David Park: I wanted to try to delve as deeply as I could into a man's heart and soul
David Park has just published his ninth novel, Travelling in a Strange Land, which tells of the quiet crisis of a family through the eyes of a father. While his own family experience inspired his book, he tells Joanne Sweeney that he's never been happier in himself and as a father
DAVID Park went as deep as he possibly could as a writer in his latest novel, Travelling In A Strange Land.
He also went deep into himself as a father, as he writes about an ordinary middle-aged, middle-class man who is still suffering and grieving from the loss of a relationship with one of his sons.
While ostensibly about how the main character, Tom, drives across England from Northern Ireland to pick up his university-student son who is stranded due to the weather, the novel carefully peels open the man's heart and mind about his unresolved issues with his other son and his failure as a father.
"The father’s other son gets involved in drugs and [the father] feels an immense sense of regret of what he has said, and that he sent his son from the family home, so in some ways the journey, in his mind, almost seems like an act of penitence. It's a way of trying to restore some kind of balance to his fatherhood," explains Park as we sip coffee in a Co Down garden centre cafe.
He adds later: "I wanted to write a book, if it was possible to do this, that went as deep into the human heart as I could go to as a writer. It’s not a book with multiple characters, or a multi-layered plot. I was interested in the journey, obviously not just the physical journey, but the journey into loss, love and grief. To really try and delve as deeply as I could into one man’s heart and soul, or whatever way you want to put it.
"There are moments in the book where Tom feels that in order to protect his family he has to discard his son [the one with drug problems]."
Thankfully the reality for Park and his own family is different from that of the characters he creates.
"I’ve never been happier as a father and a parent as I am now," the author, best known for his acclaimed 2008 novel on the peace process The Truth Commissioner, says.
"My two children are now young adults in their 20s. When they were young, you followed with a safety net but now I feel I no longer need to do that. They are well balanced, thoughtful people who make good decisions. I love my relationship with them now, as I seem to get so much more back from them."
The premise of Travelling In A Strange Land, which he wrote in just over four months, was inspired by his own son being stranded in Sunderland just before Christmas during his first year at university as Newcastle Airport was closed due to snow.
While he and his wife frantically tried to book alternative flights home for him from other airports, Park did indeed contemplate driving to the far side of England to bring his boy home, just as he did as the beginning and end of each university year, even though he himself was snowbound too.
"The story is a purely fictional, an imaginative story of a journey that didn’t take place, so it’s a kind of 'What if?'," Park says.
"I thanked my children at the recent book launch for teaching me to be a father. It's something you learn and there’s no guide book or rule book that goes with it.
"But I have to say that I never felt more like a father than on the journeys home from getting my son. We shared more probably on the journey than we would normally do, talking about music, about football – no deep conversations but the journeys home were good."
The former secondary school teacher is regarded as one of the finest novelists to have come out of either Ireland or Britain in recent times.
He has received critical acclaim for his short story collections Oranges from Spain (1997) and Angels and Gods (2016) and for The Truth Commissioner, an imagined inside look at a South African-style truth and reconciliation process into our troubled past which was adapted for film in 2016. That novel was followed by Park's best-selling book, The Light of Amsterdam, (2012), which has also been optioned for film rights.
The Light of Amsterdam was lighter than Park's previous works, at the direct request of his wife.
"After I wrote The Truth Commissioner, I came out of my study and my wife thought I looked like a ghost. I thought she was going to call for an ambulance. But she said to me, 'After that book David, you really need to lighten up and write about love."
He causally dismisses the impressiveness of his 11 books by joking: "The headmistress from Derry Girls has taken up a presence in my head. When she'd hear 11 books, I’m sure she would say, 'Isn’t that just a lot of dead trees?' with her usual positivity.
"But I probably couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t have been a father. It’s also a book about the deep regrets that every human being has and sometimes the way that they can debilitate you and freeze your sense of forward movement. You can't write about grief imaginatively, it has to be emphatically felt. That's difficult and painful."
Born and reared in a Baptist family in east Belfast, writing as much therapeutic for Park as it is his profession, and in his life he found writing and reading books revelatory.
"One of the things that I loved when I started to read seriously as a teenager was the understanding that I wasn’t crazy, that there were other people like me in the world and I wasn’t alone in the world."
Describing himself by nature as an "anxious" person, he says: "I've found that being creative has been a big part of staying well. I think our internal lives are chaotic, and everything in our lives in in flux and there is something that is restorative in giving order and shape to human experience. "
"My aim as a writer – and it’s a religious thing, although I’m not conventionally religious – is I want to take human experience and somehow find a moment of transfiguration; a moment of illumination that just illuminates the beauty of something even though its mundane, even though it seems ordinary.
"It’s to find those little moments of human experience that are symbolic of something beyond us."
:: Travelling In A Strange Land (Bloomsbury) by David Park is available now in hardback at £12.99 in shops and online.