Making amends: David Park on loss, regret and youthful idealism

Belfast writer has set his ninth novel, Spies in Canaan, during the Vietnam war

Author David Park: ‘It can be an affliction of old age, wanting to set right when it’s too late to set right. But maybe better late than never.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Author David Park: ‘It can be an affliction of old age, wanting to set right when it’s too late to set right. But maybe better late than never.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

David Park, like his books, is calm and quietly spoken but firm and clear in what he says. There is, too, an undercurrent of humour, even of mischief as we meet to talk about his new book, Spies in Canaan, his ninth novel and first since 2018’s Travelling in a Strange Land. We meet, appropriately, in a quiet place: the wildfowl centre at Castle Espie in Co Down, midway between Belfast and Park’s home near Crossgar.

It’s Monday morning, with nobody to overhear our conversation except the ducks crowding on the other side of the glass. Park (68), published his first book Oranges from Spain in 1990 at the age of 37 while working as a teacher, and retired from the profession more than a decade ago to pursue writing full-time. He speaks openly, resisting prepackaged answers when answering questions like my first: where did his new book Spies in Canaan come from?

It’s not possible to write a book without leaving a psychological print of yourself. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I write it

“I’m not really sure. I visited Vietnam in 2014, but I’d already thought about writing the book before that.” The book is set largely during the Vietnam war, narrated by a young American named Michael Miller who is working for the army. “The Vietnam war was a huge cultural as well as geopolitical event. Not just in America but right across the world. It was part of that youth radicalisation.”

The US involvement in the war peaked in the late 1960s, as that youth radicalisation was taking off worldwide. Park was a teenager then; does he remember it well? “Yeah, I was affected by it. It seemed so morally wrong; the greatest nation in the world was bombing basically a rural economy. And naively, you thought that ending the war was an integral part of this revolution that was coming. There was a beauty to it, like a wave that was coming, that was going to change.”

The title of the novel comes from a rhyme Park learned in Sunday school as a child about the biblical story of the 12 spies (he obligingly does the actions when reciting it): “Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan/Ten were bad, two were good.” In the book, Michael becomes involved with two other men: a naive young man, Corley, and the cynical Donovan. All three are changed by the war in sometimes dramatic ways.

The novel also explores the messy US withdrawal from Vietnam which chimes with current events, and last year’s messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “The end of empire always brings chaos, betrayal, guilt and suffering,” says Park. “Empires don’t end politely or peacefully. It’s a messy business, and human beings suffer.”

To describe the particular forms of suffering in Spies in Canaan would spoil it, but in the second part of the book, Michael is decades older and “trying to be a good person”, as Park puts it. “It can be an affliction of old age, wanting to set right when it’s too late to set right. But maybe better late than never.”

This connects to a line in the book that intrigued me. Corley is trying to write a novel, but complains that he “hasn’t much stuff to draw on”. Michael tells him: “A novel is an act of the imagination. You don’t need to have done things to have an imagination.” Is this a manifesto for Parks’s own work, with its varied settings and characters?

“I think… should I say this?” he begins. “There is some of me in Michael.”

He pauses, looks out the window. “It’s not possible to write a book without leaving a psychological print of yourself. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I write it. But looking back, I see traces of myself in Michael.” Pause, window. “Maybe that’s all I’m going to say.” Are you sure? “Trying to live a good life. Sorry for the things you got wrong. Trying to atone for the flaws that are in a human life. Adjusting to old age.” Another pause. But this time it really is all Park is going to say on the subject.

Old age brings us to the way the novel looks back at a life, a common theme in literature generally. Miller and Corley discuss writers. One book that crops up, naturally, is another Vietnam novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a sibling book about naivety set against experience.

“A great book,” says Park firmly. “I read it in my 20s, and read it again after I’d written [Spies in Canaan]. If I’d read it before, I probably wouldn’t have written the book because this guy has got it nailed.” There’s a thread too of books about youth and the loss that follows: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. On the latter, Park is passionate.

“I love it. I’ve mentioned it in about three books,” he laughs. “It’s just the perfect image for life. You get a glimpse of something that’s beautiful, that promises love – and then you lose it. And you spend the rest of your life trying to find it again.” Put like that, you can see the connection with Spies in Canaan; a mirror image of loss, regret, attempted recovery.

It’s a book steeped in literature, just like its author. What sort of house did he grow up in? Did his parents read, did they encourage him to? “My parents were working-class Baptists. Kind, good parents. In terms of books, there was the Bible, there was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – which no child should ever be allowed to read. It’s got the most blood-curdling, horrific things in it – and a pictorial history of the second World War. And that would have been it.”

So the young Park started out by reading comics. “The Victor, the Hotspur and I became a closet reader of Bunty [belonging to] the girl next door. But the first book I ever read and thought, ‘Wow!’, was Enid Blyton. You just had to get to the last page. You entered a new world, and everything was changed.”

And his own writing process? “It’s quite easy once I start. [But] I have to physically, emotionally, psychologically commit myself to it.” He is, he says, “a very instinctive writer. There’s no planning. For [his 2008 novel] The Truth Commissioner, which is quite a complex book, it was written with one yellow Post-It note, with people’s names, because occasionally I’d mix them up.” Nor does he edit his books much once written. “Ninety-five per cent of it is just how it appears.”

Given the way his own books present complexity beneath an unruffled surface, it’s no surprise that Park is a devotee of William Trevor’s stories. “You go to Trevor, and you think, we’ve been here before. Everything is familiar, and then you come to the end and it’s like a magician doing a trick. And I never see the trick coming.”

Spies in Canaan was written before the pandemic, but its publication has been delayed for two years. Park found the pandemic difficult, not just as a writer, but as a reader. “I do feel my concentration is diminished. I’ve looked at a large book arriving on my doorstep, 500 pages, and thought, That’s a bit rude! What did I do during the pandemic? I got up every morning and ran for 10 minutes round the garden. I rearranged my wardrobe. But I read Claire Keegan’s book [Small Things Like These]. It’s very short, but for me it was a perfect read.”

Another book is on the way – slowly. Maybe. “As you get older it becomes more demanding. I only want to write about what’s important to me. I only write when I need to write. I imagine that need might decline as I get older still.”

But age does bring compensations. Recently, Park “took huge pleasure in becoming a grandfather. I knew it would be nice. I knew it would be pleasurable. But how pleasurable it is to have a granddaughter, I never really guessed”.

And it reminds him of one of the funny ways writer’s minds work: in his last novel Travelling in a Strange Land – a book about parenthood – “at the start, the daughter puts a little wigwam in the back of the car. When I wrote that, I had no idea why, but by the end of the book it becomes the most powerful symbol, for me, as a shelter. Why did I put it in the start of the book? I have no idea. But what I have told my son,” he adds, “is that I want to buy my granddaughter a wigwam.”

Spies in Canaan is published by Bloomsbury

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