Paul Park: Metafictional Demons
Paul Claiborne Park was born October 1, 1954 in North Adams MA. He attended Hampshire College in Amherst and worked in New York at various jobs – aide to city council members, construction worker, doorman, manager of a health club, and at an ad agency – while he worked on writing fiction.
He then spent two years traveling, mostly in India, Indonesia, and the South Seas, finishing first novel Soldiers of Paradise (1987), a Clarke Award finalist and first in his Starbridge Chronicles, which also includes Sugar Rain (1991) and The Cult of Loving Kindness (1991). Tiptree and Nebula Award finalist Coelestis (as Celestis in the US) appeared in 1993, followed by The Gospel of Corax (1996) and Three Marys (2003). His White Tyger fantasy series began with World Fantasy Award finalist A Princess of Roumania (2005) and continued with The Tourmaline (2006), The White Tyger (2007), and The Hidden World (2008). Sturgeon and Nebula Award-nominated novella ‘‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’’ (2010) became part of All Those Vanished Engines (2014), a metafictional SF novel made of three linked novellas. Under the name Paulina Claiborne he wrote Dungeons & Dragons novel The Rose of Sarifal (2012); Claiborne also appears as a character in All Those Vanished Engines.
Other notable stories include World Fantasy and Sturgeon Award finalist ‘‘Get a Grip’’ (1997), British SF Award nominee ‘‘If Lions Could Speak’’ (2002), World Fantasy Award finalist ‘‘The Persistence of Memory, or This Space for Sale’’ (2009), and Shirley Jackson Award nominee ‘‘The Statue in the Garden’’ (2013). Some of his short fiction is collected in If Lions Could Speak and Other Stories (2002).
Park lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Deborah Brothers, married 1994; they have two children. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
‘‘A lot of things happen in my fiction through a process of accumulation rather than design. For example, I had loose characters wandering around in my stories and I hadn’t named them yet, so I gave them the name Paul Park as a placeholder. For me, naming characters is almost the most artificial thing you do in fiction. You have a character and you think, ‘Is this Joe Doakes? Is this Francesco Bellesandro? Who is this?’ At a certain point I just called a lot of them Paul Park. I didn’t think much about it. Maybe that contradicts the possibility that this is a post-modern ploy. Stupid me! When I started to publish those stories it was natural for people to make some connection between the character and the author because we had the same name. It was something that happened by accident and turned into a pattern. As soon as there was a critical mass of those ‘Paul Park’ stories I found a way of making it into a meta text, creating a collection of stories about a mythical character who has the same name as myself. I had this character Paul Park, and for a long time his life was not at all like mine. There was some convergence, especially in the character’s written work, but the details of the life itself were very different.
‘‘From there, I got interested in the idea that you could see in somebody’s fiction, even in genre fiction or extremely mannered fiction, traces of that person’s actual life and experience. That someone could imagine they could see traces of my actual life and experience in my fiction. I found it interesting to invent another life, another experience that you could see in the same way, that you could see shadows of in the same text.
‘‘Some readers have already challenged the idea that All Those Vanished Engines is a science fiction novel, but I disagree. It’s not like every other Paul Park novel ever written, if that is even a sensible thing to say, but even so, certain elements are clearly genre elements. There are parts of it that are alternate history, parts set in the future, parts that partake of a diminished sense of the future that we’re familiar with through genre fiction. Even if, in some sense, those visions are qualified by the possibility that they’re made up, or they’re not real, or they’re constructs written by a character in the story, even so, they partake of the same tradition of science fiction. It’s more comfortable to read if you’re conversant with that tradition. I like the idea of it as a genre book. There should be a place in the genre that allows science fiction themes to express themselves in postmodern terms sometimes.”
‘‘Another example is the way I mixed in an actual text I wrote for an art installation in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, on the campus of an old mill building in North Adams. The heating system of the entire complex of maybe 20 buildings was all in this one building, which was open to the weather and contained a series of enormously evocative steam generators and condensers, now liberally encrusted with rust. Instead of tearing that all out and using it as gallery space, the museum said, ‘These are astonishingly beautiful machines in their own right – what can we do with them?’ They hired a guy named Stephen Vitiello, a well-known sound artist, to figure out a sound installation as you wandered through these machines. He suggested there be some kind of story to go with it. He said, ‘There’s a writer I really like who lives in this little town of yours. I’ll do this project if I can get Paul Park to write the text.’ One of the sound elements is the narrator telling the story, in this case a made-up story, of the genesis of this particular collection of beautiful engines and what they’re really for. The Sprague Electric Company, housed in the mill, was filled with actual secret projects, especially during the second world war, that were connected to the Manhattan Project.
‘‘I’ve always wanted to write a post-collapse story. I don’t like the way most of them are done – they’re just terrible cataclysms of disaster. We got used to this approach in The Road or The Parable of the Sower. I feel that’s a betrayal of the reality of the world and what human beings can do. In so many of these stories, within a few chapters you’ve got feral children roasting body parts by the side of the road. I’m trying to write a post-collapse story that feels more hopeful. When I was a kid I was struck by Engine Summer, which is far future but has a lovely lightness to it, even though you can see the character is living in the remnants of the modern world.
‘‘All Those Vanished Engines is very much a one-off for me. There were a number of formal things I wanted to do. I wanted to involve actual stories of my family’s life, and in some sense my own life, to incorporate characters from my own life in an artificial piece of fiction. I’ve always loved the interlocking three-novella design, but I don’t think I’m going in this direction again. The story I’m working on now is much more conventional science fiction. Even in the most bizarrely metafictional sections of All Those Vanished Engines, there’s praise for the idea of the simple story simply told. That really is a desire of mine. I feel maybe I’ve exorcised the metafictional demons here.
‘‘But even so, even in a more conventionally-plotted narrative, I can tell I’ll find some room for ambiguity. One of the ways in which science fiction tends to depart from our own experience of the world is that often in a science fiction world the facts are too clear. We go to some planet and there’s an expository section that tells about the history of the place and how it works, because we need a clear sense of it in order for the story to develop correctly and make sense. But that’s different from the way we perceive the real world. The worlds of any two different people don’t really resemble each other. This is the problem with politics too. The perception of causes and effects are entirely different, there’s no agreement on what causes the same events, what the ramifications are, there is no sort of narrative that we can depend on. A lot of science fiction feels like it’s missing a level simply because we’re supposed to be able to understand the world of the story as it truly is. But there’s room for readers who question that, readers who want to add a level of perception where the characters in the story perceive the world in a way the reader of the story does not. That becomes part of the way the story is written. Not all genre readers are going to be interested in that because it requires a bit of separation from the delights of the narrative. But there is a type of reader who will appreciate something that feels closer to the way they look at their own lives. If readers are looking to science fiction as escapism, they like it because it’s separate from the way they perceive the world, or the way the world is. If they’re looking at science fiction as a series of signs and symbols that intersect with the world they actually know, then they’re open to other approaches. They’re open to metafiction.’’