A Small Wonder on a Starbridge to Roumania – A Paul Park Interview & Review

I’ve been going back and combining related content into one and making it easier for interested readers to find. This is my interview with author Paul Park right around the time he wrote A Princess in Roumania, and my review for the novel – the first in a new fantasy series by Park – follow it in this post.

paul park

I hope you enjoy.

My guest today recently released the opening installment of a brand new series, A Princess of Roumania, the reading of which had me on the search for his former works that include the 3-part Starbridge Chronicles, Celestis, Coelestis, and more recently historical ventures with The Gospel of Corax and Three Marys, as well as a collection, If Lions Could Speak from Wildeside Press.

In my recent review of A Princess of Roumania I offer my reasons for why Paul Park’s latest is one of the best SFF efforts of the year, a delightfully introduction to a new series.

Jay Tomio — In my recent review of A Princess of Roumania, I touched positively on the accessibility of the novel in regards to it containing elements fans of many and multiple preferences can find something to enjoy. I was wondering if in your own words could you tell us what to expect from the opening book in this series.

Paul Park- This is the first book in a series, or, if you prefer to think of it that way, the first part of a long book. So more than anything else I was intent on bringing the characters and places to life, making them vivid and striking and real, and giving them the sense of passionate necessity that is going to be the engine of the book. The novel is about change, which is impossible unless you leave behind parts of what you value most: pieces of yourself, landscapes, systems of meaning. The first book must make that sense of loss into something real and palpable — the reader must feel it, too. And to a certain extent he or she must also feel the disorientation that accompanies the discovery of a new path forward.

Jay Tomio — What I felt was one of the most human and best segments of A Princess of Roumania was the brief discussion between Peter and his father in the truck, regarding Peter’s altercation at school. The scene was probably not a necessity for some authors; was their any personal significance to this moment? I notice Fathers are the subject of admiration in this book, not something all together common in the genre.

Paul Park- I’m glad you liked that scene. There and in Miranda’s conversation with her father, I tried to model two ways of being a good dad; I have young kids, and it’s a subject that interests me. Usually in the alternate world type of book, you make the jump fairly quickly, but I intentionally spread it out, in order to dramatize what the characters were giving up. And of course I was attempting to make the “real” world seem more fantastical than the alternate one, which takes some time.

Jay Tomio — A Princess of Roumania is as you say the first book in a series; titles to subsequent novels have been mentioned as The Tourmaline and The White Tyger. Is series limited to a trilogy, or will more follow, and what kind of publishing schedule do we have to look forward to regarding these works?

Paul Park- The Tourmaline is scheduled for July ‘06 — I’ve just seen the copy-edited ms. The White Tyger is coming out the following year. And I’m finding it difficult to bring this story down to the ground again, so there will be a fourth book, coming out in ’08, I suppose, if the world is still with us.

Jay Tomio — I also commented on the apt choice of an alternative Romania as the principle setting; what first made Roumania the ideal choice to base this series on?

Paul Park- When I was a child I read a lot of Herodotus, and he’s always talking about exotic mayhem on the shores of the Black Sea, where Medea is from. Around the same time I went to an exhibit of Scythian and Dacian Gold ornaments from the Romanian coast. They struck me (influenced, I suppose, by the skeptical judgments of Herodotus) as combining odd elements of sophistication and barbarism. Then later I read Dracula and saw a lot of Dracula movies (in particular Werner Herzog’s), and I was hooked — there was always a scene in the rain-slashed port of Varna, where the ship sails. Later still, when I was fifteen, I attended a function at the Romanian embassy in Paris, and realized I could understand people when they spoke, because Romanian is not a Slavic language. That struck me again as sort of melancholy and romantic, and I imagined the country as an isolated enclave like the Greeks in Bactria, which I’ve also written about. I must stress, though, that this is all my personal projection, and doesn’t come from any first-hand experience in the actual country. But for me it has come to represent a place (at least, when I imagine it pre-World War Two) with a glittering and modern facade, yet not far removed from something primitive and magical.

Jay Tomio — Your first work, Soldiers of Paradise, the first book in the Starbridge Chronicles was written almost 20 years. After reading A Princess of Roumania, I have become interested in procuring your earlier publications. What do you think a reader will find — and inversely a fan of that series about to read your current work — has changed the most in regards to your style and prose, and perhaps even purpose?

