Author interview conducted in September 2006
(via telephone) by Aaron Hughes
Paul Park photo (left) by Deborah Brothers
Paul Park (PP): There are four. I've just finished a draft of the fourth one, so I'm doing rewrites on that.
FR: The third volume, The White Tyger, is due out early in 2007. Can you tell us anything about after that? Do you have a title?
PP: The fourth book is called The Hidden World, and I'm not sure the publication date has been set. My guess is it will be maybe a year from now.
FR: Was that the plan from the outset, or had you originally thought of this as a trilogy?
PP: Well, from the outset, I had originally thought of it as one big, fat book. But when I put it together into a draft, which ended more or less where The Tourmaline ends, the ending seemed bad and rushed and didn't work. So in one of my first conversations with my editor, he suggested that I extend it, which would make it too long to publish as a single book, and then we thought about separating it into a trilogy. Then when I finished The White Tyger, again the ending seemed rushed and there were a lot of things that didn't seem quite resolved, and so at that point we decided that there would be a fourth book.
I'm not the kind of novelist who has an absolute, clear idea of how stories are going to end, or how long they're going to be, or anything except what the major themes are when I start plotting. So it didn't amaze me that this worked out like that. It doesn't seem to me like insufficient planning or anything like that, it just seems as if the whole project was growing in a kind of organic way, and this was the way that it made sense to divide it up.
FR: With the draft of the fourth book in your hands, are you satisfied with how it came out?
PP: Yes, I am. The ending of the fourth book is a complicated matter, partly because just by the nature of the beginning of the first book, I undercut any possibility of ending the books according to the conventions of this kind of literature, where you have a real world and a fantasy world and your characters start in the real world and then they go to the fantasy world and have adventures, and then they come back and the adventures have changed them. That's not really possible in these books and so some other ending has to be developed that connects with that model but is a radical departure from it too.
FR: You mentioned that ordinarily in this kind of fantasy the characters start in the real world and then go to a fantasy world. Without giving too much away, the Roumania series is closer to the reverse.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Do you have a recollection of what got you thinking of this concept, that our world would be the one that's the construct, and the one the characters go to is the more substantial world?
Paul Park (PP): Well, the basic idea came to me - I moved away from the place where the books start, this part of Berkshire County, when I was a teenager and I didn't move back for a long, long time. And I certainly didn't revisit the places in nature that had been very important to me when I was growing up, places that were sort of the locus of my fantasy world as a child. I didn't come back to them until I was an adult, in my late 30's or 40's. When I did, when I would go stand at some well that I had discovered in the woods when I was 8 or 9 or whatever it was, I had the oddest feeling about it. I had the oddest feeling that that landscape of my childhood was still tremendously vivid and tremendously magical to me. And it was connected to this real-life adult landscape that I was now experiencing, but different from it too, and almost more real. So I got the idea of going to a fantasy landscape and have it seem more real than the real world.
FR: I got that sense from reading, that this was an adult's viewpoint looking at the different ways places and people would seem to these teenage characters. I think that may be why, even though a lot of the primary characters are teenagers, to me this has an adult tone. For example I've seen these books compared to Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series; to me your books have a much more adult tone. Was that your intention?
PP: Well, I guess you're right. When I think about these in terms of the Philip Pullman books, which I have read and enjoyed, it strikes me that one difference that affects the tone is that his characters seem younger than mine. His books are not so much about internal forces in them that have a metaphorical power. So even though very complicated and enormously impressive and visually powerful things are happening to his characters, it feels a little younger than mine, I think, just by virtue of the way the major characters are drawn and their relationship to each other, that there's something static. I don't mean that as a pejorative. The books are not about the enormous changes these characters are going through, or they don't appear that way to me.
What reassured me about reading the Philip Pullman books is that I felt I didn't have to worry too much about, oh, is this a young adult book or is this a grown-up book? Because it didn't seem to me that he was worrying too much about that either.
FR: The readers don't seem too concerned about it.
