Shadowy Figures, Infinitely Debatable
An Interview with Paul Park
by Nick Gevers
After the publication of his first novel in the mid-1980s, Paul Park swiftly attracted notice as one of the finest authors on the "humanist" wing of American SF. His powerful, densely written narratives of religious and existential crisis on worlds at once exotic and familiar won him comparisons with Gene Wolfe and Brian Aldiss at their best.
His first major project was the Starbridge Chronicles, a triptych of novels consisting of Soldiers of Paradise (1987), Sugar Rain (1989), and The Cult of Loving Kindness (1991); elaborate and elegiac, full of keen historical resonances and penetrating religious understanding, the series remains one of the most splendid literary architectures SF has yet produced. Coelestis (1993) more sparely assesses the alienation wrought by colonialism on its practitioners and victims, to superb tragic effect; and The Gospel of Corax (1996) offers a sublimely heterodox account of how an oddly mute Christ may have learned to transfigure the world. Like Park's oblique short stories, all of these novels are strange, challenging, magnificently surreal....
I interviewed Paul Park by e-mail in October 2000.
NG: Reading your novels, it becomes obvious that you're well travelled, especially in Asia, and that as an author you've assimilated much of Asia's atmosphere, language, belief, and rhythm of being. How extensive have your wanderings been, and how, precisely, have they moulded you as a creative artist?
PP: My family lived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon--my father, a physicist, was on loan to the University of Colombo) when I was small, and it became the mythical locus of all my first memories: the cobra at the bottom of the garden, which my sisters and I would feed with plates of milk, the circle of elephants swimming at the bottom of the pool at Pollunaruwa--it took me a long time to realize that these memories were grossly distorted or invented, so rich and clear they were. My father continued to visit Asia by himself for six months at a time when I was growing up, and my older sister left on the overland trip to Goa the summer after college, and didn't come home for ten years. I myself was quite late going, considering the importance Asian images and experiences had assumed in my family--I went to New York City after college, and pursued dismal and uninteresting occupations. Finally I gave up on the idea of a career, and got a job in a squash racquets club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and started work on Soldiers of Paradise, chasing a series of images that had occurred to me in a dream. But I ran out of energy after 80 pages or so, and realized what I had written needed a context, a larger setting. So I took some money I had saved and bought a ticket to New Delhi in the fall of 1983, telling myself I couldn't come back until the book was done. Eighteen months, as it turned out: I finished the first draft in Indonesia.
So when I look back on Soldiers of Paradise now, I see the places I worked on it (and also the novels I was reading, which assume an exaggerated importance during solitary nights in rented rooms--anyone who is interested in Soldiers could tell, for example, the point where I started reading Oliver Twist). And not just in episodes that I pilfered: the Kandy Perahera sequence in Soldiers, or the Chandrigarh Divali Festival in The Cult of Loving Kindness, but in much of the background atmosphere as well.
Parts of the other books were written in Zaire (now Congo) and Uttar Kashi. Coelestis was the first book I finished in New York from beginning to end, and it shows.
NG: Still, you're an American writer. Can you say more about your American personal and professional background, and why (as an American author) you became such a literary exoticist?
PP: I grew up in a small college town in New England, where my father taught physics and my mother taught literature. I was a mediocre and undisciplined student, but managed to get into an "experimental" college, where I performed very little work. I did, however, read a great deal, and not just trash, either.
After graduation I moved to New York City, where I worked for the city council. Then followed that series of unpleasant jobs, which I quit in slow succession. I tried my hand at advertising copywriting for a while, then resigned to write my first novel, a theological murder mystery which has never been published. After a period of unemployment, I found my niche at the racquet club, and stayed there five years, off and on. I left to write Soldiers of Paradise.
Then for a while I was a full-time novelist, not in the sense that I made a living, but only in that I had no other income. Intermittently I worked for a small shop in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which sold Asian antiques and handicrafts. I lived in Baltimore for a while, and taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Then on a visit home to see my parents, I met my current wife, Deborah, and settled with her near where I grew up. She is a costume designer at the college where my parents worked, and we have two young children, Miranda and Lucius. In addition to writing, I now work part time for an on-line retailer called eZiba.com, which sells Third World crafts. This may be more than you wanted to know.
As for my "literary exoticism," as you call it, I think that is particular to the Starbridge books, which are full of atmosphere and figurative language and creaky old Bayreuth effects. Since then, my language has gotten progressively sparer and more transparent. Or at least I hope so: the hardest thing for me as a writer is to speak without irony, without the protection of being misunderstood. To say, "this is what I think is important," or "this is what I think is true, or beautiful, or funny, or moving"--that is what is difficult for me. Having said that, I have to admit that some of my recent work is quite obscure.
