masquerade ball, Dayna stops by the cheap motel (the Tip Top Inn) whose proprietor essentially betrayed her, and she alters the lettering on the signage so that instead of “LOWEST RATES IN BADLANDS REGION,” it reads “LARGEST RATS IN S.D.” But somehow, that got changed to “LARGEST RATES IN S.D.,” so it makes it look like she’s inflating their prices, when in fact she was A) suggesting there might be vermin on the premises and B) referring to the fact that the proprietor ratted her out.

LAS: That’s a significant typo.

PM: It is. It sucks. It breaks my heart, slightly. So I’ve been going through the copies to which I have access with liquid paper and a black ballpoint pen!

But let me address your question more generally….No. I had several stabs at this piece, and I was able to get it just right, or as “just right” as I could.

LAS: In your opinion, who in particular should look for this book? – and no, you can’t say “everyone.” Who would relate to it best and get the most out of it? Who would you like to see it in the hands of?

PM: I’ll come at that from a few directions. In terms of age, I think it’s probably appropriate for anyone in their teens or older; it’s probably not appropriate for pre-teens. It should be enjoyed equally by men and women with open minds. It has the potential to be challenging for some people, hopefully in a good way. I think it could be of benefit to people struggling with abusive pasts, abusive presents, major mental illness, despair, or people who find themselves trapped in a life that just isn’t working.

LAS: Would you recommend it to the parents of young people who are suffering from those problems?

PM: Absolutely. I’d recommend two books to them: mine, and When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens by Bev Cobain, Kurt’s cousin, who wrote a blurb for the back of Unplugged. Bev’s is a wonderful book. It’s written for teens, but it should be read by teens and their parents, and it’s written in a voice that is in no way patronizing. Bev addresses teens the way I’ve always tried to: as equals, with the expectation that they will rise to one’s hopes for them. But, yeah, Unplugged could be quite beneficial to young people who are struggling, and to the people who care for and about them.

LAS: Thank you very much.

PM: You’re very welcome. That was fun!

LAS: Yeah, it was!

PM: Hey, you don’t have to bend my arm to make me talk about my work.

No, I didn’t. Paul McComas may be unassuming, but he is also unabashed – especially when he’s talking about Unplugged.


Laura Allen-Simpson has authored two children’s books, Clever Letters: Fun Ways to Wiggle Your Words (Pleasant Company, 1997) and The Quiz Book: Clues to You & Your Friends, Too! (Pleasant Company, 1999). Her adult fiction has appeared in Hair Trigger 9 & 10 (Columbia College, 1987) and will be appearing in First Person Imperfect, an anthology of workshop fiction currently being edited by Paul McComas. She is an editor at McDougal Littell Inc. and lives in Evanston.