PP: Yeah, you know, these marketing categories seem very elastic to me.
What's certainly true about lots and lots of fantasy is that, it says young adult but a lot of it is sort of written for children, written for a nine-year-old. But even so, it can be enjoyed by people - look at the Harry Potter books. Kids who are 8 and 9 can read these books, but they can be enjoyed all the way through to people in their 60's and 70's. But even so, in many ways they're not challenging books. They're entertaining and vivid and inventive and many other things. I think my books have a kind of narrower spectrum of possible reactions. My daughter, who is going to be 12 and an agile reader, reads a lot of fantasy, but I don't think she would enjoy these books, not yet.
It's interesting, because of course - young adult, what does that mean? I think about the stuff that I read when I was a young adult. I don't know what I made of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, but it strikes me in retrospect that it's a deeply, deeply adult book, and I read it when I was 17. I have no idea what my response was, I barely remember it from those times. And of course, readers are very different. 12-year-olds are very different, one from another, what they're interested in.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): You mentioned the changes that your characters undergo in these books. It's expected in good fiction that the main characters will change over the course of the story, but your heroes - I'm thinking of the ones who start out in Massachusetts: Miranda, Peter, Andromeda - they transform in more fundamental ways than is ordinary in fiction. And yet for me, the characters' alterations only seem to strengthen my attachment to them. I have no idea how you managed to pull that off, and I wonder if you were worried about whether you would be able to as you were writing?
Paul Park (PP): I did worry whether I'd be able to. I knew that I was going to try to do a different thing. What happens often in fiction is, the character is a certain way at the beginning of the book, and then they undergo certain experiences, and they are a different way at the end of the book. This can be done cleverly or it can be clumsily, but for me there's always something a little bit unbelievable about it.
There are two problems. The first is that there's something a little bit unbelievable about it, because what's certainly true is that people do change and it's certainly true that people do have experiences, but the relationship of a person's change to the experiences they undergo is a complicated one and not something where there is an obvious connection.
The second thing is that in fiction, lots of times when you can see that events in the novel are occurring in order to change the characters, the fact then that the character undergoes the change at the end has a kind of a Q.E.D. quality, sort of an unearned quality. As if the events themselves had to occur the way they did so that the character could end up the way he or she is.
So I imagined a different strategy, and again it had to do with trying to consult my own memories of being a child and a teenager. I felt not that I was having experiences and the experiences were changing me, so much as there were other people inside of me that were clamoring to get out, or other, different aspects of me that were sort of breaking me apart or disturbing a certain surface that I had, that I had developed as a child, say, and now all of the sudden there was some other thing that was coming from somewhere inside of me. And so for Peter and Miranda, especially, I was trying to figure out a metaphorical way of expressing that or showing that.
The danger is ... and I worried and fretted a great deal, and to tell the truth I am still sort of worrying and fretting. You know, a number of people don't like this book, and I think there are reasons why they don't like it and it might be connected to what I'm about to say. The danger is that that blurs a reader's reaction to the character, that the character no longer seems to have a single through-line or a single controlling personality, and that changes your reaction to the character and it's complicated whether you like the person or don't like the person, or sympathize with what they're trying to do or don't sympathize with what they're trying to do. All those reactions that in an ordinary book serve to invest the reader in the character, they might be more complicated in this book.
FR: But we like or dislike people in the real world. Real people don't show those kinds of causal reactions, where what happened on Tuesday makes them a more responsible person on Thursday.
PP: Well, that's what I was hoping. But I do think, though, that there are lots and lots of readers who deliberately want to respond to the characters in books in a simpler way than they respond to the people in their real life. They have to make those adjustments in real life, and they want to have less ambiguous reactions to characters in fiction, so they know who to root for and what not.
FR: Well, perhaps some people dislike these books, but I have been enjoying them very much -
PP: Well, good!
