Ian Sansom 

David Park: a life in books

'I had a class in an inner-city Belfast secondary school. I started writing out of desperation and fear. It was sink or swim'
  
  

The Northern Ireland tourist board is currently running a campaign with the slogan: "Our Place, Your Time". The idea is to change perceptions of Northern Ireland. This is no longer the land of the Troubles: it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Golfers bestride the nation. Young bands go strutting their stuff. Snow Patrol play on a loop. The swell and the spirit of the Titanic, built in Belfast, continually rises. Film-makers, artists, fancy new buildings. And the writers, those most recalcitrant of citizens, the guaranteed gain-sayers and the nay-sayers? The troubled conscience of a troubled nation? Even the writers are rethinking.

The Light of Amsterdam is Northern Irish novelist David Park's eighth book. But it might as well be his first. It's the first book he's published since retiring from teaching and becoming a full-time writer: the first book he's published that takes place almost entirely outside Northern Ireland; and most importantly it's his first book – perhaps the first book by a serious Northern Irish novelist – that might be described as a genuinely post-Troubles novel.

We are sitting in Park's cottage, nestled in hills of County Down, with views out over the Mourne Mountains. He's trying to explain, over tea and biscuits, in his quiet, patient way, what it felt like being a writer in the old Northern Ireland. "You felt that you were in a forced marriage, an arranged marriage. Could you write a romance set in Tuscany? Would it feel morally appropriate?" For Park, the answer was clear: no. Not possible. Ulster said no. This was not the time or the place for romances in Tuscany. There were other, more pressing demands and stories that had to be told. One might argue that the trouble with the Troubles was not that writers made it their subject, but that it made them its subject. Like everyone else, they were subjugated. Their time. Their place. "The Troubles had a deadening impact," agrees Park, ruefully. "It damaged creativity. Our creativity was stunted."

Park's work, from his early collection of short stories, Oranges From Spain (1990), all the way through The Healing (1992) and The Rye Man (1994), Stone Kingdoms (1996), The Big Snow (2002) and Swallowing the Sun (2004), to his highly-acclaimed dissection of the mechanisms of the peace process, The Truth Commissioner (2008), wrestled constantly and imaginatively with the subject of political violence. There were consequences. There are scars. Images abound throughout his work of contamination, of self-disgust, of stains, and of ineradicable sins.

In The Healing, perhaps his most disturbing novel about the psychic damage done by the Troubles, one of the protagonists harbours dreams and fantasies of retribution, keeping a file of cuttings about everyone killed. "He thought of the names listed in the books – the great catalogue of the smitten, the host consumed by the creeping sickness spreading out and infecting more and more … Affliction, settling like a plague and brooding on the land, infecting the souls of men and women." For Park, at last, the infection seems to have been suppressed. "Finally, I was able to write a different kind of book," he says. "I wanted to write a book about love. And so naturally I thought, let's get out. Let's go to Europe." The Light of Amsterdam isn't exactly a romance set in Tuscany, but it's pretty close. It's a book about love. And it's set in Holland.

The book begins, symbolically, in 2005 with George Best's funeral, and Belfast saying goodbye to a favourite son and hello to a new era. Park says he adored Best – he recalls as a child seeing him play at Windsor Park, the Northern Ireland home ground, and there's a photograph of Best, in the iconic old Man United kit, in his study. "In some fanciful way I see him as model for a writer: fabulous balance; brave; and the way he took the ball so close to the opponent, inviting the lunge, and as soon as they lunged, they just lunged into space, and he was gone …" With The Light of Amsterdam, Park, like his hero, dips his shoulder and accelerates into space.

