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A Conversation With Paul Park
An interview with Greg L. Johnson
September 2002

Paul Park
Paul Park
Paul Park has written several novels, including Celestis and The Gospel of Corax. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and several anthologies. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his family.

ISFDB Bibliography

Celestis
Soldiers of Paradise
Sugar Rain
The Cult of Loving Kindness

Paul Park appeared on the SF scene in the late eighties with the publication of his Starbridge Chronicles, comprised of Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain, and The Cult of Loving Kindness. Set on a world where seasons last for generations, the novels' complexity and depth of world-building drew deserved comparisons to Brian Aldiss' Helliconia Series and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. His next novel, Celestis, (titled Coelestis in the UK), was a haunting look at an alien forced to live as a human being. That was followed by The Gospel of Corax in 1996, an historical novel set in the time of Christ that never seemed to find its audience. Since then there's been the occasional story in Asimov's or Interzone and other magazines.

Now Paul Park returns with a collection of those stories, a short novel, and plans for more. The following interview took place by e-mail, over the first half of Summer, 2002.

I would guess that a reader who started your new collection, If Lions Could Speak, might be struck by the thought that several of these stories could just as easily have appeared in The New Yorker as in Interzone or Asimov's. What led you, as a writer, into the world of science fiction?

I started writing short stories after my first few novels had already appeared. Thanks to them, I had been warmly welcomed into a community of SF writers, readers, and editors; so when I started writing short stories, it was natural for me to stay inside the genre where I was known. The process of submitting work for publication is notoriously heinous, and it helps immeasurably to imagine a friendly and receptive person opening your envelopes; I think most writers fall into a routine of sending their stuff to people they know. I'm curious which stories you think might have been appropriate for The New Yorker; I've never sent anything to them, and I suspect I'd be able to grow a long gray beard while waiting for a reply.

The more complicated question is why the SF magazines printed some of this stuff -- as you imply, several of the stories in this collection are missing what you might call the classic SF elements. But I suppose the magazine editors liked them because they saw a unity in my work as a whole, genre and non-genre: similarities of style and atmosphere, and a taste for psychological inversion. I think most readers won't care about the difference, or even notice it. After all, there's only one straight-up realistic story. All the rest have some sort of drastic abnormality.

I thought while reading them that either "The Breakthrough" or "A Man on Crutches" could have easily been published in a mainstream fiction magazine. It may be that these days SF editors are more open to a different style of story than the mainstream editors.

Starting out by writing novels before short stories isn't the usual path for becoming a published writer, although it worked fairly well for Samuel R. Delany and C.J. Cherryh. Was there something about writing novels that made you begin there?

I remember meeting Terry Bisson around the time Talking Man came out. I think I was about half-way through Sugar Rain and I was completely stuck. I asked him whether he ever wrote any short stories, just to take a break from real work. He said he had no idea how to write them, couldn't understand them, didn't know anything about them. He said all he knew about was writing novels and fixing cars, and I suppose I felt the same way, except for the cars, of course. But then he published a couple of stories and I thought, well heck -- he doesn't know anything about it and he's doing it. What's to stop me?

I think a lot of SF writers grow up reading SF stories. And then when they themselves start to write, it's natural for them to work in that form -- copying what they like, and trying to outdo it. But I never read short stories until later. They tend to be very much about ideas, and I never used to like ideas much -- never could see the point of them, never could see how they helped you figure anything out. I preferred the layered accretion of novels: you don't have anything, and you add a little bit of nothing to it, and then a little more, and pretty soon there's something there, and it's moving and working in ways you hadn't anticipated. A short story tends not to function unless it's under your control from beginning to end, which used to make me nervous. You have to plan it out, and that's definitely not the way I thought writing should work. But I've changed a bit, and loosened up, and I'm glad. The novels have gotten better, too, perhaps coincidentally.

"The Breakthrough" was bought by Jennifer Hershey for an anthology, and I told her it wasn't really an SF story. But she didn't care, she said. Ellen Datlow bought "A Man On Crutches," and she said Science Fiction owned the whole doppelganger property, whether I liked it or not.

One reason I brought up short story versus novel writing was it seemed to me that several of your short stories read like the beginning of a longer story, with the characters confronting a major change in their life. It goes a bit against the more standard SF short story where everything is wrapped up in a neat package.
Early on I promised myself I wasn't going to write the kind of story I hate to read: that is, the story with the trick ending, or the sudden reversal or revelation. It was reading Guy de Maupassant and Edgar Allen Poe and O. Henry that turned me into a novelist.

One thing that runs constant in both your novels and stories, from the god Angkhdt in The Starbridge Chronicles to the New Testament underpinnings of The Gospel of Corax and your new novel, Three Marys, is a concern with religion, both as theology and as a force in society.