Fantastic Reviews (FR): - And if I may say so, I've enjoyed them from the outset, but there were two particular scenes that really made me into a devoted fan, and one of them is perhaps an exception to what you were talking about. It's the scene in A Princess of Roumania when Miranda travels to the underworld, which seems like the closest you come to the traditional scenario where a character undergoes an important event and that changes her in a particular way.
Paul Park (PP): Right.
FR: Did you envision it that way, as a pivotal moment in Miranda's development?
PP: Oh, well, certainly, certainly. The problem with Miranda - and in a way she has been a more difficult character to write than anybody else - is with these experiences she's having, it's tremendously difficult to imagine how anybody could tolerate going through these changes or experiences she is going through. This happens a lot in fantasy novels, where people undergo these enormous transformations, and you think, my God, how is it that they are able to function so well when everything they thought was true turns out to be a lie, or to maintain their bearings under such enormous stress? And the typical answer is that they're tremendously unusual people.
Well, I didn't want to rely on that. I wanted her to be a fairly ordinary person in some ways, which would make it so that the way that she is able to make sense of these enormous changes and the way she is able to proceed through them in some ways make it difficult for her to perceive what's going on around her. So she has a kind of blinkered approached lots of times to enormous problems. And that scene in the underworld strikes me as a place where those blinkers start to slip a little bit, where she begins to have some sense of the enormity of the changes that she's had to undergo, and it's not really entirely about her but it's an entire new world where she, whether she wants to be or not, is in a pivotal position. It's not just a matter of her convenience or inconvenience, or her pain or her difficulties, but a great deal more is at stake.
FR: Let's switch to the bad guys in the story. Because the other scene that really hooked me was early in The Tourmaline, the confrontation between the two apparent villains, Baroness Ceausescu and the Elector of Ratisbon. What strikes me about your villains is that, whereas in most stories the bad guy has the advantages and the good guy has to overcome the odds, in the Roumania series, the villains have the deck stacked against them just as badly as the heroes.
FR: So the question is, are you just such a cruel person that you can't even give your bad guys a break?
PP: Ha! What's certainly true is that from the point of view of my heroes and heroines, the Baroness Ceausescu and the Elector of Ratisbon are trying to do bad things to them, so on that level they're bad guys. But I guess I never really thought of them as "bad guys" while I was writing them. Usually a bad guy in a book serves a purpose, which is to exert pressure on the plot from the outside, or exert pressure on the fate of the characters that you like from the outside. And as a result they're a little, one-dimensional is wrong, but they're sort of flat, static characters, because they're playing a role always, and in order to keep the pressure up they have to keep to that role.
But when I imagined their situations, I wanted them to be in a dramatic situation as well. I wanted the way they deal with that situation to be powerful and alive as well, which meant giving them - you wouldn't want to say giving them virtues, but certainly giving them ways of understanding why they are the way they are, and why they make the choices they make, and certainly that their problems are real. So that when they strike out or are violent or do bad things, it's because something's at stake for them. I don't imagine either of them as people who are gratuitously destructive.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): In particular with the Baroness, when she is destructive, not only is it not gratuitous ahead of time, but then after the fact she seems to feel sincere regret at having caused other people pain.
Paul Park (PP): Yes, what's interesting about her is that she's pulled by very powerful forces that are hard to reconcile. So on the one hand she has enormous arrogance and a powerful sense of her own destiny and her own self and how she has managed to invent herself against all odds, but on the other hand she's consumed with feelings of worthlessness. As a result, those two forces pull her back and forth. Whenever she accomplishes something, she can't enjoy it because the other part of her pulls her away from it or makes her reinterpret it in a way that is damaging to herself.
FR: In The Tourmaline, she is struggling to write an opera called The White Tyger, which is the title of your next book. Is that a hint that you particularly identify with this character?
PP: I very much do. I must say, it's interesting that as a writer, you get certain characters and certain voices that are a real struggle and other characters that feel just like a breeze. It takes very little effort to write a whole scene from their point of view. Essentially, what you just have to do is move them through a landscape or give them experiences, and then you kind of follow after them jotting down what they say and what they think. The Baroness Ceausescu is certainly that character for me. I mean, whenever I would get to a scene from her point of view I would think, "Oh, gosh, what a relief! I know how to do this."
