An Interview with Paul McComas

Author Paul McComas will read at EPL on May 5th at 7 p.m.

Paul McComas has creative energy to burn.  An award-winning filmmaker, dynamic performance artist, and a mean punk bassist to boot, McComas is perhaps best known for his two acclaimed novels – Unplugged (2002) and Planet of the Dates (2008) – as well as for editing the short-fiction anthologies First Person Imperfect (2003) and Further Persons Imperfect (2007).  Now the Evanston author has added to his impressive artistic resume with his ambitious new genre collection Unforgettable: Harrowing Futures, Horrors, & (Dark) Humor.  Comprised of McComas’ fifty best speculative-fiction, horror, and dark-comic works, Unforgettable is an entertaining and enlightening thrill ride described by Logan’s Run author William F. Nolan as “a literary tour de force… that will leave you breathless.”  On Thursday, May 5th, you can hear Mr. McComas read from Unforgettable when he visits EPL’s 1st Floor Community Meeting Room at 7 p.m. along with fellow author Tim W. Brown.  In anticipation of his visit, we recently spoke with him via email about the genesis of Unforgettable, the joys of dystopian worlds, No-Budget Theatre, his band The Daves, collaborating with Nolan on the forthcoming Logan’s Journey, and much, much more.

Evanston Public Library:  Part of what makes Unforgettable such an impressive collection is that the wonderfully eclectic mix of short fiction, screenplays, stage plays, and song lyrics you selected encompasses nearly 40 years of your work. Can you take us through how this ambitious project came to fruition?

Paul McComas:  Well observed, Russell: this book took me either 39 years or seven months to write, depending how you look at it. When Stephen D. Sullivan, the fine fantasy/adventure writer who runs Walkabout Publishing, approached me last June about compiling a book-length collection of my best genre work (chiefly dystopian/speculative fiction [spec-fic] and horror, much of it semi- or fully comedic), I honestly wondered whether I would have enough material for “a whole book.” Well, 490 pages later, I guess I have my answer! I ended up writing and co-writing a goodly chunk of new material, but even if I hadn’t, I’d have had enough for a book. As you observe, some of the stories are quite old indeed: the book’s “Flashbacks” section includes one (heretofore unpublished) piece each from when I was 16, 13, and –- yes –- 10! (The last two of these are mercifully brief.)

EPL:  Had you always hoped to publish a retrospective of your work?

PM:  Well, this isn’t precisely a retrospective, as most of the 50 stories and scripts that comprise Unforgettable have never been published before. As for publishing a collection of my genre work specifically, that was Steve’s idea, not mine –- and one for which I’ll be forever grateful. Now, once I’d committed to doing “a genre collection,” the article “a” in that description quickly changed to “the” -– that is to say, I became determined to produce my definitive collection of spec-fic, SF, horror, and dark-humor works.

EPL:  What were some of the challenges you faced in pulling Unforgettable together?

PM:  At the risk of disappointing you, it was a surprisingly easy process –- as evidenced by the fact that, through a combination of writing/co-writing new pieces and revising old ones, I was able to generate a 135,000-word manuscript in just over half a year’s time. I suppose the biggest “challenge” lay in the fact that –- as with the vast, vast majority of authors –- my income from book royalties isn’t enough to cover all the bills, so I had to take a great deal of time off from the project to “make the rent.” This isn’t a complaint –- just an observation. That said, it can be tricky to maintain the momentum through the stops and starts. (Since it’s come up, let me disabuse your readers of the notion that writing fiction is a good way to make money. Very few authors make a living off their books; for every Rowling or King, there are a few thousand of me!)

EPL:  What is it about dark humor, dystopian societies, and apocalyptic worlds that so attracts you as a writer?

PM:  What attracts me about dark humor is the inherent tension between horror and comedy, yielding a certain, singular feeling I experience as a reader –- and aim to deliver as a writer: a chuckle with a shiver on top. Among others, check out “Maw” in the new book. The horrific edge make it all the funnier –- while the humor only enhances the horror. It’s win-win!