What is your own religious background and why the continuing interest?

Most people have deep resources of irrationality, and what organized religion does is try to spend those resources in a productive way, with the usual mixed results. I am interested in that process, interested also in trying to tell mythic or religious stories as if they were secular ones, secular stories as if they were myths. Every piece of magic or faith can be debunked and made to look ridiculous; every cold fact can be explained in a way to make it larger than itself. I like the tension everywhere between reality and significance: a man walking under the streetlight, and his shadow swallowing him up and then disappearing into nothing. Or think of it this way: our hearts belong to God, and our voices and hands are from the devil. What does it mean then, to try and express what we most deeply feel?

As for my own background, I was raised an agnostic, after many generations of genteel Episcopalianism. But my namesake in my family was a celebrated 18th century Congregationalist minister in southeastern Connecticut, a hard and passionate man. There was a time, I suppose, when I became religious: got myself confirmed, went frequently to communion, silent retreats, that sort of thing. Spiritual anxiety still comes upon me in waves, but as for organized forms, more and more they are just a kind of activity that seems significant. I was never one for faith. Doubt, it seems to me, speaks with the tongues of angels, you might say. But these stories have almost no religious component at all, it seems to me.

There's a good example of making the mythic real in "Rangriver Fell", the excerpt from Soldiers of Paradise that concludes If Lions Could Speak. The narrating character is struggling with the discovery of language and reason, in a sense he is being brought out of the paradise of innocence and into the suffering of knowing good and evil (the world of "biters"). Do you think there was a time when human beings consciously went through this? It's easy to see how such a struggle could have taken on mythic proportions.
Well, Soldiers of Paradise is a very romantic book. In real life I don't think innocence or ignorance hold any charm except in retrospect. Searching out experience is quite a primal need. It's only when we are sick of the pain and falseness that experience brings, that we look back and envy innocence, which we associate with not getting hurt. I think Adam and Eve were desperate to get out of the Garden of Eden, in the same way that people who grow up in pastoral villages are desperate to move to cities, even if they have to live on dung heaps once they get there.

The antinomials in Rangriver Fell are moving against nature, and as I try to show, not one of them is able to remain pure; each one is seduced in some way. What they claim to want is impossible, and the only way to achieve it is to die. The story shows my own ambivalence, though; when I was a teenager, I remember I thought the world was on the edge of an enormous change, and there was no point preparing myself for some stupid profession or career. In the future, I thought, there wouldn't be any insurance executives or doctors or generals or engineers -- everyone would be grunting at each other and living in caves. But I remember also travelling in Jordan one winter, and talking to a man who had spent the first fifteen years of his life essentially alone, following a flock of sheep. I asked him what he used to think about all day, and his face took on a terrible and ferocious expression; he had no memories from that time, because he'd scarcely known how to talk. I tried to use some of that ferocity in Soldiers of Paradise, though the most obvious inspiration for the antinomials that book is my sister Jessy, who is autistic. Now middle-aged, she still looks like a twelve year old, because she has had essentially no experience. But that doesn't mean she is particularly happy; I imagine Adam and Eve were full of neurotic worries and anxieties before they met the snake.

I like that idea of Adam and Eve as nervous neurotics. It contrasts nicely with the mythic image of the Garden as Paradise.

You've been exploring historical settings in your last two novels, any interest in writing another big, complicated science fiction novel?

Yes, I think that would be a very good thing for me. You know, with hardware. I'm not the kind of writer with thousands of ideas, and I'm casting around for one now, and casting in that direction.

A new SF novel certainly sounds good for the future. For now, let's take another look at your story collection. There are a couple of stories (I'm thinking of "Get a Grip" and "If Lions Could Speak: Imagining the Alien"), where Paul Park appears as a character in the story. In "Lions" he actually makes some comments about reader reactions to Coelestis. You know, when Phil Dick did this kind of thing, Ursula K. Le Guin worried about his mental state.
I'm not sure what you're asking here: Do I think Ursula K. Le Guin is likely to think I'm insane? Maybe, but if I were trying to reassure her, I'd point out that Mr. Dick really seemed to be trying to talk about himself. But the Paul Park in the stories you mention are different from each other and different from me. It's just that we all share the same name -- a vexing coincidence, of course, but ultimately trivial. If you type my name into Google you get thousands of hits, and most of those Paul Parks are graduate students from Seoul. There's even a St. Paul Park who lives near Minneapolis; I don't know why he was canonized, and I can't claim responsibility, but sometimes I feel his aura and it makes me quietly proud. So some confusion is inevitable -- the novel mentioned in "If Lions" is different from my novel Celestis -- you can tell, because the author spells it in an absurdly affected way, with a superfluous "o." I've never read that book or seen a copy, even though it seems to deal with some of the same issues as my own novel. It's probably like an inferior cover of a classic song -- you know, like William Shatner singing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

My question was trying to poke a little fun at the idea that readers could confuse the fictional character with the real writer. I think that it happened to him is a mark of Dick's skill at breaking down people's perception of reality.

