Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Shorter Version published in Irish Examiner, 9th June 2012
Four years ago David Park was feeling drained. His sixth novel, The Truth Commissioner, had been wonderfully well received. Shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year, it was also a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. But the teacher from County Down felt that he needed to write a new chapter.
“My wife told me I should lighten up,” he says, with a rare laugh. “She was saying I should write a book about love.”
That flummoxed him. Explaining to her how hard it is to write about love without being sentimental, and writing without any depth, he realised he could examine the origins of love. He could write about the subtle complexities of marriage, of family and parenthood. And in The Light of Amsterdam, he’s come up with a delicate exposition of the burden love brings.
All Park’s books have explored what it is to be human.
“The novel is the best medium for helping us to understand the complexities of humanity, by illustrating the flaws and the strengths,” he says. “Sometimes, as a writer, your book illuminates something for you as you write. By the time I’d finished this one, I understood that love is the price to be paid for bringing a child into the world.”
His novels have received ecstatic reviews for their insight and graceful prose. But the 58 year old is quietly spoken, and modest. There’s a sense that he carries the weight of the world.
“I don’t suffer from a lack of self confidence; I couldn’t, and be a good teacher. I can perform. I don’t, however, enjoy that total confidence in my work. There is a natural reticence; maybe it’s a Northern thing. You don’t want to make a claim for yourself. And I find it intellectually hard when you are so emotionally close to the work, to stand back and evaluate it in a dispassionate way.”
He always writes beautifully about teenagers. Rachel, an academic teen in Swallowing the Sun was so well drawn, that I came away from that book, with a better understanding of my middle daughter. He’s relieved, he says, that his own children, now 21 and 19, have left those days behind.
Jack is the only teenager to feature in this new novel. A troubled boy whose life revolves around his computer in a parallel world, Jack is an unwilling companion to his father, Alan, on a trip to see Bob Dylan play in Amsterdam. The other characters, though, also have issues with their offspring.
The single mother Karen, accompanying her daughter Shannon on her hen weekend, learns the depth of Shannon’s selfishness and duplicity. Marion, in Amsterdam on a birthday weekend, is more concerned with conserving her marriage; but there’s that nagging worry about her grown daughter; about whether she has a relationship and if she’s happy.
The novel is told from the points of view of Alan, Karen and Marion. All three feel at odds with the world. At a junction in their lives, they are struggling with deep anxieties for the future. Admitting that he, also suffers with anxiety, David says,
“Anxiety is a horrible thing, and its generally unfocused. As a writer, anxiety and general discontent are much more interesting to explore that contentment.”
Like his countryman, the late Brian Moore, Park writes quite wonderfully about women.
“The interior life of a woman is much more interesting than that of a man,” he says. “You just have to make that empathetic leap. Fiction tends to be attracted by the extremities of emotion. Of hatred, passion and jealousy. But the emotions that underpin most of our lives are subtler, quieter things. The insecurities. The irrationalities. The imports of memory. Those are the things I find interesting.”
Park’s main protagonists, in his new book, are looking for light.
“I came from an evangelical tradition, and although I no longer hold any of those aspects of faith, there are elements of that Baptist background that linger with me; some of those central images from the bible, like transfiguration and transcendence.
“I liked that ideal of taking people out of their normal environment, and letting them see their lives from a new perspective. That geographical and emotional distance from their origins, and the influence of the light of the City, somehow brings everything into a sharper relief.”
Park chose Amsterdam partly for its art. His wife is an artist, and he shares her passion for the medium. He’s visited the city half a dozen times over the years, but it’s his first visit there, back in the seventies, that he remembers most vividly.
“I find Amsterdam so powerful. It was the first city I ever stayed in. And going there as a teenager, from a Belfast of the seventies, which closed its doors at six, and where history was divisive, was intoxicating for me. It was beautiful, and there was something young about it too.
“I still like it today. Although, like everything else in life, you end of looking a bit harder to find that power. But I’m still fond of it, and my children liked it too.”
A teacher for the past 34 years; 25 of them in a coeducational grammar school in Downpatrick, Park stopped teaching two years ago. He has yearned, for years, to be a full time writer; and to have his characters in the front of his brain, but does the reality meet his expectation?
“There are plusses and minuses,” he says. “I have an opportunity, now, to be fully focused and committed to the work. But at first, I tried to write for too long. That proved draining and counter-productive. Now I write most mornings, and, sometimes, I return to work in the evening. But there is more time for reflection, for planning, and for thinking about it.
“But I do find the sedentary life and the solitary lifestyle less useful for good health. I take a yoga class on a Tuesday morning and I play five a side football on Friday afternoons. I do that, back at the school, so there’s a nice link with my colleagues, but I do need to do more.”
Park is already a third of the way through his next novel. It’s a triptych, telling the lives of three poets wives; two based on real lives, and one fictitious.
“It’s the first time, ever, that I’ve done research as a writer. And so far, I’m finding the experience positive.”
The North, Park thinks, needs new narratives. And he believes that creativity is now starting to grow.
“My theory is that the troubles harmed all aspects of society. And one of the areas which was damaged was creativity. The troubles narrowed us, and locked us into this narrower vision. I feel now there is the opportunity to catch up, and to flourish.
“That is what I’d like to see. We need to stop endlessly dissecting the events of the past thirty years and we need to re-imagine ourselves. To go on poking around in the troubles is really to scratch at scar tissue. Let the thing be.”
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park is published by Bloomsbury at €16.99. Kindle: €9.24
© Sue Leonard 2012