As for dystopian/apocalyptic literature (and cinema, for that matter), as I say in the book’s lengthy and quasi-scholarly Preface, these writers –- Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, not to mention “oldsters” like Huxley, Orwell, and my semi-old friend William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run) –- are our modern-day prophets, whose cautionary voices we ignore at our peril. As a boy, I loved the apocalyptic/dystopian Planet of the Apes films and books…and was terrified by the overpopulated “post-nature” world of Soylent Green (one which, I would argue, is now coming true before our eyes). That terror translated, at age 14, into my volunteering for the Presidential campaign of environmentalist Senator Mo Udall. For allegory permits the writer to convincingly address key, controversial issues without it sounding like the op-ed page. Thus did Atwood take on the “Moral Majority” and its treatment of women (The Handmaid’s Tale; plus, she addressed environmental havoc in two more recent novels), Nolan warns us of the cultural/societal dead-end to which youth worship leads, Ishiguro points out the slippery slope of genetic engineering, James shows that fascism is but one environmental disaster away, etc., etc. My boyhood hero Rod Serling was a master of the cautionary allegory, both in his oft-political (and progressive) genre show The Twilight Zone and as co-writer of the original movie version of Planet of the Apes.

I’ve rambled a bit here, but the key point is this: spec-fic and dystopian works are often labeled “escapist,” but the best of them are quite the opposite, forcing us to look anew at our own world…and at the shape of things to come.

EPL:  How did the experience of writing and editing the horror and speculative fiction of Unforgettable compare to your work on your previous novels and anthologies?

PM:  It was a heckuva lot faster! Each of my two novels (2002’s Unplugged and 2008’s Planet of the Dates) took three to four years to write. Granted, in the case of Unforgettable, a fair amount of the book already existed in the form of older stories and scripts –- mostly unpublished –- that needed mere revision. But nearly all of the 180-page collaborative section “Two Heads Are Better” is brand-new, along with a number of the solo pieces. Walkabout’s Sullivan and I made a deal in June 2010 for a February 2011 publication date –- eight months –- so, the clock was ticking, and that definitely put a fire under my feet.

Beyond that, I’d say that while I always enjoy writing a book, this one was “fun” in a more basic way than its predecessors. Returning to the subject matter of my youth and teens, but this time with the chops of an experienced and critically-acclaimed adult writer, translated into one whopping good time; I trust it will do so for my readers as well!

Paul McComas on location at age 13.

EPL:  Film has clearly played a huge role in your creative life, and Unforgettable offers a selection of your screenplays that includes Spaceslime! and Blood of the Wolfman. Can you discuss how filmmaking has influenced your fiction writing and vice versa? What is the history behind No-Budget Theatre, and can you tell us about its future?

PM:  Between the ages of 11 and 18, I made 40-odd (some of them very odd) short-form SF, horror, monster, and comedy films…even as I was writing genre short short stories (plus one novella) and “publishing” monster and SF zines. So, I suppose that my filmmaking and fiction writing have informed one another from the start, with the filmmaking yielding a particularly visual, cinematic approach to prose (as observed in many reviews I’ve received)…and, I hope, my fiction writing making for some rather articulate, literate film scripts and, thus, movies.

Six years ago, I began pulling off the shelf some of the movies I’d made in the ’70s and “mining” them for material. Working with Evanston video producer Brian L. Cox at Evanston Community Media Center, I came up with the cult series No-Budget Theatre. The typical episode is 15 to 20 minutes long and consists of about 80% original footage and 20% new (some shot on Super 8 movie film, some on video), with all-new sound: dialogue, music, and sound effects. The first seven episodes have been cablecast incessantly on ECTV, been screened at numerous festivals, and won –- between them –- eight international, national, and regional awards. Episode 8: “Time Trek” is currently in post-production; we’re aiming for Feb. 2012 “release.” There may be a ninth (“Punks ‘n’ Saucers,” a double-feature), and conceivably a tenth (“Godzilla: Defender of Earth!”), but after that, I’ll have run out of semi-bearable vintage footage from which to draw, so NBT will end.

EPL:  Music is also one of your artistic loves, and you include a sampling of your song lyrics in the “Maim That Tune” section of Unforgettable. How did you get started playing and writing music, and what’s the latest on your pop-punk band The Daves?

