Author David Park: 'I thought it would be easier to write short stories than a novel, but found it a surprisingly difficult change'
A men's-eye view of life, and everyday encounters as their paths criss-cross, are at the heart of author David Park's new collection, writes Una Brankin
There's a cinematic sweep in several of David Park's new short stories that could make for viewing as compelling as the recent dramatisation of his masterful novel, The Truth Commissioner.
In the profound Gods & Angels collection, a detective breaks into his former home to spy on his estranged family; a teenager visits his estranged mother on Boxing Day in a grey seaside town; a university lecturer falls in with a group of very different older men during swimming lessons; and a couple reflect on 25 years of marriage on a trip to see the Northern Lights.
Each story is deeply thought-provoking and equal in quality to Park's last bestseller, The Light Of Amsterdam (2012), and more beautifully written than The Truth Commissioner (2008), with its somewhat sour narration.
"I didn't realise, until I saw the film of The Truth Commissioner, that I always had a visualisation in my head," says the Belfast-born author. "You need both a physical and an emotional/psychological vision in writing. I'm very grateful to those involved in the drama for engaging with my work."
As for the opinions of some of his loyal readers, who found the latter part of the storytelling in the BBC drama a little rushed, David (63) is ever the diplomat.
"It's very hard if you expect a film to replicate a book - you can't do that," he says quietly. "The film is 93 minutes long. In the book, a huge amount of time is spent on building character and, on screen, it's very difficult to capture that. But I thought the Commission's scenes were very well done and the acting was very good."
Methodical and precise, the former schoolteacher in Mr Park has taken the trouble to prepare notes for this interview, ahead of tomorrow's launch of Gods & Angels. He's speaking from the cottage he shares with his wife (whom he prefers to keep out of the limelight), which is located between Saintfield and Crossgar in Co Down, with scenic views of the Mournes.
He writes in the mornings in a garden-view room, with a portrait of his hero George Best in his old Man United kit, shirt-tail out, on the wall (literary heroes include John Steinbeck, William Trevor, John McGahern, JM Coetzee, Richard Ford and Philip Roth). Nestled in the hills, the Park house is quieter since the couple's two grown-up children left for university and beyond.
Out of that calm has come Gods & Angels, David's 10th book in a writing career that spans 25 years and eight novels. He sets the tone for his latest work with a biblical quotation on the creation of man from dust (Genesis 2:7) and some signature soul-searching by Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 2; Scene 2).
"This is quite a significant book for me," he admits. "The fact that I've been writing for 25 years and this is my 10th book, that in itself, I feel, is a significant landmark. I'd written eight novels in a row and I just thought I'd try my hand at short stories.
"I secretly thought it would be easier than writing a novel, but when I started, the transition was surprisingly difficult. It's about people from different cultures and life experiences who unexpectedly cross paths. One of the places that happens is in a sports or leisure centre, as in the opening story."
Learning To Swim is narrated by an English literature lecturer who comes to work at Queen's University, and the older men he meets at the pool, who cultivate him.
One of them is getting married and enlists the lecturer's help to find something meaningful and loving to read at his wedding ceremony.
Subtly witty, the story took David "weeks and weeks to write", but he was encouraged to continue with the collection after it was long-listed in a Sunday Times short story competition.
Educators appear in much of his writing, but he denies this lecturer character is based on himself (he taught English literature for 34 years before retiring a few years ago to write full-time).
"No, what happens in that story didn't happen to me," he laughs. "I just wanted to bring two very different worlds together - the cerebral and the physical. What links them is a John Donne poem, It's A Good Morrow, a beautiful love poem.
"These stories aren't autobiographical in that direct sense, but you can't write about anything with empathy unless you have experienced those emotions - grief, loss, or whatever. You transfer that empathy into a different context.
"I don't like writing that sets out to be clever. Cleverness is a completely different thing from wisdom. It wants attention; to show itself off. I don't want to see the writer's ego on the page."
Oh, to have had an English teacher like Mr Park. Back in the late-80s, he was teaching in a tough secondary school on Belfast's Newtownards Road, when the children's novel 101 Dalmatians appeared on the syllabus. Instead of foisting the frothy fiction on the rowdy class, he decided to go home and write a story and read that to them instead.
The result, Killing A Brit, published in his first book, the Oranges From Spain short story collection (1990), is a story about a Belfast schoolboy who witnesses the aftermath of a shooting of a British soldier. His class loved it, kick-starting a string of books, among them the Troubles-based novels including The Healing (1992) and Swallowing the Sun (2004).
Like one of those admiring pupils, in awe of this master's command of the English language, I snitch on his publishing PR's bad grammar in the Press release for the (post-Troubles) Gods & Angels, which implies that a couple in one of his stories, Gecko, has spent the entirety of their 25 years of marriage under the Northern Lights.
The Bloomsbury blurb also makes Gods & Angels sound like the Marxist account of post-industrial society - all self-estrangement, isolation and alienation.
