Ask Me Anything: Deborah Paul

Indianapolis Monthly’s editor emerita on retirement—and everything else.

So, how many columns did you write?
I’ve done it for 36 years this month, so 432. I never missed a month. I wrote them from hospital beds while recuperating from surgeries, I wrote them at restaurants, I wrote them anywhere I had to.

What was the first one about?
My boss at the time didn’t like the idea of a personal column and asked me to write about the city. Since my first column came out at Christmastime, I made up a list of gifts I wanted to give to Indianapolis. It was an utter failure. After a few months of that, I said, “This doesn’t come naturally to me.” So I started writing about things that happened in my life. That’s what I did from them on.

What were your favorite subjects?
Anything relating to family. That’s part of the reason I’m stepping down. When I was younger, the readers were younger, and my experiences resonated with them. The things I write about now still resonate, but with an older audience. I still get stopped on the street by people who like my column, but they’re older. As time passed, I became more careful about dragging my kids’ stories into it. They have their own lives, and I didn’t want to intrude. When I wrote about my grandkids, I tried not to use their names.

What will you miss the most?
I think the column served as a way to observe, relive, and come to terms with my life experiences. My father had me when he was 47, and he died when I was 47. I didn’t quite know how to process it. I wrote about what he meant to me, what he did for me, and what I was left with of him. I put it all down on paper, and then I could deal with it because I had closure. I’ll miss that.

What was your favorite column?
Probably “My Mother’s Purse.” I still have people come up to me today and say they read it. My mother was fashionable and beautiful, and when she died she left me her collection of Hermès handbags. I started using one of her favorites, and it would sit in the passenger seat of the car as I drove around town, just like I used to drive her around. I would look at that purse on the seat and think, My mother is here with me.

Is there one you wish you could take back?
Probably the one in which I joked about running for mayor of Keystone at the Crossing. That was embarrassing. Someone at the Indianapolis Business Journal wrote, “If you read Debbie Paul’s column, wear hip boots.” Over the years they’ve gotten less silly and more serious. But hey, sometimes I like to write humor, and if they didn’t get it, I’m sorry.

What about the column you wrote about the time Bob Knight threw you out of his office?
That was a good one. I was interviewing him for a cover story, and I could sense during the interview that he was getting revved up. I asked him what precipitated his decision to switch from wearing sports coats to sweaters, and from going by Bobby to Bob, and he started yelling profanities. I kept questioning, and he jumped up, knocked my tape recorder to the floor and, boom, out the door I went. It was like the chair-throwing incident, only I was the chair. It took me a long time to get over that.

Any “serious” columns that made a big impression with readers stand apart to you?
In October, I wrote about my own own opioid dependency—or rather, my personal struggle with obtaining the drugs for chronic, severe back pain. For patients in need of the drugs for real pain, obtaining the pills can be too difficult. And it’s getting worse. I didn’t think readers would care, but they did.

How long did it usually take to write a column?
If it was a good one, not very long at all. Hours, not days. Usually a good idea isn’t about a small subject. It has to have a serious underbelly, a higher truth. You can’t just crack jokes or complain.

Did you ever have a month when you couldn’t come up with an idea?
Yes. Then you have to pull something out of thin air. I kept a file, and any time I had a sliver of an idea, I tucked it in there. So on desperate months, I’d get into the file and dig one out. Maybe write about restaurant food I’d never tried. Or whether it was cool to have gray hair. But those usually didn’t work all that well. The ones that worked are the ones that came to me quickly and got written just as fast.

Did you have any trusted readers who looked over your work before you sent it to the magazine?
I never let anyone read a column in advance. I didn’t want someone to say, “Well, I don’t think you should say this.” I wanted to say what I wanted. This was my forum. I trust my own opinion. I only wanted to be edited to make the content better. I wanted it to be edited, but I didn’t want it to be criticized. There’s a difference. One makes my writing better, the other just makes me angry.

So what was it like to have them edited by the Indianapolis Monthly staff?
It wasn’t an issue. I totally believe in editors, and I’ve had some great ones. If I consider someone a good editor, I’ll do whatever they say. But I didn’t like it when they changed my headlines. I wrote them as puns, and I like my puns, and I think I know how to write a better headline than some people. When a published column appeared with a lousy headline, I resented it. I try not to carry a grudge, but, grrr!

What were some of your favorite headlines?
“Lady MacBath,” which was about the joy of taking baths. Which in retrospect seems like the dumbest thing I could ever write about. I also liked “Meow or Never,” about acquiring a cat in late life. “50 Shades of Play” about adult coloring books was a favorite, and “The Joy of Text” about missing books printed on paper.

Any regrets about leaving?
I’ll miss it, but I don’t think giving it up was the wrong decision. It’s definitely the right time. How many 70-year-olds do you know who write a magazine column? I don’t consider myself a celebrity, but I can’t help comparing my circumstances to performers who keep going when they should just quit. Do you really want to see Cher anymore? At 81, shouldn’t Robert Redford hang it up? Did Frank Sinatra sing one song too many? There comes a time when you should step off the public stage and go off into your own private life.

What will you do next?
Well, I hope I don’t wind up wandering the streets. Or writing long-winded emails to my friends. Seriously, I don’t feel like I’m done being creative. I don’t feel like I’m done being funny or relatable. I just feel like the column is done. Maybe I’ll find some new avenue for my writing. Could be a blog or a book, who knows? Or then again, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just take walks and look at the flowers. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the time that’s left without any responsibility at all. When some of us get older, we want fewer obligations. We don’t expect it to happen, but it does.