Profile: Paul Park
June 1, 2006 § Leave a Comment
In his new novel, author Paul Park has brought his home and job in Williamstown into the realm of fantasy. Park’s young adult novel “A Princess of Roumania” takes place at Williams College and tells the story of 15-year-old Miranda, who is whisked away to an alternate Earth filled with monsters and magic — and revelations about her station in life. Released in summer 2005, this month will see the paperback version of the book, as well as the hardcover release of its sequel, “The Tourmaline.” There will be four books total in the series, with one released every summer.
Park pulled from his own childhood fascinations for the backdrop of Miranda’s adventure.
“I have always been interested in Roumania ever since I was little, I don’t know why,” said Park, “and it’s probably not because I had a very clear idea of what the real place was, I’ve never been there, but for some reason it conjured up this rich sort of mythology in me.”
Park’s novels pull from the traditional fantasy story in which young people discover the world is not what they thought after being whisked away somewhere far from home — whether kidnapped by pirates or blown away by a cyclone or whatever — a territory more recently explored by authors like J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.
“You go to some analog of the real world and often there’s a connection,” said Park, “there are figures in the real world that show up as symbolic analogs in the fantasy world and then you come back at the end. On some level, this is about the anxieties of coming of age. A lot of the things that happen in the fantasy world are connected to those anxieties in some ways.”
These are the themes that authors like Park work with as they walk a literary tightrope that involves pulling from a tradition of familiar tales to comfort the reader, while recasting these in a totally original and exciting environment.
“Ideally, you want to have some sort of combination of that,” said Park, “so that there is something comforting about the books because it seems to connect with other texts or other emotions and feelings and also something that’s remarkable or astonishing or unique about them.”
Park notes that there are many ways that an author can use the archetypes while still fashion something new, for instance create a strange landscape for a more familiar plot to unfold upon. An author can also play with the relationships between characters and deliver something unexpected — for instance, avoiding the romantic relationships between characters that have become so conventional or presenting the idea that “good” characters don’t always do “good” things or that adventures don’t always end safe at home.
“It’s like chess games,” said Park. “So many chess games, the first 10 or 12 moves are identical and then all of a sudden it takes this turn and it’s in some completely new place.”
Young adult fantasy books can sometimes play it safe because of adult expectations of what is appropriate for younger readers. This is something Park works against, especially since the genre is as popular with adults as with the target age groups. Park feels that these books should reflect the experience of his younger readers — by approaching it with such honesty, the older readers will follow.
“Even more so than adults, young readers’ experiences are full of broken hearts and feelings of inadequacy,” said Park. “It’s so hard to grow up with a sense of your own power, your own good qualities, so I think it’s a natural thing for young readers to be drawn to different kinds of stories than the ones their parents think are necessarily appropriate for them, with strong moral role models.”
Park points out that the archetype of young people in a strange land exists in fantasy for a reason — it’s a message that resonates whether you are a 15-year-old in 1906 or 2006. Certainly, it’s one that George Lucas recognized, that such stories document a proving ground for kids, where they present themselves as individuals.
“The reassuring part is that the world you’re in is mysterious and your place in it is mysterious,” said Park, “but there’s this other dimension where it’s clearer, the role you’re supposed to play and what is expected of you and the criteria for success would be and that will clarify your role when you go back to the world that you come from. You’re looking for reassurance that your life has some kind of significance and your choices have some kind of significance and that’s something that’s not obvious as you’re growing up.”
Park is now winding down the series, currently halfway through the fourth book. Once that book is published, it will mark the end of a decadelong process that, much like the characters who populate the genre he is traversing, allowed Park to explore new worlds, as well as himself.
“More so than other things I’ve written, these are more a part of a genre of established books,” said Park, “either as a counterpoint or, on some level, inside a tradition, so they have to deal with that tradition and be aware of that tradition in one way or another, whether it’s subverting the traditions or conventions or whether it’s echoing them in some way.”