David Park.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 26th October 2022

David Park, 68, is the most self-effacing author I have ever come across. He didn’t even call himself a writer until his seventh novel was published back in 2012 – and only then because, faced with a form asking for his occupation, he was reluctant to write, ‘Retired English teacher’. Yet by then he had won a raft of prestigious prizes and was acclaimed for writing tenderly about terrible things.

He was shy about publicity too. My first interview with him was conducted over the phone because he was reluctant to ask for a day off from teaching; and he only agreed to travel from Belfast to meet me the second time, because he was getting over a dose of flu. Where does this modesty come from?

                “I think it’s a Northern Irish thing,” he says, during yet another phone interview. “I would die if someone thought I believed I was someone special. I cannot be in a taxi without asking the driver about his family and his favourite football team. I have to let him know that I’m just like him.” Laughing he says that his wife gets angry with him. “She says I disrespect my work.”

We’re talking about his 12th novel, Spies in Canaan, which is a departure for the novelist whose books are normally rooted in Northern Ireland. It centres on Michael, an American from the Midwest, and takes place, largely, in Vietnam towards the close of war. Michael has an army desk job, but he is drawn into the horrifying heart of things by a superior officer, witnessing a prisoner who has been tortured and then tricked into handing over information. Michael is, very much a fish out of water. Towards the end of his life, he sets off on a journey into the desert seeking understanding and atonement.

Michael shares elements with his creator. Brought up a strict Baptist, he then found a better way of life through reading and literature.

                “You can’t be a lover of literature and books and be in a situation like he was, and not feel guilt and remorse,” says Park. “I share Michael’s desire to be good, and I’m deeply regretful of things in my history of which I am not proud.”

Although the novel is geographically and historically very different from his previous novels, it does share the same emotional and psychological depth. When I ask why he set the book in such different territory, he says the only honest answer he can give me is that it was a creative impulse.  

When he visited Vietnam in 2014, he watched newsreels and read all he could about the war. He walked around with a notebook, noting the colour of rooftiles, and observing the streets and the people, but the impulse was there before he travelled.

                “I had become conscious of claustrophobia as a writer,” he says, trying to give me a more logical reason. “I suppose I had an impulse to put my mind somewhere other than my immediate circle.”

The novel examines the way the war was portrayed by the American press. A journalist friend of Michael’s is traumatised when, taken to the scene of an American massacre, he is instructed to report that the Viet Cong were responsible for the atrocity.

The messiness of the American withdrawal Park describes, has strong parallels with their recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, yet he penned the novel before this happened, and started it when there was a sense in America that Trump was coming.  It was due to be published early in 2020, and was written, in its entirety before the first Covid lockdown.  

                “But I cheated,” he says, when I remark how relevant the novel is today. “I added three words. After the plague.”

Park never plans his books, believing that the creative process will always deliver.

                “Nothing else works for me, anyway,” he says. “I don’t know the story before I start, and I don’t know the specifics. I have characters and it just kind of comes out of the pen stroke or the keyboard.”

Although he loves the luxury of being a fulltime writer, Park denies that writing is the centre of his life.

                “When I write a book I commit to it passionately, but writing is not an obsession,” he says. “I’m perplexed by writers who talk as if writing is the be all and end all of their existence. I think, they’re in for heartache and sadness if it is.”

In a recent interview, Park had said that he’d stop writing once his current project is finished.

                “I shouldn’t say that!” He laughs, admitting that sometimes in interviews, he can find himself saying something without too much thought. The truth, he says, is that he is constantly striving for perfection. “If I wrote a book that really pleased me, I don’t think I would feel the need to

write another one.”

Elaborating, he says, “When you start to write a book you have a vision in your head – it’s nebulous – you can’t define it – and somewhere halfway through you realise that you’re not going to ever capture that amorphous vision that floats in your head. That would be perfection, and there are probably awesome authors who do achieve it.”

Sometimes, Park wishes that he could write experimental fiction. A passionate person, he feels that his novels can be too restrained.

                “Part of me would like to write a book that’s challenges form, and is really free flowing, but it’s not in my makeup or writing.”

I’m a massive fan of his work, because his characters show such humanity. Children often feature, and Park once shared his fears for his two sons as they negotiated the teenage years. They are now safely through adolescence. One is married with a new baby. Has he the same fears for his tiny granddaughter? He nods.

                “We had to mind her while my son and his wife were at a wedding recently, and my wife and I were a bundle of nerves, checking every five minutes. But the amount of pleasure has been just wonderful!”

He’s a worrier by nature.

                “I dwell on things that are unhelpful to me. I think the book is ultimately about finding atonement in life, if that is ever partially possible.”

The title comes from a rhyme Park learned at Sunday School, which starts, ‘Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan, Ten were bad, two were good.’

                “My Sunday school teacher was a beautiful unmarried lady called Miss Hamilton. She had snow white hair. I thought of using her name in the book, but then I thought I couldn’t because there’s bad language in the book, and I didn’t want her name associated with that because she was gracious and elegant”.

He turned away from religion in his mid-teens.

“It caused sadness but not rows. I remained close to my mother. But I think fundamental religion, even when you’ve left it behind still retains some kind of psychological control.”

In the future he would love to write a children’s book, but meanwhile, is well on the way towards his next novel.  It’s not always enjoyable.

                “Writing is hard, arduous and demanding and I’m most happy when its done. Certain parts are pleasurable, but with other parts it’s a question of getting from A to B.”

Occasionally, though, he finds true joy. 

                “When I came to the end of Travelling in a Strange Land the writing just grew itself. Paragraphs wrote themselves. and it flew out of me like water coming out of a tap. Nothing needed to be changed or altered. It was one of the most pleasurable things.”

Spies in Canaan by David Park is published by Bloomsbury: €16.99 stg.  Kindle: 7.24 stg

Published in the Irish Examiner on 6th August.

© Sue J Leonard. 2022.

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