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Interview: Paul Park on “Dear Sir or Madam”

What was the inspiration for “Dear Sir or Madam,” or what prompted you to write it?

It’s usually hard for me to say what the inspiration for a story is, but in this case I know precisely.  I was reading a story in the Guardian about a court case in Great Britain.  A woman had a crush on another woman, a classmate at University.  Afraid of approaching her, she invented an online persona, a man who had suffered terrible injuries in a fire, which made it hard for him to interact with people.  The woman set her friend up with this persona, and they communicated for a long time online, while the woman served as a kind of confidante for her friend, urging her, finally, to set up a meeting.  The persona agreed to a meeting only under the condition that the friend wear a mask.  They met several times, and even became physically intimate.  But at a certain moment the friend stripped off her mask and, recognizing her confidante, became enraged and inconsolable, because she’d been so deeply betrayed.  She then accused her confidante of rape, and the case went to trial.  The defense argued that it wasn’t possible to imagine that the woman had been truly taken in, and that she, even unconsciously, was a willing participant in a role-playing game.

So…that was interesting to me.  At the same time I was listening, as sort of a guilty pleasure, to a Mormon band called Elenyi, young women with achingly beautiful voices who specialize in 19th century hymns.  So really, the story was just handed to me on a plate.


Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

The compulsion is, especially in the case of something so distant, to make it personal.  The poignancy of the original court case lay, for me, in the desperate sureness that you never could be loved for your own sake, which becomes in its own way an alternate reality.  So that got me thinking about the other half of the story, in which virtual reality becomes a metaphor for distorted memory.


Why do you write?

Realistically, there are not that many things I do well:  fewer and fewer actually, as I get older and various physical skills drop away.  I’ve always loved the Everyman story, where he sets off on the road with all his companions.  They desert him one by one—friends, relations, health, knowledge, etc.—until only Good Deeds are left.  The Good Deeds lie down in the grave with him, which you may take as either comforting or not.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Well, they change every day, my influences.  When I was just starting to write, they were Isak Dinesen and Italo Calvino.  Sometimes I can look back at those early books and guess what I was reading on the side.  Oops—I must have stopped reading Dickens here.  What did I pick up with this new chapter?  Virginia Woolf?


What would you want a reader to take away from “Dear Sir or Madam?”

I think it will be a really scary development, when we can make entirely plausible video images of any possible event.


What are you working on now?

The last couple of years I’ve devoted to short fiction, because it’s…shorter.  And I am experimenting with different forms:  last year I wrote a five-voice radio play that served as the voice-over for a museum installation in West Palm Beach, designed by sound and video artist Stephen Vitiello.  I’m still hacking away at a post-apocalyptic novella, set in Rhode Island.  And I have a new book coming out this spring, part of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series from PM Press in Oakland, a small collection of stories called A City Made of Words.


“Dear Sir or Madam” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

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