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Planet of the Dates (Permanent Press)

Interview with Paul McComas

Apr. 28, 2008
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The Planet of the Dates is an alien and sometimes hostile territory, but Phil Corcoran, the teenage protagonist of Milwaukee-native Paul McComas’ new book, is determined to conquer this unfamiliar habitat. He talks about how he combined autobiographical elements and fiction in this humorous and engaging look at adolescence.

This book is quite a departure from your other work. What prompted you to write it?

My primary goal as a fiction writer and as a novelist is that each book be different from the ones that have preceded it. The first book, Twenty Questions, was 20 quirky stories of psychological fiction with ambiguous endings. The second, Unplugged, was what I call my “heart on my sleeve” novel. It was very spiritual and emotional; a tale of recovery and reinvention. And comedy seemed a good direction to go in. I feel it’s a good idea for an author to wait a while before tackling a coming-of-age book because if you write it in your 20s I think it turns out quite earnest and self-serious. I started mine at the age of 39, which is old enough to look back and see the humor as well as the path of the teenage years…There’s a nice trick I was playing with in the book which is that when it’s primarily a comedic tone throughout it gives you the chance in certain moments to move away from that, and those poignant moments, or those moments of recollected pain have greater impact than they would in an earnest, serious book.

Why focus on the teenage years?

I hadn’t really addressed that transitional period and what made it more attractive to me was the idea of writing about someone in transition during a time of transition; Phil’s transition from childhood to adulthood occurs against a backdrop of this cultural shift from the ’70s to ’80s; like it say s in the front flap of the book “the last gasp of the Age of Aquarius to the era of ‘Greed is Good.’” And I look for ways to reflect that shift in his own life, like starting in the disco and ending in the punk bar. He has certain positive feelings towards President Carter and towards the end he attends a Reagan rally and sees the writing on the wall for where the country is going…it’s not the major theme of the novel but it’s something I was playing with throughout.

How much of this is autobiographical?

It kind of breaks down in thirds. The first five chapters are about (Phil’s) quest for a girlfriend; the next five are about what happens when he has one; the last five are about the complications that arise when she’s out of town and the reintroduction of Cheryl. And that first part is about 75 percent my own life experience, including the whole incident at the disco. The second is about 50-50. And the last is about 25 percent.

Was it difficult to dig far back into memory?

Not so much. My ‘Save the Whales’ 1980 wall calendar which I’d saved all these years because I liked the pictures had an accounting day-by-day of my plans from the summer of 1980, and though I departed from it there were situations and events I was able to draw from that I wouldn’t have remembered on my own. But the challenge of a fiction writer is to take real-life experience and enhance it through imagination. I personally think fiction writing is a greater achievement than memoir, because of that added element, that artifice, whereas the memoirist is just writing what happened. In a sense I think the fiction writer gets to a greater truth through invention...the memoirist is trying to tell an engaging story but can’t help but wonder how she or he is coming off in this, but by making it a novel I can make it as honest as possible. On the surface it’s not as true but the paradox is that deep down it’s truer than a memoir.

You can be more honest when you’re not telling the truth?

I think so. You can be more honest when it’s not you you’re talking about, but ironically it is more you as a result of that.

Are thereaspects of the protagonist of the novel Unplugged in Cheryl?

There are some similarities. Other than when she’s in the depths of depression, Dana Clay is more able to function in society. She’s more together, apart from her illness. I think Cheryl would do well to become Dana. And maybe the age is part of it; Dana at 16 would be much more like Cheryl. Both are survivors of sexual abuse, and this has been an important issue for me for decades…I’ve been involved with the organization RAINN (the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) for a long time, and I’ve tried to find ways both through my literature and a family foundation to support RAINN’s efforts in education, outreach and prevention.

You mention Cheryl’s abuse very briefly in the book…

Yes. I don’t want the book to become all about it, and frankly I don’t want Cheryl to become all about it either. But it is certainly a part of her makeup. She’s quite cynical and I think there’s a reason for that detachment. Cheryl’s been a huge hit on the tour. When I read the excerpts that feature her, those are the ones that people respond to most enthusiastically.

Why do you think that is?

Based on what people have said to me after readings, pretty much everyone has either known a Cheryl or perhaps been her. And I bring very much of a performance style to readings. I’m a natural ham actor and I look at it as dressing my work up in its best clothes. I can get essentially off-script and perform the excerpts instead of reading them. In the case of Cheryl I’ve got to have Marlboro in one hand in order to do her properly…it’s not lit but still it’s the prop that I need to do her voice and her demeanor.I have a lot of fun doing that and it seems to translate well to audiences.


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