Interview: Paul Park

Paul Park will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has written a dozen novels in a variety of genres. His most recent work includes a steampunk story in an upcoming anthology, an apocalyptic science-fiction Icelandic Edda, and a Forgotten Realms novel called The Rose of Sarifal, to be published under the pseudonym Paulina Claiborne. His novella Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, nominated for the 2010 Nebula and Sturgeon Awards, will soon appear in an expanded, illustrated version from PS Publishing. He teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and two children.


Your books often deal with religion. What fascinates you about the subject? Do you have specific themes in mind when you begin working on a piece?

I feel that I’ve moved away from religion in my recent books, but you’re right–there’s a way in which the three Starbridge books are about religion, and of course The Gospel of Corax and Three Marys, which are retellings of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. I guess I’m interested in failure, and what happens when you take genuinely transcendent spiritual ideas and use them to animate a human construct like a church or a temple or a social movement, which, like all human constructs, will quickly sink into a stew of money, and hatred, and power, and sex. It is the combination of the highest strivings of the individual with the inevitable corruption of the institution that makes religion so poignant.

Themes–not so much. I don’t worry about themes until the book is done, then [sometimes] I . . . bury them. Themes are what English teachers look for. I usually proceed from flashes of images, landscapes, emotions.

Why do you choose to write about religion within the genre of science fiction instead of fantasy or some other genre?

Well, I’m not sure that’s what I do. I was never convinced the Starbridge books were science fiction in a classic sense. The problem is, I think “fantasy” as a marketing category is narrower than it should be. There’s no magic in the Starbridge books, no supernatural events. But does that make them science fiction? I’m not sure.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take for your writing to sell? What changed for you that made the difference?

I quit a job in advertising to write a mystery novel, which never sold. Soldiers of Paradise was my second book. I wrote it in India and Southeast Asia, and it took me about a year. Then I came back and scrounged around for an agent. Once I found one, the book sold in about two weeks. What changed was that I figured out enough about the industry to direct my book to people who had a chance of liking it and publishing it.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Half of writing is blundering forward on your own, and not listening to anyone. The other half is as technical and uncreative as plumbing, or electrical engineering. There’s a lot to learn.

In the Roumania Series, The Hidden World is book number four. Is there more to come? Did you know when you began the series that it would have four books? How do you handle the plotting of multiple books? Do you plan your plots in advance?

I originally hoped to write one big thumper of a book, and my rough draft was A Princess of Roumania plus most of The Tourmaline. It was really long, and still didn’t come to an end. So David Hartwell told me to break what I had into manageable lengths and keep on going. Most of my books I don’t plot in advance–I guess I plotted out Celestis and the two Jesus books. The rest, I write behind a moving front–maybe forty pages out. Or I write toward a sentence, or an image.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon for you?

I’m working on a series of interlocking meta-fictional novellas–I suppose you’d call the genre “pseudo-memoir”–that I want to work as a short novel. One of them is a novella called Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, which came out from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2010. If you’re familiar with that, the novel will include more of the same, a mixture of made-up and “real” events, a character named “Paul Park” who is not me, though his life has overlapped with mine in various places, especially in the future.

After that, I think I’m going to write a YA fantasy.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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