Paul Park- Those Starbridge books are very different. That was the first time I gave myself over entirely and completely to an imaginative project, and I remember a feeling that was like drunkenness — hours gong by, and me just sitting around by myself in some hotel room or walking the unlit streets of Gwalior or someplace like that, trying to contrive every detail of my invented country — asking myself over and over, “What’s it like? What’s it like?” until I had a full and complete sensory impression of every scene. I think the books are exciting and successful, but they are certainly intricate and dense with imagery. Though the characters are strong, the plots appear to me now as almost an afterthought, a way of moving people around.

Then I wrote Coelestis and my style started to change. I like to think I was able to achieve some discipline, because what was motivating me was no longer this sheer joy of invention — I had stuff I wanted to say, all of a sudden! And so that book is quite spare, stylistically. But again the plot wanders around; and again it’s not my main focus.

These Roumania books feel like progress because they are plot-driven. Everything else — the imagery, the ideas — has been contrived in the service of the plot and the emotional material.

Jay Tomio — A Princess of Roumania features several characters, each uniquely portrayed. What character did you have most trouble with, and if different, what character’s story did you enjoy writing the most?

Paul Park- I found the Baroness Ceausescu a joy to write, and everything that had to do with her interior life just flowed onto the page. She is, of course, an evil woman, and that was part of the pleasure — to indulge my own meanness and spite without any social restraint: what Freud calls the super-ego, but is just plain cowardice as far as the baroness is concerned. Conversely, my heroine Miranda was and is the hardest to write, because — again — the books are about changing and growing up, which is an amorphous process, not easily described. People do have experiences, and they do change, but the relationship between those two things is tenuous and uncertain.

Jay Tomio — Are there similarities in the Massachusetts town that Miranda lives in, and where you make your own home now?

Paul Park- Yes — I live now just outside the town where I grew up, Williamstown, Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful, evocative place — not the town itself so much as the setting. And I was an isolated child, much given to long walks in the woods. I knew many secret, hidden places in the hills, where the rocks and trees took on an emotional significance for me. In the books, it’s been fun to try to revisit and recreate that lost landscape of my childhood. Many of the places are still there, of course, though the significance is lost.

Jay Tomio- Are you currently working on any other projects or is the Roumania sequence receiving you full creative attention?

Paul Park- I have an idea I’d like to write some short stories. But I’ve got two young children, and I’m teaching these days at Williams College, so the books seem like a lot.

Jay Tomio — Interesting. What courses are you teaching?

Paul Park- I’m teaching a course in reading and writing science fiction. Basically the idea is to improve your critical writing by employing some the techniques that fiction writers use. Terry Bisson will be coming to my class today.

Jay Tomio — Terry Bisson is an esteemed guest indeed; simply a fabulous writer. Regarding your interest in possible short stories — Individual pieces or a possibly another collection?

Paul Park- Really, my thoughts are so preliminary, it’s hard to say. Collections are always a difficult sale, though.

Jay Tomio — Whether by summons, in dreams, reincarnation, the afterlife itself, a mother dying of cancer, or even a young boy who perceives a new life — outside of a cage — death and the symbolism, stressing both the finality, yet also the eternal nature of life is prevalent in A Princess of Roumania. Was this an intentional element of import?

Paul Park- That’s an interesting question. Because this book talks about an afterlife, or a series of competing afterlives — in any case a landscape after death — as well as the persistence of memory, death doesn’t seem so permanent. As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder for me to accept that the soul comes to an end with death. To write about the possibility of something after, it’s an expression of frail hope. I’ve had several dear friends die in the past years — again, a function of growing older.

Jay Tomio — What do you view as present in a Paul Park project, whether a novel, or in a short story that we won’t find elsewhere, and defines your work?

Paul Park- I believe my strength is in my capacity to surprise. I don’t think my books resemble each other very much, or anybody else’s. That’s mostly true in the stories, which play a lot of games. But A Princess of Roumania — if I started to describe it, you’d say it sounded familiar in its general idea. But it’s really not a lot like other books at all.