He's not the only one. However you look at it, however narrow-eyed and sceptical, this is an extraordinary period for writers in Northern Ireland, as new horizons open up, and different expectations and responsibilities begin to make themselves apparent. There have of course always been the poets, and exceptional new poets continue to emerge – Miriam Gamble (The Squirrels Are Dead, 2010), Eoghan Walls (The Salt Harvest, 2011) and Alex Wylie (New Poetries V, 2011), to name just a few, and many of them associated with the so-called and almost mythical Group, once attended by Seamus Heaney, which continues to meet at Queen's University in Belfast, and is currently presided over by Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet par excellence.

But there are now emerging novelists to rival the poets: Darran McCann, whose first novel, After the Lockout, was published earlier this year; Garrett Carr, author of a trilogy of young adult novels; Sheena Wilkinson, another young adult author, whose sequel to her first prize-winning novel, Taking Flight, is about to be published.

Park, born in 1953, belongs to an older, established group of Northern Irish writers which includes Glenn Patterson, who has himself just published a book, The Mill For Grinding Old People Young, which is, in effect, a kind of companion piece to Park's novel. As Park's is a post-Troubles novel, so Patterson's is a pre-Troubles novel, set in early 19th-century Belfast. Belfast, book-ended.

In The Truth Commissioner, Park has one of his characters – Henry Stanfield, the patrician, snobbish truth commissioner himself – express disgust at Belfast, with its passion for "self-consoling mythology" and its attempts to "reinvent itself as a cosmopolis", but Park is at pains to point out that he doesn't share Stanfield's scepticism. "It's not possible to remember what this place was like 30 years ago and not feel we live in a better time. There are still things that are not fully resolved, but we're moving in the right direction. I remember those times in the 70s when Belfast closed at six o'clock. The city is slowly Europeanising itself. We're not quite Paris … but we are seeing a flourishing, the potential for wider perspectives. More space …"

I wonder if in fact the lightness of tone in his new book is related more to his own sense of space and opportunities, having retired from teaching, and with his children now grown up and gone away to university. "Maybe," he says. "Certainly for me, teaching was not a vocation. I just got my degree and stayed on the bus, and the next stop was teacher training. It was an economic necessity."

All of his earlier books were written on holidays and in the evenings, he says. "And the problem was, you would come to the book and it was cold. Sometimes there could have been two or three months between the writing. The fashion these days is for writers who teach. But I was a teacher who wrote. Writing for me was always a secondary occupation. If I had to choose between marking the coursework and writing, I marked the coursework. That's what I was paid for."

Those pressures and tensions found eloquent voice in the person of John Cameron, the narrator of The Rye Man, a newly appointed head teacher who is overwhelmed by his own sense of failure and by the deadening culture of common assessment instruments, and tiers of entry, and external assessment resources: interestingly, it is perhaps his angriest book.

So he's relieved to have left the burdens and bureaucracy of teaching behind? "I get to write every morning, for a few hours, and that's good." His work rate has definitely increased: he's already a third of his way through his next novel, provisionally titled The Poets' Wives, about the wives of William Blake and Osip Mandelstam. But he's also cautious – "More time doesn't make you a better writer" – and conscious that it was teaching that got him started as a writer, and that helped sustain him.

Oranges from Spain, his first book, was published when he was 37. He explains: "I had a class in an inner-city Belfast secondary school – it was tough. I was supposed to be reading 101 Dalmatians with them. But there weren't any dalmatians on the Newtownards Road, as far as I could tell. And these two boys had a fight in the class, and they hit the fire door and fell out the back and I realised that something needed done." And so he went home and wrote a story, typed it up, and brought it in to the class, and read that to them instead.

"Killing a Brit", published in Oranges From Spain, is a story about a Belfast schoolboy who witnesses the aftermath of a British soldier having being shot. His students loved it. "So really I started writing out of desperation and fear. It was a lifejacket. It was sink or swim." His teaching career, he says, also determined the characteristic shape and range of the books, which often consist of discrete episodes and scenes narrated by different characters. "I always composed in parts – building blocks. As a full-time teacher, it was the only thing that made it possible for me to write. Also," he adds, smiling, "as a full-time teacher I never had a chance to do any research."