"Well, all the stories are about men and exploring men's lives - different ages and geographical locations - some here, some beyond," he explains. "It's not a sociological or psychological statement, but it does explore and illuminate aspects of masculinity.
"It's always dangerous to make generalisations about gender, but some men feel a disconnect between what's really inside and what socialisation expects them to feel. Young males are seriously over-represented in suicide rates - the statistics are shocking.
"I think men find it more difficult to share what's inside and they feel the need to conform to stereotype and many don't have a network of support. It's a generalisation, but it can be a problem. They don't have enough trust to open up about themselves.
"But it's not all dark psychological insights. I hope people will find it enjoyable, too."
His acute observations are indeed wry and humorous, at times. At the launch of Gods & Angels tomorrow night, the author will read Gecko, a sensitive depiction of a childless, stale couple who decide to spend their 25th wedding anniversary under the dramatic Northern Lights.
"She was slightly subdued at their evening meal," he writes. "The one thing that a long marriage ensured was an acute sensitivity to the other's mood. Without the necessity for words or gesture, some intuitive seismic register caught the slightest tremor of variance from the norm."
Gecko's narrator is a middle-aged man who "teaches science unspectacularly to mostly uninterested teenagers". His creator, notoriously private, won't be drawn on his own long marriage or the echo of his own experience on the Gecko story.
"I don't 'put' those around me in my writing and we don't ever discuss that, but as a writer I find links which are interwoven," he says mildly. "The Northern Lights are there as a metaphor in some ways for the hope of a spectacular realisation of happiness.
"And in Old Fool (about a lonely charity shop volunteer who connects with a single mother), the man has retired and lost his wife, and finds himself adrift, without an anchor, in an unfamiliar sea, and his life brushes up against this girl's, briefly.
"It's about loneliness, and tenderness, as well. There are also stories about men in their 50s and turning 60, who are not quite sure what their role in life is."
Gods & Angels was published on the same day in April as Multitudes, another thoughtful short story collection, but from a female perspective, by fellow Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell. David attended Lucy's launch and the two of them read together at the recent Listowel literary festival in Co Kerry.
"We joked that we should go on a reading tour together and call it Guys and Dolls," he recalls. "I admire Lucy's book. I think what we need to be a better society is to have more voices of women telling stories about their lives' experiences.
"We are a society where women's lives are still marginalised in many ways. There are still many men whose attitude towards women - and I include elderly male politicians - needs to change and modernise. It's encouraging to see a few more women at Stormont now, but there are too many men in public positions of power. It would be a better society if we had more women in power - and I don't mean those in the ilk of Margaret Thatcher."
This innate social conscience filters throughout Gods & Angels and through his conversation (he ponders the decline in investigative reporting in certain newspaper titles, for example).
The final story, Crossing The River, is the most personal of the collection.
Dedicated to the author's mother Isabel, who died at 84, in 2010, it is narrated - with a lightness of touch and a restrained poignancy - by the mythological ferryman of Hades, who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron, which divide the world of the living from the world of the dead.
In various interpretations of the Greek legend, those who could not pay the fee of a coin, or those whose bodies were left unburied, were forced to wander the shores for one hundred years.
The last passenger in David's story is Isabel, depicted as an honourable and trusting old lady, "eyes fogged and webbed with death", who "sits in the boat just as straight-backed as she sits in the chair in the small room they've allocated her, the place where I go to visit her while the plaques and the tangles smother the light. But whatever names the scientists give, I think of it as a thief, each day robbing more of who she is, and by now there's only fleeting glimpses left, revealed in a little joke perhaps, because that capacity, while worn thin, is still allowed to her, or a familiar phrase that suddenly sparks out of the cold ash of memory."
As he explains: "In that story, I kind of give my mother a life in the after-world. Do I believe in the after-life? Hey, I'm just a guy sitting here waiting for Emmerdale to come on! I don't know. But yes, I quote the verse in the Bible about man being made from the dust of the Earth, and from Hamlet's eulogy to man and his God-like potential.
"I was thinking about the wonderful potential of man and the struggle with some of the darker realities of life. The battle between the higher self and the lower self, as someone said, is a succinct way of putting it. Sometimes men are gentle and loving; sometimes they display less attractive behaviour."
I congratulate him on the admiring reviews for his new short stories. The critics heap high praise, but there's a huge bluebottle buzzing in the after-glow: a 35,000-word manuscript for a novel set in 1975 Vietnam which he cannot continue.
The horror ...
Isn't any of it salvageable?
"I've reached a point where I don't think it's going to work," he concludes, with an invisible shrug.
"It's heartbreaking - it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I have lost something.
"You need drive to write and I'm not sure I'm driven at the moment. Go off travelling? I'm not a very dramatic person. I'll just stay in the rhythm of life and it will work itself out."
- David Park: Gods and Angels (with Malachi O'Doherty), Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, tomorrow, 7.15pm-8.15pm. Part of Belfast Book Festival. Tickets £8/£6 from www.belfastbookfestival.com