FPP Harlem spoke with our “first person corporate” author Ed Park (Personal Days) about walls of prose that resemble Chinese calligraphy, the opportunities afforded by the first person plural voice, and faded gyro posters from 1997.
Can you tell us a little about your current writing project?
What began as a modest collection of my short pieces (both fiction and nonfiction) has turned into something else. The working title is Two Laptops, which is also the title for several of the new pieces in the book. The new pieces (or ideas for new ones) are now bumping out many of the old ones (i.e., the initial premise/scaffolding). The working title is imposing some sort of new, more interesting order on the material.
What kinds of questions are you pursuing in it?
Technology and identity, to some extent. But mostly I’m trying to answer the question of whether I can write a decent sentence, surprise myself, make myself laugh.
Have you given yourself any “rules” for it– either constraints or prohibitions?
Writing six (or eight or ten) stories that all need to have the same title.
What was the most surprising reaction to or reading of Personal Days?
There’s a short appreciation online by one of my father’s medical school classmates. It’s in Korean, so I had to ask my father to tell me the gist. He (the classmate-reviewer) noted how the last section, which is one unbroken sentence stretched over dozens of pages, reminded him of Chinese calligraphy—in the sense of it resembling a wall of prose, without a break. (More on this below.) I found this observation intensely gratifying. Was my goal in building this wall of prose some unconscious nod to an Asian heritage, otherwise conspicuously absent in the book? (My father himself does Chinese calligraphy; one of the themes in this last act is the character’s relationship to his father.)
A good portion of Personal Days is in first person plural; what kinds of opportunities did it open?
I didn’t start the book with the idea that the opening section would be in the first person plural; but as the pages mounted, and the “we” stayed in there, and more and more characters were given names—coming out of the communal darkness to step in the spotlight for a bit, then recede again—I realized that the rapidity with which I was writing was directly connected to my continued use of this rare point of view. I found it so supple—this communal, gossipy, comic, sometimes eerie vibe. Which is to say I was exploiting the opportunities even before realizing that it was the POV which was providing me with them.
Though I found the composition exciting and (dare I say it) easy, it dawned on me that I couldn’t write the whole book this way. There were at least two reasons. First, given the story that was taking shape, certain plot points and information would be impossible to convey in this voice. Second, I knew that if I pushed the first-person-plural to novel length, simply for consistency’s sake, the claustrophobia would risk becoming deadening. (The most brilliant first-person-plural novel I’ve read, by the way, is Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, where the voice determines the structure right down to the very last line.)
The other two sections have their own rules—the final part, as I mentioned above, has a particularly insane but fruitful constraint: it unspools as a single, forty-page sentence. To make one more point: I knew that I would be writing the finale in this way early on, while I was still writing the first-person-plural section—it was as though the early tone of anonymity required a single, strongly voiced narrator for balance, at the other end of the book.
How do you think being a prolific blogger has affected your writing?
It’s true—I was doing a lot of blogging around the time of writing Personal Days. I don’t think there was any direct relationship between my bloggery and my novelizing; my blogging style is generally unbuttoned, breezy, a bit silly, deliberately trivial, whereas my book…wait, a lot of my book is like that, too!
What literary technique, form, or territory have Americans (recently) overdosed on?
Certainly not the first person plural! [Laughter.] No comment. [Silence.]
If you were obliged to give a tour of New York, what would you have to include or what theme would you give it?
Ed’s New York Tour involves going past all the buildings I used to live in, saying hi to the supers who will not remember my name, walking down the streets (W. 105th, 112th, 98th, 83rd, etc.), noting what’s changed and what looks the same. Has the Laundromat turned into a frozen yogurt emporium? Is that bagel place still there? Could that be the same gyro poster from 1997, faded to ghostly indistinction? (When did I last eat a gyro, and with whom?)
My tour group mutinies around the third stop, but I would make sure those who remain are well fed (gyros, bagels).