NG: Your work often seems to partake of a conscious surrealism. Is that perception correct?
PP: I think all writers, even bad ones, manage to hold a mirror up to what they think the world is like. To present a world without surrealist aspects is as distorted as presenting one without humour, or love. That said, I try not to think of myself as an anything-ist. Writing, like living, is an indirect art form, and the -ist people don't understand that.
NG: How did you happen to be labelled a Science Fiction writer? Did you have much previous acquaintance with the SF genre, have its texts and trends influenced your writing in any major way?
PP: When I started writing, I was ignorant and naive about the publishing business. My own reading was catholic in the extreme, and I never much thought in terms of genres. It was when was trying to sell Soldiers of Paradise that it first occurred to me that I had written a science fiction novel, or at least that other people thought I had. Science Fiction meant little to me; I had read few SF books that were not also classics of general literature--A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1984, etc. I'd read some Le Guin, some Gene Wolfe, some Zelazny. My older sister had given me a novel by George R. R. Martin called Dying of the Light, which I had very much enjoyed. I did, however, have a sound education in children's fantasy.
It wasn't until I started publishing that I discovered the classics of the genre, and I am still shockingly underread--almost nothing before about 1975. I do think I'm a bit of a fraud as a science fiction writer, since I have so little science background or, indeed, interest. In fact I have very little patience for theoretical ideas of any kind.
NG: Your first books, the three Starbridge novels, are extraordinarily rich in ornate description. How did you develop the "exotic" prose style of, for example, the magnificent opening passages of Soldiers of Paradise and Sugar Rain, with their exquisite mingling of (imaginary) historical specificity and timeless iconicity?
PP: Again, I would say that my prose style has fluctuated a good deal, as I like the idea of writing books that are very different from each other in tone and treatment. In the Starbridge books, the task I set for myself was to make a strange place come alive, so that the experience of reading it was comparable to the experience of living in that world. More than people or events, those books are about the place itself: to a large extent, especially in the first book, events occurred so as to carry the reader into different sections of the physical and social landscape. What I was trying to do was to make every moment both physically and emotionally vivid, which requires a lot of description, and a layered technique. There are definitely some tour-de-force set pieces in those books, more so than in Coelestis, which, by contrast, is written very sparely. All I can remember about the two passages you mention is that they were both written rapidly, and under the influence of panic: the opening sequence of Soldiers of Paradise was written in about forty minutes, at the advice of an editor who (I thought) would otherwise not buy the book. The opening of Sugar Rain, which I am particularly fond of, was written in about the same length of time, after I had succeeded in convincing myself that I was incapable of writing anything new.
NG: Apart from their splendour, the Starbridge books are characterised by an indirectness of telling that is a considerable challenge to the reader--the nature of the erratically orbiting heavenly body Paradise remains tantalisingly enigmatic, as do the circumstances in which a space traveller long ago visited the Earth of the sequence. Why are you so oblique a novelist?
PP: What I dislike most about big, world-building SF and Fantasy books is that all the facts of the matter are established going in, usually in advance. The reader gets nuggets of information from the writer that are irreproachably true, like the pronouncements of God--the true history of the place, the true scientific background, etc. This technique strikes me as being so contrary to our own experience of living in the world, that the books that use it never recover their credibility. The history, natural history, and belief-structures of our own world are a complete chaos of conflicting theories, mostly about matters that will and can never be definitively determined.
So my conceit in the Starbridge books was to tell the stories not from my own point of view, or from the point of view of some omniscient and infallible narrator, but from the point of view of an historian from inside the culture, looking back over an expanse of time. In some ways he is more knowledgeable than the people he is writing about, in some ways he is just as blind as they. And he is highly crotchety and tendentious, and obviously interested in some things and not others. The idea is to create a scrim, and the text of the books is written on the scrim, and behind the scrim are vague, shadowy figures of theories and ideas, only just visible, and infinitely debatable. This technique drives some people crazy, I know.
NG: How did you strike upon the protracted seasonal cycle--the centuries-long "Years"--of the Starbridge Chronicles? And what comment does this temporal structure deliver on the overall nature of human history?
PP: Most people think I cribbed this idea from Brian Aldiss' Helliconia books, which I still have never read. Actually, I cribbed it from Ursula Le Guin's City of Illusions. She describes the idea in a few sentences and never comes back to it, so I figured what the hell. As I say, I plotted the first book in India and Nepal, where the idea of enormous temporal and social wheels is well established. The Western idea of time as an arrow, forever burrowing into a new and changing future, is actually quite unusual.
