Smugness is never an attractive character trait. However, as the author of seven novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Light of Amsterdam, and recipient of a £15,000 Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, it would be forgivable if David Park was just a little pleased with himself.
Instead, the self-effacing author verbally squirms in discomfort and points out that not all his reviews have been glowing. Park admits that while he appreciates all the publicity for his novel, he isn't altogether comfortable with it.
'I like to be quite a private person, but you can't do that when you have a new book. You have to step out into the world,' the soft-spoken Park says. 'I'm grateful for all the interest in The Light of Amsterdam, but I won't mind when the spotlight moves on to another author.'
Yet Park is looking forward to reading at the Ulster Hall on June 27 as part of the John Hewitt Society's Literary Lunchtime programme. It might otherwise be a little daunting for Park, but he points out with a chuckle that 'after 34 years of teaching I am used to talking in front of people'.
Besides, he appreciates the chance to get out and meet people who have read his novel. Park recently retired from teaching to write full-time, and while there is a lot about teaching that he doesn't miss – in particular the 'increasing bureaucracy' that ate into his time at home – he does miss being part of a 'social organisation'.
He enjoys having more time to write (with his eighth novel already half-written), but he isn't at all sure a full-time writer's life is 'entirely healthy'.
'It is too sedentary, too introspective,' he argues. 'And if you aren't careful it can be very isolating.'
In fact, isolation is something that Park feels there is enough of in Northern Irish literature. For years Northern Irish writers would veer away from engaging with anywhere outside their own boundaries.
'As a writer you felt a moral obligation,' Park explains slowly. 'You had to deal with the Troubles. Our history, our situation, could be almost claustrophobic, but it wasn't something that could be ignored.
'I think we have been damaged by that in ways we don't realise. The Troubles acted as a brake on our creative development, but now there are exciting possibilities for art to flourish.'
That is why Park chose to set The Light of Amsterdam outside of Belfast, in a city that for him represents the wider world. Amsterdam is the first European city that a teenage Park ever visited, and its impact on him was powerful. It was during the 1970s and for Park the differences between the closed, closeted world he grew up in and an Amsterdam 'ripe with hope, beauty and art' were profound.
Park was also aware when he started writing The Light of Amsterdam that this was going to be a 'post-Troubles' novel (although he would argue that it isn't his first post-Troubles novel, citing The Big Snow and Swallowing the Sun).
'When I finished The Truth Commissioner (published 2008), I knew I would never write anything on that subject again,' he says. 'Any contribution I had to make as a writer, I had made.'
So far, Park has had no problem finding other topics to write about. His novel-in-progress, the provisionally titled Poet's Wives, is another departure from his creative norm. It is a triptych, in effect, exploring the fictionalised lives of the wives of poets, William Blake and Osip Mandelstam – Catherine Blake and Nadezhda Mandelstam – and an imaginary, recently deceased Irish poet.
Although intrigued by the lives of both of the real-life poets' wives – after the Russian Mandelstam died in a gulag, Nadezhda dedicated her life to 'preserving his poems in her memory' – Park is particularly fascinated by Catherine. He will be visiting London shortly, thanks in part to the ACNI award, to do some research on her life.
'When she signed her marriage certificate, she signed it with an X,' he comments. 'That means she was most likely illiterate. Imagine being married to a great poet, when you are unable to read or write!'
At the end of our interview, Park wonders if people will think he is 'too old for the ACNI award to do him any good'. When the question is turned back on him, he thinks about it for a second.
'I don't think so. I've always been very independent, but this seemed like the right time to apply for the award. I am still trying to develop and progress as a writer, and this award buys me the space and time to do that.'
David Park is reading from The Light of Amsterdam at the Ulster Hall on June 27.