PM:  Piano, then clarinet, then saxophone, then harmonica, then electric bass -– and that was the one, at age 19, that finally “took.” I’d formed my first rock band, Talent Void, before I’d hit the four-month mark on bass; we were punkers, so this actually worked! The next year –- my senior year of college (Lawrence Univ. in Appleton, WI) –- I founded The Daves, so called because none of us was named “Dave.” Kim Hah (singer), Tim Buckingham (drums), and I (bass; backup vocal) still play together, with a young “ringer” (Evanston native Ben Handelsman) on guitar, plus guest spots on keyboard and sax (respectively, Evanstonians Heather McComas [my wife] and Mike Holden). We only play charity gigs, and rarely at that; when your lead singer makes her home in Madison, your drummer in Milwaukee, and your guitarist in Detroit, it can be tricky to rehearse, let alone play out. Our most recent gigs were an ill-fated “rescue” of Evanston’s late, great Pick-A-Cup Coffee Club, and a pair of Wisconsin benefits for the research-monkey-retirement group Primates, Inc. –- all in 2009. Our 30th “band-iversary” is next year, so you can bet we’ll find some worthy cause by then and re-form yet again. That’s not just a promise; it’s a threat!

By the way, you get a free copy of my Daves-heavy 50-song, 2-CD set AMATEUR –- mixed at Evanston’s own Studiomedia –- FREE with the purchase of Unforgettable. Inside is a SASE you can use, if you wish, to send a donation to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

"Logan's Run" author William F. Nolan

EPL:  Unforgettable features over a dozen of your imaginative collaborations with other writers, including “Pentas!” and “Icemare” which you co-wrote with Logan’s Run author William F. Nolan. How did the two of you meet and begin working together? What sparked the idea for your forthcoming collaborative novel Logan’s Journey, and can you give us a window into your joint creative process?

PM:  At 14, I, a committed “Loganite,” mailed Bill some of my own SF writing. He wrote back, praising my early effort: “Keep it up; you have the Logan spirit!” That encouragement meant the world to me and doubtless is one of the reasons why I did, in fact, keep writing. Flash-forward 25 years to the 2002 World Horror Con. I was slated to perform there, and Bill to receive the Living Legend Award; thus did we finally meet. He welcomed me like a long-lost son, and a friendship was struck; next thing you know, we were writing the Forewords for each other’s next books (my second; his eighty-second!). Ultimately, I approached him about co-authoring a novel based on my short story “Icediver” (the lead-off piece in Unforgettable). Initially he accepted, but he later suggested we co-write the fourth Logan novel (and the first since 1980) instead. Talk about a dream come true! The only person who’d be more excited about this prospect than “me-today” would have been “me-at-14.” Would that I could travel back in time and tell mini-me, “Hang in there: in your 40s, you’ll be co-authoring a Logan novel with Nolan!”

As for our joint creative process, Logan’s Journey is a novel comprising three connected novellas: “The Mission,” “The Challenge,” and “The Gun.” Bill wrote the first half of “The Mission,” and I expanded upon it; I then wrote the second half, which he edited. Then, he wrote “The Challenge” as a novelette (shorter than a novella) which I fleshed out considerably. Finally, I wrote “The Gun,” which he edited. We’re both concise writers, with Bill even more so than I; hence my tendency to put a little “flesh on the bone” for him –- and his tendency to “strip off my fat.” Bill often tells me, “Less is always more!” and I counter, “Less is usually more –- but characterization counts, too!” So, we agree most of the time –- and when we don’t, we meet in the middle.

EPL:  As a veteran of Chicago’s performance-art scene, you’ve adopted a theatrical approach to reading and promoting your novels that’s been roundly praised by the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Chicago Reader. Can you describe your performance-based reading style for those yet to experience it? Do you have anything special planned for your May 5th visit to EPL?

PM:  I memorize much of my material, and get close to “off book” on the rest. You’ll never find me with my nose buried in my own pages; my eyes are on the audience and my hands are free (or else manipulating props) as I walk and talk, in character, performing rather than reading, and doing my utmost to bring the stories and the people (and creatures) within them to breathing life. I call it “dressing up my work in its best suit.” If my goal is to convince you to buy and read my work, how could I do any less?

Paul McComas performs at a 2009 reading.

Do I “have anything special planned for [my] May 5th visit to EPL?” Do I ever! Please, come see for yourself why the Trib finds my live shows “urgent and mesmerizing,” the Sun-Times says that no author does it better, and the Reader has given me, a fiction writer, two Critic’s Choice designations –- in Theater/Performance. I think they’re on to something!

EPL:  Also, when you visit EPL on May 5th, you’ll be reading along with author Tim W. Brown. How did the two of you become acquainted? Do you see any similarities between your respective works?