Perhaps it's my own world that is now breaking down, but I have on my bookshelf a novel titled Coelestis, signed by a "Paul Park". Guess that means I'm living in the wrong reality.

Do you think that science fiction is particularly suited to playing with and exploring these kinds of ideas? A writer can ask "What is reality" and tell a good story at the same time.

I've always liked stories that dramatically rearrange themselves while you are reading them; the fictional world you enter is different from the one you leave. Dick is a master of such stories, and Poe wrote some wonderful ones. In my collection there are two attempts, "Self-Portrait with Melanoma," and "If Lions Could Speak." In the first the author (or in his case, "I") rearranges the furniture inside the story, so that it ends up being about someone and something different from what we (or in this case, "you") thought. Whatever its merits, the effect is certainly less classically science-fictional than "If Lions Could Speak," where it is the world outside the story that is changing. I do think SF is uniquely suited to that kind of paradigm shift: some of the best and strangest SF stories get their power not from the intensity of the idea itself, and still less from the plot, but from the changing context of the idea.

If Lions Could Speak is "dedicated to Lucius Lionel and Miranda Caspian, in hope that they might like this sort of thing some day." Over the last decade or so, I've talked to several people who fear that science fiction is not gaining fans among younger readers, and that the community of readers, writers,. editors, and even critics will shrink. Do you think SF will continue to appeal to the generations coming up behind us?
I think there will always be science fiction, broadly speaking. There are two kinds of readers (or at least, there are two kinds that I am about to talk about right now): those who want to read about things they know, and from whom the highest praise is, "Boy, I've been to parties just like that," or, "I feel just like that sometimes." There's another kind who wants to be shown things they've never thought about, places they've never been. Doubtless both kinds can exist in the same person, in different moods. But the second kind isn't going to go away, and the writers who serve them won't go away either.

I do think, though, that the old formats -- novels, short stories, SF magazines, books -- are under a certain amount of stress, which is not likely to decrease. The Miranda and Lucius in the dedication are my own children, and when I look at their complicated and busy lives, so full of intense stimuli, I wonder if they are going to sit still and read with the same concentration as I did -- a concentration, needless to say, that came out of boredom, and long summer afternoons with nothing to do, and ten inch black and white TVs with 3 idiotic channels, and one idiotic movie downtown that changed every two weeks. I teach sometimes at Williams College, which is a highly-rated and expensive place. Over the past decade I have seen and heard about a type of student that used to be rare and now appears to be the norm: someone who has never read a book for pleasure. Even the best novels, Moby Dick, say, or Remembrance of Things Past, or War and Peace, are famous for their boring passages almost as much as for their brilliance, and I wonder if a new generation of readers is going to have the patience to persevere.

Like everyone else I think literature in general will find itself increasingly squeezed by other more exciting media, and sf as a subset of literature will find itself squeezed as well. So my guess is the community will shrink but not disappear. The future, and imaginary worlds, will always provide subject matter. I myself think SF is getting better and better, and it is both discouraging and fascinating to think of the readership shrinking inexorably -- better and better novels, fewer and fewer readers, finally novels of unimaginable brilliance for readerships of one or even zero. It will be like the ending of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," always one of my favorite stories.

The first story in If Lions Could Speak, "The Tourist", combines some interesting ideas about time travel and the flow of time with the story of a man trying to reconcile with his wife. There's also some funny satire of a past overrun with the kitsch of modern pop culture. I know you've spent some time traveling around the world. Did you run into one too many McDonald's along the way?
Well, maybe, but what I ran into more was people complaining about McDonald's, especially westerners looking for a more "genuine" experience, and speaking disparagingly of "tourists." It is easy to bemoan a lost sense of purity or simplicity; people tend to think about their own childhoods in that way. Actually, the ongoing mix of western and eastern cultures is a wonderful phenomenon: When I first went to Kathmandu, a local restaurateur had painted some golden arches on the outside of his house, along with the inscription: "All our McDonald's hamburgers made with 100% pure water-buffalo meat. Please bring your own bottle of ketchup.

Yeah, I think there are lots of positives about it too. Here I live in an American midwestern city, certainly not known for its cosmopolitanism, and I'm a short distance from restaurants not only serving the cuisine but owned and operated by people from Somalia, France, Mexico, Vietnam, England, India, and several others, and this has all sprung up in the last twenty years.