What's interesting later, if you're an amateur psychologist, you can say, why this character? Why is this character so easy and some other character, Miranda say, is difficult? Why is Andromeda easy and other characters are difficult? I do identify with her, I guess.
FR: Beyond identifying - let's go ahead and play amateur psychologist - do you think the easier characters are the ones that have a little bit more of your own personality in them, or is it something other than that?
PP: Well, certainly with a character like Baroness Ceausescu, it's an opportunity to do what is most fun to do in real life. If you are in some sense, as I am, a kind of plausible person from the outside, and you can imagine and you have an appreciation of how when others look at you what they're seeing, and they see a constructed artifice that you're in some sense in control of. And you can think to yourself, well, that's kind of an impressive thing, and I understand why they seem to be impressed by it. But you, on the inside, might think, "Oh, gosh, this whole thing is going to fall apart at any second, the whole thing is entirely artificial, and in any case it has nothing to do with me. I am, in fact, an unimpressive and desperate and strange person, who is motivated by sickening weaknesses and unworthy desires and lusts."
And it's sort of fun to try to capture that. I think this is not an uncommon experience for people. What's fun about the Baroness is that she's such an extreme on both sides. She is an enormously successful and powerful and charismatic person, but what's sad in this quest she has for these tools, like the tourmaline jewel, is that she doesn't even understand what the true source is of her power. She doesn't understand why people respond to her, why they love her, why they obey her. She assumes that it has to be because of some kind of trick, some kind of magic trick, because it can't be because they're responding to the real her.
So if you make her enormously impressive and then you make her gnawing self-doubts even more extreme than in an ordinary person, that's a fun thing to work with.
FR: Let me jump to another book because the general statement you just made about characters having variations between their outward appearance and what they're experiencing inwardly calls to mind your book No Traveller Returns. The main character is named Paul, we never hear his last name, and outwardly he seems very imaginative and adventurous but inwardly is obsessed with death and his own inadequacies. I know there are other times in your fiction when you use characters named Paul or even Paul Park. Are these characters representations of you or deliberately different than you and if so, why do they have that name?
PP: Well, No Traveller Returns is, much more than anything I've tried to write, something that is, autobiographical is the wrong word, but based on my own experiences. It's about the death of my friend Jim Carbone, who died of cancer years ago in a little town outside of New Orleans and many of those sort of physical details of the character's death and the kind of person he is are as real as I can make them. And certainly the character Paul in the book tries to, although most of the details are changed, tries to reproduce my relationship to this old friend of mine. That required a certain amount of vulnerable accuracy on my part, in terms of trying to make this person connected to me. So, you know, he's a guy who has traveled in India a lot and I have traveled in India a lot, and he has certain strengths and weaknesses and in some sense they are mirrors to mine, but there are many differences as well, and there are especially places where he seems to be very much an exaggerated version of myself both in negative terms and in positive terms.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Similar question, for the new books. Your daughter has the same name as the protagonist of A Princess of Roumania, so I wonder how much of that character is modeled after behaviors of your daughter?
Paul Park (PP): I've explained to Miranda that this book is not about her, but that I used the name, and I use the name as a kind of present to her. But she would not, for example, have to undergo the experience of reading this book in the future and thinking, is this what my father really thinks about me? Or is this how he really evaluates my internal processes, or thinks likely is what's going to happen to me? Or anything like that. So really I just borrowed the name, and I borrowed the name as a kind of gift to her or something that I thought might please her. You know, I think you can get into all kinds of problems when you try to put together complicated portraits of people who you really love and are connected to in fiction, unless you wait until they are dead.
FR: You mentioned that you have traveled very widely. What prompted your particular interest in Romania?