Jay Tomio — Prior to A Princess of Roumania your last novel was Three Marys, released a couple years ago; I understand this and a novel before that The Gospel of Corax, were religious themed works chronicling Christ. Can you touch on these works, and do you plan on writing another? Also, was there difficulty in finding publishing partners, for books — that at least on the surface — would seem controversial to some?

Paul Park- I originally wanted to do three books, one exploring the old Theosophist story that Jesus of Nazareth took a trip to India and Tibet, one retelling the Gospel stories from the point of view of the women surrounding Jesus, and one about St. Paul. But the books did turn out to be controversial, and the second was more controversial than the first. So my original publisher didn’t want to proceed when he actually saw the manuscript; eventually Three Marys came out in a small press edition. The struggles I had with it are among the low points of my life as a writer, so I gave up on St. Paul — though I still find him an intriguing character, needless to say.

Jay Tomio- Who would you label as influential on both your past works and current series? Do you mind sharing some book recommendations with FBS, regardless of genre?

Paul Park- I’m not sure I like to think about influences on something I am actually writing. People see similarities to Philip Pullman, and I see them too — though not to any ideas or techniques that he originated, particularly: Fantasy is a deep well, and part of what you are doing is bringing old water back to the surface.

Actually, I’m not even sure I like to think about influences when it comes to completed work. Maybe that’s better left to other people.

I suppose everyone is already a fan of John Crowley. Recently I looked at Little, Big again — a wonderful book. These days I’m reading Penelope Fitzgerald. And Joan Aiken novels to my daughter — always a delight.

paul park

A Princess of Roumania is a bit of a small wonder of accomplishment; an actualization of a unique blend in SFF publishing today, a combination of quality writing while utilizing a fantastic backdrop and a quest element that gives the work an accessibility to a significant more amount of readers and potential fans than that would usually accompany a genre work written in such stature. In short, although certainly not his intent, Paul Park may fool some previously unexposed into reading a well-written book.

To those aware of Park’s reputation I could not imagine it being diminished, and as first time Park reader like myself, I suffered no disappointment. Park gives us both the real world as we are accustomed to but never was, and the surreal reality of an alternative history setting that is both dreamlike and organic in atmosphere. Park populates the worlds with believable characters that establish relatable ties with both other characters and their environment, as he offers several perspectives to walk the reader through his world and help us answer the question of why are powers that rule and in some cases create worlds and realities shifting their attention from civilized Europe to the mostly frontier land of the Western Hemisphere, in search of the prophesized return of the White Tyger, a harbinger of freedom and hope for Roumania, and a potential threat to the balance of power for the civilized world.

We live in a world where many young women are princesses. Most of which only until awaking from either an unfounded daydream, or hold a title of little relevance to anyone but themselves and various people who think they are news reporters. For a teenage girl in a small, contemporary Massachusetts town, Miranda Popescu neither is true. She dreams she is something more, perhaps a young girl fancying to be more desirable and outgoing than her best friend Andromeda, or perhaps her life is a storybook dream written specifically for her, not to live, but to hide, until her true life begins…

A former renowned and extolled actress across Europe, the alluring and widowed Baroness Nicola Ceausescu searches for the lost heir of Roumania. A pawnshop visit away from being beggared, she navigates through a political climate in Bucharest that has been gradually turning against her and Roumanians in general. A semi-competent conjurer, a murderer, a mother, and once subject of applause by the haute monde, she adjusts to a peripheral role in a game I think she is no longer sure what side she is on, if any…

A young boy, Peter Gross, is like many we knew in high school some of us picked on, but most ignored. The only child of a working class father, and a dead mother, picked on by other kids at school due to a birth defected crippled hand, Peter is a friend of Miranda’s even when it’s not reciprocated. Peter travels with Miranda through a familiar but only vaguely, new world, wondering who he really is, all the while carrying his harmonica, playing poetry that serve as memories taught to him by his mother…

A pox afflicted look on a face only anticipated by street urchins he traditionally offers handouts to, the elector of Ratisbon, a conjurer of considerable power no longer held in check with the passing of a rival, he seeks a White Tyger and a certain tourmaline in hopes of possessing them will give him both regard and stature in a newly formed government…