"Untitled 4" is a story in which fiction writing is equated with totalitarianism, and has the great line "trade unions are holding mandatory seminars in characterization and tone". (Made me think of the old Soviet Writer's Union). Are you suggesting that fiction can be as much a matter of control as it is of creativity?

At certain moments I think so. In order to write good fiction, or even bad fiction, you have to be rigidly doctrinaire with yourself: every time you have creative thoughts, you have to squelch them; they are elements of counter-revolution posing as revolution, remnants of the old bourgeoisie. Making fiction is hard work, and requires discipline, loyalty, obedience, and above all teamwork.

"Tachycardia" is the story of a man who, while experiencing a heart attack, gets a second chance to save his son. It's easy to sympathize with him, yet there are hints that he's not that nice a guy. He notes that his Old-Fashioneds taste better now that his wife no longer makes them. And when he is nursed by a black woman, he remarks "I've never had much use for those people." What inspired you to tell his story?
I thought the story worked better with a character who was a mixture of good and bad (or rather, "good" and "bad"), because it is about redemption. Either the protagonist really is getting a second chance, or else he is fooling himself just one more time; either way, I wanted to make his moral character ambiguous, so it wouldn't seem as if I were stacking the deck: good outcomes happen to good people, false outcomes happen to bad people, etc. So there's that technical reason. In addition, and this is true of many of my stories, "Tachycardia" began as a portrait of someone I know, the father of a friend of mine in Louisiana, where since my marriage I've spent a good deal of time. His circle includes many people who are full of all kinds of good qualities: they are honest, generous, loyal, warm-hearted, though it happens they hate Jews and blacks, and treat women like slaves. I found it a difficult mix at first. But I decided that being blind to their good points was as stupid as being blind to their bad; many many people in the world live in small circles of folks they are warm to, while they are hostile or indifferent to everyone else. The people I grew up with tended to feel reflexively superior to white southerners, for example, while in reality they were equally as prejudiced in different directions. Bigotry is very, very common, I think, and it doesn't help combatting the terrible effects of it to pretend it is some kind of shameful moral failing that must be squelched or denied or beaten down. It is too much of a part of us for that.

I've read "Self-Portrait, With Melanoma, Final draft" three times now, and what first intrigued me was the ironic humor of a writer discovering that his story had not only been written before, but also better. Was this a worry of yours? I would guess it's a feeling that almost all aspiring creative people face at some time. The other thing that struck me about the story was how the character's fiction confronted him with some truths about himself that he might not otherwise have confronted. It's good example of how a story's structure can complement and enhance the point of the story. When you're writing short stories, do you work details of plot and structure out ahead of time, or does it happen more spontaneously?
My short stories are definitely more planned out than my novels, which work out of a process of accretion, as I've said. This is not to suggest that you can tell by reading: the one novel I've written that was worked out in advance scene by scene, seems the most plotless as you read it. But it seems to me that stories really have to have a point to them, and the point can't just get conjured up as you go along. The exception is a story like "Still Life," which started out with just the idea you mention, when a guy tries to publish a fictionalized version of an episode from his own life, he is accused of plagiarizing some vastly better work by someone else. The rest of the story, the way it turns back on itself by changing point of view, came later, when I couldn't figure out how to end the damn thing. So it should feel haphazard, but I don't think it does. In some ways it's the most carefully plotted story in the book.

"Bukavu Dreams" is a good example of the strong sense of place in many of your stories. The characters interact strongly with their surroundings, they smell things, get dirty, bitten by mosquitoes, their world feels lived in. This sounds easier to do than it is, especially in science fiction and fantasy where readers expect to find clues about how the world of the story differs from or resembles our own. Do you pay extra attention to setting and place when you are writing stories?
I think especially in a plotless story like "Bukavu Dreams," the place has to come alive; the sense of forward motion is generated by the clarity of the imagining, rather than any conventional plot element. If every scene is not perfectly imagined in its totality, the narrative grinds to a stop.

But I would say in general that a specific sense of place is one of the joys of science fiction or fantasy literature, or rather should be. What distinguishes good SF above all is the originality of its locations, the sense that we are being taken to someplace we never could have imagined on our own. When we can get to the middle of a book and breathe deep, open our eyes, notice details that even the writer has not quite supplied, then we know we are in good hands. This should be the most basic accomplishment of writers in our genre, but unfortunately it's rather rare; too often we stagger through books as if blind, and hearing nothing except the sound of the author's voice as if over a loudspeaker, describing to us the things we can't see for ourselves. It's disappointing, because SF readers tend to be clever and creative, and can do a lot with just a little.

Copyright © 2000 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson spends much of his time avoiding Minnesota's best known alien artifact, the Mall of America. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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