PP: Well, not actually from having ever gone there. For some reason I have always been interested in Romania. I have read a lot of Romanian fiction. I remember I was living in Paris with my family, I was a teenager around 1970, and going to a French school and there was a terrible flood in Romania, and the ambassador or the consulate suggested that you could go and make donations. So I went with my family and we made a donation, and the place was crowded with Romanians and also there were photographs of the flood and what was happening and a certain amount of information. And I have always remembered that. I have always remembered these photographs. The consul made a little presentation or slide show and it was striking, striking because most of these photographs were in small villages that were tremendously devastated by this particular flood. I remember being amazed that people in 1970 were living like that, in these little thatched houses, and their faces seemed to peer out of some sense of the 1920's rather than the 1970's. So that was interesting to me.
Then later I read a lot of Romanian history and I thought about it a lot. It was an interesting part of the world, because it was a very small place that became very large after 1918. It was kind of, like a lot of countries, assembled out of the remnants of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, so it became a regional power overnight, essentially, because of this other treaty. And many of its problems and history of bad government stretch back to that time.
FR: Well, the country has an interesting history, but the Roumania of your novels has a history that is quite different from our world's Romania.
PP: Well, that's certainly true!
FR: It's still very interesting.
PP: Yeah, there's a level in which the whole Romania thing is a dodge. I used to love novels that were set between the wars, 1920's, or even earlier, before the First World War - middle Europe feel. And you get the sense of these very, very cosmopolitan towns like Bucharest or Budapest, that are close to these kind of mythic eastern European peasant landscapes as well, and that is an interesting juxtaposition. So I wanted to keep that flavor in this fictional portrait of this country, and the basic climate and physiognomy of the landscape. And then I just wanted to play around with events in European history or stand in events, as if I could pause at the year of 1912, say, and break European history apart and then reassemble it in a different kind of mosaic but using some of the same themes, the rise of fascism or the rise of communism or things of that nature.
FR: There's also one change that goes much further back that I wanted to ask you about, and that is the variation that in your novels Jesus Christ escaped crucifixion and traveled to Roumania with Mary Magdalene. There is a hint that Miranda is a distant descendant. I can't believe you didn't get enough grief from fundamentalists after The Gospel of Corax and Three Marys.
PP: Ha! Well, that's just a little throw-away idea. You know, I don't do a whole lot with the history of Christianity in this new world, but I thought it was like a little joke on myself because, you know, I used to write a lot about these subjects and not so much any more. So the idea that the cross is still a symbol, but it's the symbol of what Jesus did to others rather than what was done to him was an amusing point to me. But it's a little bit of decoration, I don't mean to make any deep theological point.
FR: So no serious statement about Christianity?
PP: No, no, no, far from it.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): How's your squash game?
Paul Park (PP): Well, it used to be good and not so much anymore. A few years ago I developed severe arthritis in my shoulder and I had arthroscopic surgery, but the shoulder was kind of screwed up and I actually took it as a sign that I could retire honorably from the sport, and it has come as kind of a relief because it's a sport that is real hard on your body. The other thing is, I was really quite a good player, and you get to be 50 and you're just not any good any more and it's upsetting, so in a way it's almost better not to play any more at all.
FR: I used to play tennis so I can sympathize, but I don't think I was ever at the level that you were at in squash.
One thing I wanted to ask, your youngest sister is autistic.
PP: Yes, Jessie.
FR: How do you think her condition has affected your work?
PP: Well, that's an interesting subject. I never gave it much thought. You know, writing fiction, just in and of itself, if it's any good, is a very indirect art form. And writing speculative fiction is more indirect than most fiction. And the way I write speculative fiction is on the indirect edge even of speculative fiction. Which means that I don't spend a lot of time thinking very clearly about why I'm choosing the subjects that I choose or exploring pieces of characterization, or anything like that. But sometimes when I look at the work I do and I imagine that I'm looking at it from the outside, I think, well, this might be about autism. When I think of the way, in my first books, the Starbridge books, the way the antinomials are described, I think, maybe there's something about this that feels like autism, or feels like some highly romanticized version of autism. And other characters as well.