Transcending reality, Aegypta Schenck, blood of both the rightful rulers and the White Tyger, appears in Miranda’s dreams. With seemingly ubiquitous enemies, she attempts to change history on multiple fronts; a history she may very well have written…

Park populates his world with several other characters in a setting where travelers still make pilgrimages to Venus’s shrine, where magic is present but the practice of which is prohibited, where the United Kingdom is an afterthought in word affairs; decimated by natural disaster, where a murderer can be in two places at once, and where fair-haired tribal populate North America. Park picks an alternate Romania, a perfect parallel-European setting, where Park’s recreation of history seems almost more plausible than the real world scenes, choosing a country where stark realities exist in unison with ancient myth and folklore. Several examples of the familiar are present that Park reinserts into history; for example a sought after jewel bears the name of Kepler’s Eye, a reference to the German scientist Johannes Kepler, Nicola perhaps a female play on the since executed former head of Romania Nicolae Ceausescu. The union of history and the fantastic is seamless; history fans should feel no hindrance, but instead be delighted by their catches of Park’s twisiting the the worlds’s history and the geopolitical nature of his setting.

Park’s triumph is a notable one, as he does what seems impossible, although we know it’s not. Park uses fantasy archetypes (the orphan princess, the unlikely champion, the best friend at heel, predetermined destiny,) and not only weaves a credible story, but doesn’t choose to limit himself to past levels of success with these tropes but uses the familiar as vehicles into the unknown. Responsible characterization gives A Princess of Roumania a personal and identifiable feel, and Nicola, true to her past prowess as an actress, threatens to steal the show. At the same time being one of the years most enjoyable antagonists and enlightening female characters of the year, the Baroness is a fascinating read whether at formal function, shining even surrounded by the opulence of the Bucharest wealthy, or in the grips of murder. Equally engaging when her thoughts drift to her hospitalized son, as when she is when conjuring spells taking effect a world away, Nicola is a sympathetic character, one that to label as a villain would be a disservice — which is a sign of a worthy read. Another rarity, Park has more believable female characters in this, a first installment of a series, than some more recognizable authors do going into the eleventh book in their respective series. Miranda’s book, ‘The Essential History’ joins a virtual pantheon of famous genre books as plot devices that includes the likes of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and used by others like Goldman, Borges, Michael Ende, and recently Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours.

Park’s prose and narrative poses as accessible but is just masked subtlety, as he gives the moment weight but at the same time layers his narrative with relevant history. He is as effective gifting a random backyard with descriptive language as he is when describing a surreal zoo-like afterlife. Whether the focus of attention or peripheral, Park breathes life into his surroundings:

“After a moment she stepped forward. She broke through a clump of juniper bushes, and then stopped again. In front of her was Umar’s formal garden, much overgrown. Paths of soft grass made their way among brambles that had covered Umar’s Roses and poppies. A thicket had grown up around the statue of Athena, and the stone bench was invisible. Briar grew over the Magdalena fountain. Irises were in bloom”

Merely a descriptive paragraph but in its content a wealth of information, and at a glance reveals many elements in the novel. His command is especially evident in scenes when depicting action occurring in different places or sometimes planes simultaneously, giving instances of spell casting a true magical quality, occurring without stopping the narrative or mundane action occurring in its presence at the same time.

I did say first installment of a series. A Princess of Roumania has planned sequels dubbed The Tourmaline and The White Tyger, and is a true series table setter. This should not be reason for those of us who eye new genre series’ with some level of understood and conditioned trepidation; instead it should be viewed as the quality start of a potentially promising series like The Physiognomy was for Jeffrey Ford, not similar in content or theme mind you, but in relation to across-the-board quality you will see with Park in a series opener that will resonate immediately with those who admired The Golden Compass, with a tang of Crowley-like mixture where reality and myth are not a dichotomy, but a delightful combination.

A fascinating and elegant beginning to a true high fantasy offering of a scarce variety; one that uses beloved archetypes to convey a unique vision, not what has become the usual of the sub-genre, a book written simply to fill up with archetypes — a series that has no target genre audience, but can and should be enjoyed by all.

Pure enjoyment.

Published by Jay

protoculture hoarding, devil fruit eating, energon cube stirring, spirited away, chilling in a house of leaves.