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Off the Page: Tim Parks

With Tim Parks
British Novelist
Friday, December 12, 2003; 1:00 PM

British author Tim Parks's tenth novel, Judge Savage, traces the story of a black British judge being haunted by past mistakes just as he's decided to settle down. Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley just chose the novel as one of the best books of the year.

Yardley called the book "at once an intricate, skillfully constructed mystery and a meditation on innocence and guilt, crime and punishment, loyalty and betrayal."

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Parks was online Friday, Dec. 12 to talk about his work. The transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers! And welcome to "Off the Page." Tim Parks is ready from Italy to answer questions, and I think we may have a more sporting discussion than normal. Welcome, Tim.


Tim Parks: For those who like a little setting, it's seven o'clock of a cold evening here in Verona with a dense white fog lying over the Po valley and a train strike that nearly prevented me from making it back from Milan to my home computer. So everything is as usual. I'm down in the ?taverna', the sort of semi-basement where Italians like to get together and over-eat from time to time and I've just chucked out my youngest daughter who was watching a video. She's excited because tomorrow is Santa Lucia, the day kids in the Veneto area get their seasonal presents (nothing at Xmas). Which just shows how much life can be conditioned by where you live. Okay, let's go.


Carole Burns: It seems that the first thing reviewers say about your work is how much it varies from one book to the next. Do you agree with this? Is it purposeful? Or do you feel the similarities are greater than others find them to be?

Tim Parks: Yes, I'm constantly trying to vary what I do and the approach I take. At the most obvious level I try to alternate between, say, an intense novel and then a piece of lighter non-fiction, A Season with Verona, for example, or a book of essays (actually, I've just finished a short history book about the Medici bank in the 14th century). Then, within the novels, I'm constantly looking for a different style, a different kind of voice. Usually I'll do two in the same sort of voice - Europa and Destiny maybe - then change. It seems important to keep unsettling myself, to go right back to square one, ask myself, How do you write a book? Otherwise I'll get stale. That said, there is always a continuity of vision, of attitude to life. In fact, it's that continuity that makes the approach-change necessary.


Hellas: Mr Parks,

What are the prospects for Hellas to move up to Serie A next year? (I can only find tables for Serie A and have no idea how Verona is doing in Serie B.)And what is the mood in Verona? Has Chievo picked up fans or are the Blue and Yellow holding firm?

Loved Judge Savage. How difficult was it to write dialogue in such a structure?


Carole Burns: Football meets fiction.

Here's the Post's review of Tim's non-fiction book on football, A Season With Verona, about a year he spent with the brigate gialloblu (the yellow-blue brigade), a passionate fan club of the Italian team Hellas Verona.

Tim Parks: Well, I'm not going to talk about Hellas's prospects, because they're pretty much zero and it's too depressing. The nice thing is how the fan community remains just as much fun even when the team is so bad. And it's the people I go for as much as the football, sorry, soccer.

As for the dialogue in Savage, the whole effort of the recent books has been to creat a very fluid voice that maybe inside or outside the character's head, in the past or the present, without particular markers or indicators, so that the reader is always on his toes. Nothing is reassuring.


Bethesda, MD: How long does a novel inhabit your unconscious before you begin writing? Do you take a long time to mull a book before you can start? Do you work on more than one at a time?

Tim Parks: Well, usually what happens is there'll be some kernel of plot in the head, a basic story, for a couple of years, and what's happening is, it's waiting for another story that will mix with it, and in particular, the right setting, that will give it sense. So, with Europa, I had the plot of the atrocious betrayal and obsession in my head for over a year before I realised it had to mesh with the bus trip to the European parliament.


Carole Burns: What do you think of Andrew Motion's plans (Americans: Motion is Britain's poet laureate) to find a "Chant Laureate" for football, who will "and compose chants observing key moments within the football season." Are you going to apply?

Tim Parks: Oh dear, I'm not a fan of Andrew Motion's and this idea seems to miss the point of chants. They have to be thought up in smoky buses late at night with plenty of beer around, or sometimes, and this always strikes me as amazing, in the heat of the moment on the terraces. Sometimebody just comes out with a line and somebody adds the next. The whole thing about fan communities, and what makes them so interesting, and serious, is the way they make you aware of collective life. So introducing the individualism of the 'laureate' is against the grain.