Knowing Jessie has been an experience. Not so much now, because I don't see her nearly as much, but because of her needs and because she was a spectacular person, she very much dominated life in our house when I was a child. It's hard for me to characterize exactly what effect that had, but it certainly was the most powerful single thing that was happening in my childhood, I'm sure.
FR: You're telling me that your experiences don't have a direct causal connection to how you behaved later?
PP: Ha! That's what I'm trying to suggest, yes.
FR: You mentioned The Starbridge Chronicles just now. Those three books and then also your novel Celestis, which were all very well-received, were all more in the mode of planetary science fiction adventures. What prompted the move from science fiction to fantasy?
PP: Well, this sort of gets back to my daughter Miranda. You know, I had kids kind of late. I met my wife when I was 40. At a certain point I thought, I had books that I read when I was a young teen that were enormously important to me, and they were fantasy. And I thought, wouldn't it be nice to write something like that. At a certain point Miranda was interested in the fact that I wrote books, and so she picked up Soldiers of Paradise once and she said, "Oh, maybe I could read this," and I was thinking, "No, I don't really think so." And then she looked at Celestis, and I said, "No, definitely, definitely not. I really don't want you to read that." And I thought, well, that's a sad thing, that's too bad. So the initial germ was that I wanted to write something that felt to her like a powerful version of one of the many fantasy series that she was enjoying.
Now, as I started this off by saying, I'm not sure I really accomplished that. The book seems to be more complicated and more dark and more grown-up than she's ready for. But that's certainly where it started.
FR: The books do have an adult tone, and yet I think they are books that precocious teenagers would appreciate.
PP: Yes, I think so.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Why do you think it seems to be that it's easier to write fantasy that's accessible to younger readers than science fiction?
Paul Park (PP): I'm not sure if it should be. I think that's just sort of what people are doing now. It's very striking to me that Miranda and her friends just read a huge amount of fantasy - and some of them are very good, or at least inventive and powerful, the Lemony Snicket books and things like that - and very little science fiction. I don't think this is necessarily natural or a good development. Because the world is full of people who discovered science fiction texts really early and loved them and they changed them. There are not that many people - and I'm not necessarily saying this is a terrible thing - writing that kind of science fiction now, the Foundation books and things like that that kids could read when they were 12 and say, "My gosh, this is amazing, I haven't thought these thoughts before." A lot of science fiction seems more complicated than that or more adult than that, and predicated already on a literary familiarity with science fiction texts.
FR: And certainly it's not a bad thing for there to be more serious science fiction in the marketplace, but a lot of us are concerned that whereas we could grow up reading Heinlein or Asimov, today younger readers will read just Harry Potter and a lot of fantasy. And will they make the transition to adult science fiction and fantasy?
PP: Yes, it's a concern. Especially since a lot of the fantasy that Miranda reads, there's a way in which it feels a little reactionary to me when I read it, sort of socially reactionary. The relationships between the characters seem very comforting, and not true to the image I have of Miranda's relationships to her own teenage friends. There's something comforting to adults buying the books for their kids, and I suppose something comforting for the kids themselves, but not socially challenging.
When I think that these books of mine are a little bit more complicated than a lot of the books she's reading, that has a lot to do with it. You know, those books also have people in tremendous peril and very complicated, difficult situations, and strange and carefully described landscapes, or whatever. They have all of that, but the relationships between the people seem quite conventional. And I think that's too bad. Because that doesn't do kids a favor. And I think in that old science fiction, that wasn't necessarily the case. The relationships between the characters weren't reassuring in this reactionary way. They suggested new possibilities and ways of treating each other.
One of the things that became clear to me when I was writing these Roumania books is, this was going to be a big problem for my kids. Because they weren't going to be able to easily fall into some kind of sense of destiny that was going to end up where they're all living in palaces on golden thrones and telling people what to do. That's not how they were raised and that's not a good thing and it's not a natural thing, and that was going to be a big problem. But in so many of these fantasies that my kids read, it feels as if those social relationships are being held up as worthy of emulation, or natural, and that troubles me.