NG: Another aspect of your use of time and history in the Starbridge cycle is your curious mingling of the artifacts and capabilities of different eras--the Cult of Angkhdt is a pre-industrial theocracy, yet trains, photography, and cigarettes are freely available in Charn. And of course, in the midst of the familiar, you remind your reader at times that the "humans" of your "Earth" are not really human as we would accept the term. Why this oscillation between contextual reassurance and discomfiting estrangement?
PP: Again, one of the odd features of spending time in an Indian or African village is the admixture of recognizable but out of context Western items to a powerful and established cultural norm--people working with wooden hoes in the manioc fields, for example, while wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts. In our own world, there is essentially no place that does not contain some of these Western products, and the juxtaposition is an evocative one. I also wanted to imply that in the Starbridge world, there are numerous other societies, and some of them (perhaps in some part of the world where the dictates of the climate are less extreme) are what we might call more advanced, and even, possibly, in contact with other planets--even, possibly, our own. None of this has any interest for the narrator of the books, however.
Another thing that tends to irritate me about other world-building SF books is that they pretend they are talking about an entire world, but really it seems as if all they have to offer is an area as big and complex as New Jersey or Lesotho: maybe a few conflicting societies and belief structures, but nothing that remotely approaches the diversity and variation that we experience on our own planet. As I say, my narrator hasn't much interest in places outside the one he is describing, but that doesn't mean he can eliminate all traces of other cultures from his descriptions of his own.
NG: Religion is the central theme of the Starbridge novels, and you portray it in a manner that, while certainly critical of aspects of the religious impulse, also evokes very tellingly the hypnotic allure of Faith, however dogmatic and institutionalised. Is this an ambivalence that, in your view, will always govern humanity, provoking alternating phases of devotion and skepticism?
PP: What I find interesting about religion is that in no other enterprise (except, perhaps, democratic politics) does the heartbreakingly pure idealism of human beings exist in such close proximity to their foulest and most corrupt instincts. There is no belief structure on earth that is not filthy and contaminated and counterproductive from its inception--corrupted immediately by money and power and sex. But the core of each of them remains pure, because it speaks to what is purest in our natures--atman, the spark of divinity, whatever you want to call it. Faith, like the ideal of democracy, will never go away, because they are really the only two things that are worth a shit. But it is important to understand that both lead immediately to grotesque distortions, by their very nature. There's something Jeshua says in Corax, which I believe: "There is no word that men put in the mouth of God, that is not a dangerous lie." But that doesn't mean God doesn't exist. I myself am a churchgoer, though I don't particularly believe the nonsense that goes on in church.
NG: Of course, the anarchistic and speechless antinomials of the Starbridge books suggest that a radical alternative exists to the debilitating entanglements of organised religion, civilisation and history. How attractive is this alternative meant to be?
PP: The antinomials connect to a theme that is present more generally in my work, and which I owe to my autistic younger sister, Jessica Park. She is an attractive person, with a communication disorder that renders her extremely isolated. It is easy to romanticize psychological disorders, but it is important to remember that neurotic suffering is a way to protect yourself from legitimate suffering, and the trade is not usually a good one. The antinomials in the book are a dead end, however much they are romanticised by the narrator, and by me. De-evolution is always seductive, more from the outside than the inside.
NG: Looking now at your fourth novel, Coelestis: this is a book that seems much more overtly contemporary than the Starbridge Chronicles, much more direct in its commentary upon the estranging realities of the Third World. In Coelestis, the human settlers on a distant planet have alienated its aboriginal people from the symbiotic identity that is authentically theirs, coercing them towards human form and thought. Is this indeed an allegory on the processes of colonialism and neo-imperialism?
PP: I don't know if allegory is the right word. I once was a guest at a big house in India, and it struck me that my Indian host and hostess were living a version of a life that no longer existed even in England--silver tea services, butlers, polo, regimental manners, old school ties, etc. I found this extremely evocative.
NG: Coelestis has a setting in its way just as remarkable as the Earth of the Starbridge Chronicles. What prompted your portrayal of a (Mercury-style) narrow world of light between zones of darkness?
PP: I'm not sure where that idea came from. I've always been fond of grandiose effects of climate and landscape, especially if they seem to suggest a moral element. Some writers want to show you stuff you know already, so that you are struck by the intensity of recognition. Others want to show you things you've never seen before.