Washington, D.C.: I'm new to your work -- Judge Savage sounds fascinating. Where do you suggest I start? Do you have a personal favorite ? (forgive
me -- I know that's like asking which of your children you like best.)

Tim Parks: The personal favourite is an impossible one, if only because, as I've said, the books are very different, some lighter, some heavier, some comic, some tragic. I still think that the best thing I've done was Destiny, but it's not the world's lightest read


Carole Burns: I loved that aspect of Judge Savage, the interior quality of the prose, with even dialogue feeling inside the character's head. It's almost a (very jagged) stream of consciousness, a la Ulysses. Does a style such as that simply emerge?

Tim Parks: Back to that point, let me say, no. I had to work and work and work at it and I often spend hours seeing what happens to a piece of prose if you introduce a fragment from elsewhere into it, and how you can establish a rhythm of such introductions. But there's nothing Joycean about it. He tried to bring in sensation and a sort of lyricism, as if the mind were constantly creating poetry. This is much more to do with the obsessive voice in the head.


Herndon, VA: Mr. Parks-

I recently finsihed "A Season with Verona," and just wanted to let you know I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experiences as a member of the brigate gialloblu. I hope you and your son are surviving with Hellas near the bottom of Serie B. Hopefully they will turn things around (as long as it isn't at Fiorentina's expense). Any updates on some of the memorable characters from the book? Will Verona ever shake its "racist" image in Italy and abroad?

I look forward to reading your newest work...

Tim Parks: Let me just say for those of you who are worried about Hellas's 'racist' image, that the club now does, at last, have a black striker, and the the curva go crazy when he scores as with any other player. In fact he's extremely popular. It's been a big relief for all of us


Carole Burns: For the questioner looking for where to start: Tim has a Web site, timparks.com, where you can read about his books.


Rockville, MD: I recently heard Mario Vargas Llosa describe how "being a citizen of the world" was necessary for his work -- that an author must embrace many homes, figuratively and literally, to write with insight. Please discuss how living in Italy has influenced your work.

Tim Parks:
Well, I don't know about the many different homes line, since it seems to me that only one place is really home. I remember very distinctly about twelve years ago, the time when I really felt that the centre of my life had finally shifted from England to Italy. I was in London for work and I just kept thinking, I should really be back home, in Verona. Obviously the change of language, the business of absorbing another culture and its literature, and then all the translation I've done from Italian to English has radically changed the person I am and the work I do. I don't really feel I'm an English novelist anchored in the English tradition. There's something more. And this has been one of my great fortunes in life. In particular, it seems to me that the new language and the work with translation makes you hyper aware of how much of literature is driven and partly created by the language it's written in and by the community of people who speak that language. So what tends to get lost in translation is the author's personal use of the language he's using. For example, if D H Lawrence says, "she was destroyed into perfect consciousness," then the reader is aware, not just of the strange statement, but also of the way it is in an abrasive relationship with a standard English use. Anyway, the more you become sensitive to this kind of thing, the more humble you feel about your own ?individuality' but also the more excited about the possibilities of working within and sometimes against the common language.


Forza Hellas!; / Gialloblu!;: Ciao Tim,

I am sorry to ask but I just have to...although...it is not related to this discussion.

How is the atmosphere at the Bentegodi now that Hellas is in Serie B?

Can you believe the success of Mutu in the Enlish Premiere League?

I am excited to read your new book.

A Wannabe member of the Curva Sud.

Tim Parks: Well, you know, the atmosphere in the Curva Sud is always angry and comic. A couple of weeks ago there was actually a fan strike because people feel that the owner is just milking the club and not spending any money on it. There's always this sort of ongoing soap opera. But tomorrow for the game against Ascoli I know the Curva will be full and we'll shout like crazy and be hopelessly cynical about our chances and enjoy a couple of drinks together.
Mutu no surprise at all. I always felt he was the best player that I was privileged to see live on a regular basis. The only thing that surprised me was how long it took the men with the money to notice.