FR: It may be because your writing in these books is more challenging on that level that, as I read them, I wasn't thinking, as I sometimes do with other authors, "Gee, we lost another great science fiction writer to these standard fantasy adventures." Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you, do you think you'll be returning to science fiction?
PP: I do. My own private ambition, and I'm sure every fantasy writer has this as their ambition, is to use the formal constraints of the genre - where you have the made-up world and the real world, and you have the person who seems like they have a quite ordinary fate in store for them but it turns out that in some other world they're a person of great power with an enormous destiny, and you have the magic jewel and the gypsy and the werewolf, and all these tropes - and take all of them and reimagine each one so that it can't be used any more. So it's all blown apart, and nobody can then go back to writing it the other way as if that were the most normal thing in the world, or as if it has to be written in this way, straight out with no irony, and not some other way.
I don't know if I've accomplished any of that, and it seems to me that there is a certain amount of good fantasists who are in some sense trying to do the same thing. Essentially anybody who is writing in a powerful tradition, both in terms of style and mood and form, is trying to do in some sense the same thing, to acknowledge that tradition in some way and reinvent it in other ways. But it's very close to the surface of what I'm trying to do at every point.
FR: But don't you do that as well in your science fiction?
PP: Well, I try to do that. Otherwise what's the point of this whole enterprise?
Fantastic Reviews (FR): That segues into something else I wanted to ask you about. John Clute has said you write in a way that is only possible late in the development of a genre, because you use existing, traditional tropes to convey a sense of antiquity and then to invert those tropes. All of which he meant as a compliment, but the implication that I think I disagree with is that a reader who's not familiar with those traditions within the genre wouldn't really be able to appreciate your work fully. Do you have a concern about that?
Paul Park (PP): Well, when I'm feeling bad about my career and think, oh, here I am such a worthy writer and yet I'm not exactly a household name, then I think maybe that's why. Maybe there's something very referential about the work so that, as John Clute might say, you can only understand what I'm doing in terms of a tradition. Certainly that was my fear for The Gospel of Corax and especially for Three Marys, that the books had a limited appeal, because they depended so much on the reader being familiar with the texts that are being reinvented, which after all, not everybody knows.
I think that was more true about Celestis and more true about the Starbridge books. With the Roumania books, I think this particular tradition is so alive and so much on everybody's mind, these fantasy tropes, and so fresh from people's childhoods that it's less of a stretch. I don't think that's going to happen.
FR: I know I've already recommended these books to people outside the genre and had good reactions.
PP: Well, good, because like all insecure writers, sometimes I fool around in cyberspace trying to figure out what people are thinking about the books, and it's very discouraging sometimes. I don't mind if people really hate the books. Sometimes you find somebody who's blogging saying, "Oh, this is the worst piece of crap I ever read, it's just so awful," and I think, "That's good!" But it seems like there are a lot of people out there saying, "Well, I don't know, I sort of don't understand why John Crowley likes it so much, it didn't really grab me." And I hate that. It seems like there's more of that than I would like.
FR: Why is it better for readers to hate the books than to have a lukewarm reaction?
PP: Well, because, from a writer's point of view, you can at least fool yourself into thinking that there's more at work than you know about, that it's not entirely an aesthetic reaction, that it's more of a personal reaction that's based on some complicated personal thing. But to say, "Oh, I find this kind of dull," there's no way to sugar coat that.
FR: There's no good interpretation of that one?
PP: Right. You can't convince yourself that the reason they're responding so violently, in such a negative way is because, oh, they were abused by a character that was very much like the Baroness Ceausescu, or something like that.
FR: You teach science fiction and fantasy at Williams College, right?