The new book is set in Amsterdam at Christmas. He's never been in Amsterdam at Christmas, he admits, though he has visited the city on a number of occasions. "It was the first European city I ever really stayed in, and I was just so struck by the beauty of it, and by the history that wasn't divisive or sectarian. It was just so different. I thought it was the most fabulous place I'd ever been."

Park grew up in a working-class family in east Belfast. His father was a storeman in a factory. "He gave his pay packet to my mother, and she gave him enough money for a Daily Mirror every day and maybe a bar of chocolate once a week." The family all attended the local Baptist church. The legacy of his Protestant evangelical upbringing is obvious everywhere in his books: plots which revolve and resolve themselves as stories of personal redemption; numerous scenes of transfiguration; and above all, a return again and again to moral questions and dilemmas.

It's these dilemmas that fascinate him, much more so than mere storytelling. "It's not the narrative that I'm interested in. Conventionally you need a narrative. But if I could write a book without a narrative, I'd be happy." He doesn't pre-plan or outline his novels: the only notes he used for The Light of Amsterdam was a single yellow Post-it note, with the characters' names written on it, as an aide memoire. Searching for an image to explain his mode and methods, he recalls a tableau on the front wall of the Baptist church of his youth, showing a rainbow and the words of "Psalm 29", "Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness". "As a child, and even now, I wonder, what is the beauty of holiness?"

It's no surprise then that he says that he admires the quiet work of Alice Munro, John McGahern and Carol Shields, writers where "there is no ego on the page. I cannot bear a book where the writer's ego is on the page. I believe a book is essentially moral. And the ego disfigures the writing. I can't have the author's cleverness or humour. I want the essence. I want it to be pure."

That yearning for purity, he says, is also a debt he owes to his mother, who was a profound influence on his work. He recalls an early memory, when he was seven or eight years old, in Belfast city centre. "The police were chasing a man through the crowd. And they caught him, and the man was thrown to the ground, and I was conscious of the crowd's gratification that a criminal had been caught. But I was conscious also of my mother's sadness that this individual had been hurt. And that passed to me, silently. Nothing was said, but it was understood."

This extension of sympathy to the Other has become increasingly marked in his work – most brilliantly and most troublingly perhaps in The Truth Commissioner, in his depiction of Francis Gilroy, the former thug and terrorist who becomes Minister for Culture, yet who has barely ever read a book, and who feels no real remorse for his crimes. "I became fascinated by his character. The temptation was merely to patronise him or satirise him. But I found an instinctive sympathy for him."

Finding sympathy and extending sympathy is one of the preoccupations of the new novel, which tells the story of three sets of protagonists who all leave Belfast and arrive in Amsterdam for a long weekend. One of the protagonists, Alan, is a lecturer who is separated from his wife and who is taking his son with him to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert. Father and son have nothing in common. Another of the main characters, Karen, is a single mother on a hen weekend with her daughter, who is appalled by her child's vulgarity and selfishness. And Richard and Marion are a wealthy, middle-aged couple whose lives have drifted apart, and whose daughter is about to reveal to them a secret.

"The book is really about how to love your child," says Park. "How to give your child love without forcing your values on them. You want them to share your moral values, but that's not how it works. It's about going on loving even when it's difficult."

In the light of Amsterdam, the characters are able to gain a fresh perspective on their lives, and each other. "What I have come to realise," says Park, "is that communal healing is not to be found in truth commissions or in institutions, but is simply to be found in the renewed rhythms of life. Young people falling in love, children being born. The great danger about being a Troubles writer was that the book became a weapon: one attempted to impose humane values on barbarism. But in the end that just becomes a kind of feel-good exercise. And that doesn't produce good art."

I ask him what he thinks is good art, and he slowly gets up, goes into another room, and puts on the opening bars of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", with it's beautiful, freewheeling, life-affirming cascade of chords. And then he walks back into the kitchen. He doesn't need to explain any further. His place. His time.