Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner. February 2008.
David Park yearns to be ‘a writer.’ His ambition is to lead a creative life where he could write a book from the core of himself; where the characters could live in the front of his brain.
Meanwhile the author of seven, highly acclaimed books; six novels and a collection of stories, continues to fit his writing around his main career as a teacher. Now 55, Park teaches in a mixed sex Grammar School in Down Patrick, Northern Ireland.
Park has been obsessed with narrative and language since he was a child. Studying English at Queen’s University, he always wanted to write a book; but making it his career was, and remains, a fantasy.
“People think that when you have written six books you have made a huge amount of money. The amount I have made from my writing would keep my family in a tent.”
We meet, in the library of The Clarence Hotel on a miserable January afternoon. Park isn’t well. He’s getting over a dose of the flu, and he coughs his way through the interview. He is, in fact, off sick from work.
“I couldn’t have taken a day off otherwise,” he says. “I’d be too embarrassed.”
This seems an extraordinary statement from such a well lauded writer; particularly when his latest novel, ‘The Truth Inspector’ is causing such excitement, and eliciting such wonderful reviews. But it sums up the man.
Park is small, slight and gently spoken. Clearly passionate about his subject; how the North can come to terms with the atrocities of the past, he is reluctant to say that he likes his book.
“The truthful answer is, I think I am pleased with it,” he says, after a drawn out pause. “But once a book is written it is not always in my consciousness. I am amazed and delighted with the way it has been received so far though. That is beyond expectation.
“I was in Chamonix on a walking holiday two summers ago when an email came through from Bloomsbury saying that they really liked the book. It was a nice moment but in true protestant style we went down and I had an orange juice and my wife had a small glass of beer.” He laughs. “We don’t really know how to do celebration.”
The Truth Commissioner focuses on a family’s struggle to find out what happened to a 15 year old, Conor Walshe, who disappeared in 1990. The narrative centres on four men; A Veteran Republican; a retired RUC Officer; a young man, who fled his IRA links and lives, illegally, in America, and the Truth Commissioner himself.
Park tells their individual stories; then brings the four together for the novel’s insightful, dramatic conclusion. The novel is as much concerned with the present, as with the secrets the men try to bury.
“People have described it is a political novel. I have never thought of it that way.” says Park. “I was more interested in the people. And as the characters began to evolve I became more aware of the complexities that lurk within every single one of us.
“It was important, if the novel was to work, that the characters were fully humanised. There has to be some understanding of who they are and how they got where they are.
“The big question for the North is how to come to terms with the past. How do we deal with the past in a way that does not damage or destabilise the future. It is a very difficult conundrum.
“I wrote the book three years ago. It was easy to predict that there would be some kind of assembly. That such an assembly is a central question, just as the book is being published, is serendipity.”
Park isn’t sure whether such a commission is a good idea. It is important, he feels, that victims should have access to the truth, but he feels it is naïve to imagine that the truth will bring healing.
“The truth is going to be painful; it will say ‘here is a work colleague who set up a work colleague; here is a neighbour who conspired to have a neighbour murdered. It will show that elements of the security forces conspired with the paramilitaries. And when you have a fractious, and immature political base, as we do in the North, the potential of these truths to destabilise, is, I think, enormous.”
In the novel, Park shows us the complexities of all the men involved. The hardest for him to empathise with was Francis Gilroy, the IRA Veteran who is now Minister for Children and Justice. Yet he is the best drawn character of all.
“He is the most fully formed in terms of his inner life,” Park agrees. “There was a slight temptation to do a hatchet job on him; to make him this hard faced, cold blooded calculating man, but he grew into this complexity of fidelity to a political faith. He was vulnerable, and was uncertain where you’d expect him to be certain.”
As for Stansfield, the snobbish philandering Truth Commissioner; Park says he got a vicarious pleasure from writing about him.
“It’s like all my life I have tried to be good, but suddenly I get this vicarious pleasure from being bad,” he says. “He is snobbish and selfish and says these terrible things about the North. Belfast offends him aesthetically.”
There is one characteristic that David shares with both Stansfield and Gilroy. He, like them, has a very strong love, and concern for his children.
“I do worry about them,” he says, albeit reluctantly. “Having teenagers, James 18, and Sophie 14, is very challenging. You need patience. Teenagers spend a huge amount of time in the virtual world. They live in a different sphere.”
Park doesn’t have time for research. He’s a little concerned that The Truth Commissioner has been bought for translation, by Romanian, where part of the book is set.
“What I know about Romania could be written on a postage stamp,” he says. He doesn’t plan either. “You have some signposts in your head, but nothing is predetermined.
“I wrote The Truth Commissioner by shutting myself away between eight and ten each night. I’d aim for 1,000 words. It’s like building a pyramid in tiny blocks. The book,” he says, “is all written from inside the character. It is their inner life you are writing about. That means that at some level you are seeing the world through their eyes.”
Park is desperate that the book will not be stuck into the confines of a book about Northern Ireland, or the troubles.
“It has to be universal,” he says. “In my mind it is not about the troubles. It is a book about what it is to be human.”
To date, Park’s literary life has been a quiet one. He’s had amazing reviews, but little public recognition. Someone said of his first book, that he writes tenderly about terrible things, and he liked that.
“I like to write about important things,” he says. “But I like to do that with a sense of humanity and tenderness. I like to write with grace.”
The Truth Commissioner by David Park is published by Bloomsbury at 14.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008.