PP: Well, that would be overstating the case. I teach a class where I use a number of science fiction texts, but it's not about science fiction so much. In some sense it's a literature class, because we spend a lot of time actually discussing how these stories work, but it's mostly a writing class; it's about trying to learn how to write by looking at some of these novels.
FR: Are the students in the class mostly people who were already fans of the genre, and if not, do you find it difficult to engage those who weren't genre readers before coming to you?
PP: The students are a mix. I would say half of them have an interest in the genre, and that usually means interest in the works of Orson Scott Card, and half of them don't have any connection to it. As it turns out, and it's unclear to me why, because I never really pictured myself as a college teacher, especially at a fancy place like Williams, the class is really quite popular. So at this point I'm getting a lot of people who are signing up for it because of that, rather than because they have any intrinsic interest in the subject matter.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Do you have particular works that are your favorites to use in teaching - I take it maybe Orson Scott Card is not one of them?
Paul Park (PP): I'm just saying that because he seems to be what Asimov and Heinlein were to my generation, sort of a gateway author. Speaker for the Dead in particular, for these kids who are now 19, 20, or 21 years old, that was the book that sort of connected to them in some kind of deep way.
FR: Are there others that you find get a good reaction from the students?
PP: I'll tell you what's on my syllabus, and it's short stories. We do John Crowley's story "Snow." We do Carol Emshwiller's story "The Start of the End of It All." We do Karen Fowler's story "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things." We do Jonathan Lethem's story "Five Fucks." We do "Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler. I'm blanking on the rest, but you get the idea, they're difficult, complicated stories. And then we do a Stephen Baxter far-future story, and that wonderful Tony Daniel story, but most of them are not traditional science fiction stories. And I've chosen them so that the people who come in who have preconceptions about what science fiction is don't necessarily then read "Snow," say, and think, "Oh, what a great science fiction story." So they have to think about those preconceptions.
FR: You've written short fiction in the past in that same mode. The story that I have a mind, which was actually the one that made me originally a fan of yours, was "The Last Homosexual" (Asimov's, June 1996; reprinted in If Lions Could Speak). Any plans to return to writing shorter fiction?
PP: Yes, actually, I am thinking of it. I've arranged my schedule so that I'm teaching in the Spring but not this Fall, and what I envision is writing a bunch of short stories, because I haven't written many since I started this huge project.
FR: You mentioned before not always getting the accolades that fans, including me, think you're entitled to. Part of the reason, I think, is clearly just the prejudice against your genre label. But for that prejudice, with your lyrical writing style, you'd be getting a lot more awards and glowing reviews from the mainstream. Do you feel frustrated by what I view as the mainstream's prejudice against writers who are identified as science fiction/fantasy writers?
PP: Well, you don't go into the arts thinking this stuff is fair, or that everybody gets what they deserve, and that critics are going to be wise, and readers are going to be open-minded. You're stuck with the field as it is.
I think it's unfortunate that there's such a stigma against speculative fiction, because a lot of it is really good. A lot of these writers are really good. Many of them aren't so good, but there are writers who are known in the speculative fiction community who are as good as any, and it's too bad that nobody else is reading them.
But I don't think you can allow yourself to get frustrated, because to tell the truth it's a wonderful thing that I'm able to publish my books at all, that I can write pretty much what I want to write, and David Hartwell will buy the books, and somebody will read them. I don't feel that I'm owed a lot of accolades just for writing at a certain level.
FR: Well, it is a wonderful thing, and I encourage you to keep doing it.
FR: Last question, most important question: What's your favorite dessert?
PP: I'm very fond of the combination of chocolate with nuts. So I would say any kind of chocolate and nut ice cream.
Is this something you ask everybody?
FR: You know, I was tempted and decided not to do the barrage of standardized questions, if you ever watch Inside the Actor's Studio, but I thought I'll ask this one question and see if we get similar answers.
PP: I'm extremely addicted to chocolate, and the combination of chocolate and nuts strikes me as sheer genius.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Thank you very, very much for taking the time. We appreciate it a lot.
Paul Park (PP): Well, thank you!