NG: I'm intrigued by your repeated use of "doomed" sexual pairings summing up the inevitability and fragility of unions of opposites--the Bishop and the antinomial boy in The Cult of Loving Kindness, Simon Mayaram and the aboriginal "girl" in Coelestis. What motivates this symbolism?
PP: The two relationships you mention, though similarly doomed, are actually quite different: in the Starbridge books, I was trying to express how individual identities, needs, desires, can be crushed under the burden of historical forces, which oblige people to play roles separate from their personalities. In Coelestis, I'm trying to suggest by extrapolation and exaggeration some of the difficulties ordinary people have when they try to communicate based on incompatible frames of reference, which to some extent we all have. Writing realistically about functional relationships is, of course, very hard. I aspire to it.
NG: Your short stories have been few but very striking. With which pieces are you most pleased? And is a collection a possibility?
PP: I am pleased with most of my short stories. I quite like "Get a Grip". I quite like "A Man on Crutches". I quite like "The Breakthrough", and a few others as yet unplaced. I'd love to publish a collection. So far no one has suggested it.
NG: Your most recent published novel, The Gospel of Corax, is an intensely interesting retelling or reinterpretation of the career of Christ. What suggested to you your "Jeshua"'s imposing physicality and peripatetic course in life?
PP: Often the salient features of a book come out of limitations, the choices you make out of your own inadequacies. For example, the whole idea of the antinomials came from the desire to write a fantasy book without inventing a lot of hokey character names (not entirely avoidable, as it turned out). So I thought why do they have to have any names at all? What would they be like if they didn't? In the same way, I decided to call animals horses, for example, when they are obviously not, so as to avoid inventing names and etymologies for them.
Corax was the same way. My portrait of Jeshua as a big, soulful, yet basically inarticulate physical presence came out of my difficulty in supplying dialogue for the Son of Man--I was quite comfortable with philosophical musings, or short speeches, but quite uncomfortable with more ordinary, day to day conversation. So I found myself cutting most of that out, and making up a character out of the effect.
As for the story of Christ's trip to India, it dates from the theosophists, and to a Russian con man from the 1860s, who claimed to have seen Jesus' grave at Hemis Gompa in Ladakh. By now the story is quite a staple of New Age theology, though I myself find it unlikely. I remember where the idea for the novel came to me, though: I was in St. Bartholomew's church on Park Avenue in New York, where I had gone to wait while my Indian visa was being processed at the consulate close by. I was going to spend a few months in the Garwahl Himal, climbing with a friend. The church is an extravagantly beautiful faux-Byzantine pile, and the idea came all in a rush. I sketched the novel out at Mt. Meru base camp at Tapovan a few weeks later, and finished it on a trip to Tibet four years after that.
NG: You have since produced a second novel about Christ, which has not as yet found a publisher. What sort of approach do you take in this book, and why hasn't it seen print? Is publication still possible?
PP: I've finished a short novel called Three Marys, of which I am quite proud, although I see its commercial difficulties. Because Corax invented new adventures for Jesus, enjoyment of the book did not depend on a thorough knowledge of the New Testament, although obviously the more you knew the better. This book, however, is a retelling of the stories of the Gospels and the Book of Acts from the points of view of some of the women that surround Jesus, and to understand and appreciate how I have changed the stories in a thousand minute ways, some quite specific knowledge is essential. I think many publishers (wrongly) feel that readers most likely to have that knowledge would be least likely to appreciate the changes I have made.
I also think that while even traditionally devout readers are committed to the idea of Jesus as an ambiguous and difficult character, there is more pressure to present his mother, and Mary Magdalene, etc., as conventionally likeable people, which I have not done. St. Peter and St. Paul come off rather badly, also. It's a shame, really, because it's a good book. Someone will publish it eventually, I think.
NG: Finally: what creative projects do you currently have under way? Do you intend to continue your career as a novelist?
PP: My "career as a novelist," as you so generously describe it, has undergone some difficulties since the publication of Corax. No one wanted Three Marys, and my agent quit under protest. I got married and had two children, with whom I spend a good deal of time. For a while I found it impossible to write, as the work habits I had developed over fifteen years were incompatible with family life, to say the least. Also, the engine of narcissism and self-absorption that had always carried me forward seemed to break down when the kids were born.
But now I am about halfway through a big novel about Romania, a country that has always fascinated me. Or rather, it's not about the real Romania, but an idealised version of Romania, and a world in which Romania is the pre-eminent European power. I'm pleased with the book so far, and it seems to me conventionally publishable--"Bad enough to please," as John Dryden described one of his plays. No, I'm really quite excited about it now. It will be my best book.
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© Nick Gevers 30 December 2000