PM:  Tim and I met through the aforementioned Chicago performance-art/-poetry scene of the mid-’80s to early-’90s. We were a pair of black sheep: fiction writers, not poets, who were more interested in characterization and story-telling than in, say, making toast on stage, or hurling excrement at the walls while whistling “Dixie.” As editor/publisher of the storied Chicago-based literary zine Tomorrow, he gave several of my early pieces a good home. Our careers since have followed parallel trajectories: our first, second, third, and now fourth books were published almost simultaneously with each other’s, through no planning on our part. Three years ago, we shared a number of tour dates nationwide for our third books, my Planet of the Dates and his Walking Man; this spring, we’re doing the same for Unforgettable and Second Acts (which is, in my humble opinion, Tim’s masterpiece).

Similarities? Yes –- and no surprise there: we were born 49 years ago, just a couple of weeks apart, I in Milwaukee and he in Rockford, so our roots are quite similar. We’re both committed to straightforward, smart, accessible fiction. Tim’s more of a satirist –- though my new book has a fair amount of satire in it; I tend to write more heart-on-my-sleeve –- though Tim’s new book is his most heartfelt yet. Hmmm; maybe we’ve been rubbing off on each other! Must come from all the mutual blurbing.

EPL:  In addition to the aforementioned Logan’s Journey, can you give readers a sense of what you’re working on next? Do you have any new film, fiction, or music projects in the works?

Books:

– Logan’s Journey, with Nolan, to be published on the coattails of Warner Bros.’ upcoming mega-budget 3D Logan’s Run remake (probably in 2013)

Proving Grounds, a multi-author anthology of “place-based fiction” that I’m editing for 2012 publication

– A new solo novel to be determined

Films:

– My 2008 novel Planet of the Dates is still under option by ace producer Jason Koornick (Next); IMDB considers it “in development.” I’ve read the adapted screenplay they’re shopping around, and it’s very good, especially by Hollywood standards. So, here’s hoping!

– My 2002 novel Unplugged (and my own adapted screenplay for it, which took a national prize in 2008) is getting an unexpected second look in Hollywood, nine years after the book’s publication. Here’s hoping again!

– See earlier info on the future of No-Budget Theatre.

Music:

As detailed earlier, The Daves will re-unite for a 30th anniversary charity-gig in 2012.

EPL:  Can you give us a window into the types of books you like to read? Do your tastes tend toward the horror and speculative fiction genres represented in Unforgettable, or do you prefer other reading fare?

PM:  Nearly everything I read is contemporary or fairly recent English-language (i.e., not in translation) fiction, generally penned by American, English, and Canadian authors, and maybe 2/3 of it female-written. This last part isn’t by design; rather, women just happen to be, disproportionately (though not exclusively), my favorite authors. My semi-short list: Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Sebold, Margaret Atwood, Melissa Bank, P.D. James, and Jane Mendelsohn. As for the men, I’d go with Tony Earley, Sam Shepard, Nick Hornby, and Rupert Thomson. And frankly, my “Two Heads Are Better” co-authors from Unforgettable –- including Bill Nolan; my “Maw” collaborator, Lisa Beth Janis; and my wife, Heather McComas –- are all among my favorite writers, too; that’s why I asked them to work with me! (Allow me to “shout out” the other Evanstonians in this group: Eric Diekhans, Eileen Maksym, Laurence Minsky, and [from south Wilmette –- a stone’s throw away] Marie Thourson.)

EPL:  Can you share any good titles you’ve recently enjoyed, or better yet, what was the one book you read in the past year that meant the most to you regardless of the year it was published?

PM:  Pretty much anything by Oates, Phillips, Bank, Earley, or Shepard. The Lovely Bones or Lucky by Sebold. The Handmaid’s Tale or Year of the Flood by Atwood. The Children of Men by James. I Was Amelia Earhart by Mendelsohn. About A Boy by Hornby. The Book of Revelation by Thomson.

If you’re new to William F. Nolan, check out Logan’s Run and Logan’s World, as well as his brilliant Black Mask detective/noir trilogy. Incidentally, Bill’s boyhood literary hero, Western pulp-master Max Brand (Destry Rides Again), has become a lit-hero of mine as well!

Oh, and one other: This new Unforgettable collection looks kind of okay-ish.  Find out more about it, and about me, at www.paulmccomas.com.

Thank you, Russell –- and Russell’s readers!

Interview by Russell J.

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