Kensington: You mention looking at a piece of prose to see how a fragment changes it. I wonder, what is your general practice for re-writing/finishing a piece? Do you set a work aside for some time before revisiting it? Do you feel a work is done or do you feel that at some point it needs to be abandoned?

Tim Parks: I suppose I've become extremely elaborate in the way I work, otherwise it would be impossible to create the mixture of density with ease of flow. Every day I read at least 20 pages of whatever I'm working on to make sure I've got everything that's going on in my head. That on the screen. Then I'll get out the pencil and write three or four pages. Then the next day I'll type up and work over and over them before starting the process all over again. Often I'm cutting as much as adding. God knows if it's really necessary, but often all kinds of exciting things happen. Since it slows the process down, it keeps the mind open to possible plot developments you might not otherwise have seen. Every month or so I'll re-read the whole thing from scratch. But when I get to the end, suddenly, that's it. I've worked over it so much and so intensely, it's finished. I hardly look at it again.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tim,
How do you think American contemporary writing compares to British? Can you make any gross generalizations for us?

Tim Parks: I wish I could answer this question intelligently. I am struck by a certain confidence, perhaps an overconfidence, in American writing about what a novel is and how it should be made. Perhaps this meshes with that very strong tradition of chronicle and underlying political debate that the American novel has always had. There is also, and this seems incredible to me, still a belief that one can write the great society novel that captures everything. As if one really could get one's mind round the complexity of modern life. On the other hand, what often depresses me about the British novel is it's complacent literariness. With many writers, including some of the most famous, it's as if they had learned what a book is when they studied literature at the university, they know about patterns of symbolism and pathos and the right moral tone, and they go on reproducing this. I'm making the same complaint about both traditions really. Thank heaven that from time to time a voice appears who has something different, or who realises that there might be other ways of looking at the problem. Geoff Dyers is interesting in England. Nicholson Baker in the States. And many others too of course.


Bethesda, Md.: Dear Tim,
How many kernels of ideas do you have that never do go anywhere? Or do you know when you have a significant one, and just want to wait around for it to develop?

Tim Parks: Quite a few. I actually threw away a whole book about five years ago. The hardest thing as a novelist, at least for me, is the moment, after you've written, say, twenty or thirty pages, when you have to commit to the book. You wonder: do I really believe in this plot, these people. Is it going to work, can I give the next year to it? And often I'll waver there for months, reading and re-reading and thinking, does the world really need this stuff (the answer, alas, is no, but that's hardly the point). I'd like to say that one gets better at understanding what is the right thing to do, but it's really not the case for me. It's always an act of faith when I finally go for it, and it's often with some amazement, two hundred pages on, that I grasp the last part of the novel and how it's going to work. All of a sudden, it seems inevitable.


Carole Burns: The situation and characters of Judge Savage could be set in America--a black judge who may have been chosen because his race, past mistakes coming to haunt him. How are Americans/Brits different when it comes to these issues, or are they?

Tim Parks: My knowledge of the USA is limited, but sufficient for me to appreciate that it is a very different world and that race relations have a completely different history in the USA. The arrival of black judges (in any numbers) in the UK is relatively recent and these people often don't come from a 'black community' but from situations of particular privilege. In the case of my book, Judge Savage is actually a Brazilian, adopted at birth by an upper-middle-class British family, perhaps chosen as a judge precisely because while conveniently black he has a more privileged English education than many of his white counterparts. And he's aware of that. It makes him insecure. I don't know how the States would compare over these matters. There has never been anything as straightforward as quotas in England. The English always like to keep a pretence of fairness. They're not up front about the manipulation of the presence of 'minorities' in public life. Which can make things even more frustrating for everybody, since they don't really know what's going on. Fear I haven't answered this question at all.


Tim Parks: Okay, guys. Seems that's it. By the looks of it I've typed more in an hour or so than I do in three or four days of writing. At this speed we could have a book by Christmas. So enough. Thanks for the questions and have a good weekend.


Carole Burns: I suspect that you write this much every day! Thanks so much, Tim, for joining us from Italy. And thanks to everyone who submitted questions.

Next week, "Off the Page" will meet Tuesday, Dec. 16, with writer Paul Auster. Join us!

Get announcements about "Off the Page" every week by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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