Ed Park is an embodiment of the devilishly resourceful modern American writer; the kind who not only writes beautiful books but also teaches, edits, blogs, and tweets fervently. He is a founding editor of The Believer and the former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, having also served as an editor at the Poetry Foundation. From 2007 to 2011 he wrote a science fiction column for the Los Angeles Times, entitled Astral Weeks. He also created the PDF periodical the New-York Ghost, which, like many of Park’s literary endeavors, was what one might call quick-to-cult.
Park’s debut novel, Personal Days (2008), was named one of Time’s Top Ten Fiction Books of the year and one of The Atlantic’s top ten pop culture moments of the decade. It was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award, the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and the Asian American Literary Award. His short stories and nonfiction work have also appeared in a range of anthologies and journals, including Burn This Book (edited by Toni Morrison) and Trampoline (edited by Kelly Link).
He earned a B.A. from Yale and an M.F.A. from Columbia, where he currently teaches in the graduate writing program. He recently left The Believer and became a fiction editor at Amazon Publishing.
Park lives in Manhattan with his family. We met on an afternoon in May to chat over sweet red bean buns at a deserted Korean joint on 32nd Street while various 80’s and 90’s heartthrobs crooned in the background.
You grew up in Buffalo, New York, in the suburbs. Were you always a kid who wrote stories?
I was. In fifth or sixth grade, there was an assignment to write about single-celled creatures. I did two or three, about a Conan-the-Barbarian-type hero warrior who would fight very large versions of an amoeba or paramecium. That swords-and-sorcery type thing was an influence. There was a Saturday morning cartoon called Blackstar, so my character was Blue Moon. [Laughs.] I changed it just enough to avoid copyright problems.
Around the same time, I did my own version of the Encyclopedia Brown stories: short mysteries you would read to figure out a solution. My character was called Dictionary Black, also to avoid potential lawsuits. I would take the plots of Encyclopedia Brown stories, which take place in a nameless American town, and make them more geographically Buffalonian. I adapted them to my setting.
It sounds like you put a lot of energy into them.
They were imitative, which is I think natural at that age, but I have a distinct memory of lying in bed imagining the different series that I would write. At that point I had read some C.S. Lewis, some Tolkien, and I was thinking, “Well, the Blue Moon series will obviously run to five books, where in each one he will defeat different single-celled organisms, and Dictionary Black will be its own series…”
Was the idea of being the writer important, or was it about the books themselves? Did you think, “I want to be like C.S. Lewis,” the person behind the story?
The idea of being the writer was important, but at that age it was less an ego thing and more just the excitement of having produced these mini-masterpieces.
Did you show them to family and friends?
I don’t know. The stuff for school, the teacher would see. It’s possible that I showed friends or my folks, but just having produced them was satisfying. It was art for art’s sake.
[Laughs.] Of course. You were a purist.
Your parents must have known you were very much involved in these worlds that you were creating. Did you inhabit the bookish, storyteller persona in your family?
I think so, largely because I read a lot.
Did other people in your family read?
They did, but—I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Growing up in Buffalo in the ‘70s, there wasn’t a huge Korean community. My parents were somewhat cut off from Korean culture, and they didn’t read in English. I don’t recall them being able to get a Korean newspaper. We had books in the house, Time magazine, things like that, but these were new to them; even the books they were reading to me as a child were not the ones that they grew up with. They were very encouraging, but when it came to what was the appropriate book for a twelve-year-old, that wasn’t part of what they knew. I was discovering books on my own, in a way, or through school or through other kids.
Did you speak Korean at home?
I didn’t. I could understand it and still do, and there was a Korean school where I seem to remember being on Friday nights, but I didn’t attend for long. It didn’t stick the way I imagine it might growing up in L.A. or in New York City. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want me to be able to speak Korean, but the priority was to learn English.
Do your parents read your writing and have a relationship to your work in English?
They read it. When I was a journalist, my parents knew how to find my articles online. They print out everything that I write and read it. I think they’re happy that I am able to do what I wanted to do.
So you didn’t have the issue that a lot of writers and artists have, struggling with families that expected them to do more conventional or stable things?
Well, it’s not like I said, “I’m going to be a writer,” and then it was smooth sailing. My father’s a doctor, and he asked, “Medical school? Is that an option?” When it was clear that that probably wasn’t an option, it was, “Law school?” That conversation is always there. It’s one reason why I worked in journalism for so long.
What was your start as a journalist?
I started as a copyeditor at The Village Voice and became an editor and wrote a lot. It was very satisfying for a time, having an audience. I was writing a lot for them around the time that content started moving online, and it was a different feeling than working on my fiction, where something would appear in a journal and maybe someone would read it, but probably not.
What kind of writing had you done in college?
I wrote and edited for the paper in college. I took two creative writing classes toward the end of my college career, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. To satisfy the creative end of things, I started doing a comic strip. Like Dictionary Black, it was a bit imitative. I’d always liked newspaper comic strips, but I was getting into literary comic books and graphic novels. Maus II came out while I was in college, and Art Spiegelman gave a lecture there. I was like, this is where it’s at: journalism and comic strips. I couldn’t draw, really, but it was fascinating to put it together every week. Then, as I was ready to graduate, still not knowing anything about anything, I started to take writing more seriously.
What did that mean, to take writing more seriously?
It meant writing more. I also started hearing about MFA programs. I would apply to them pretty soon after graduating, but first, for nine months, I went to Korea.
What was the trip to Korea about?
It was about a lot of things. Being interested in Korean stuff, and coming from a place where there was a tight-knit community but it wasn’t that large. I’d only made one trip to Korea when I was ten. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was bound to be interesting. I wanted to do some writing, and I had an internship there at a law firm.
[Laughs.] So maybe law school was still an option?
It was what was available. I would go to the internship during the day and then try to write. That must have been when I applied to graduate school, thinking the community would be nice.
I mentioned that my parents in Buffalo in the ‘70s couldn’t really get Korean books readily, that people would have to send them from Korea—but in Korea I had the reverse problem; I was hungry to read books in English. I could only bring so many with me. The law firm where I worked happened to be on top of this huge bookstore, and they had an English language section with random stuff, like a volume of Poe’s satires. Who knew?
I love the foreign language sections in bookstores. They’re often stocked with whatever the people working there have picked. So you were reading random things available there?
Not only that, but a friend of my aunt’s, who was a translator into English and a professor there, showed me this place called the United States Information Service, and they had a library. I would take out books there, and I found myself reading all of John Irving, Barthelme’s stories, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I don’t know that I would have read Irving otherwise, even though he’s hugely popular.
It’s interesting when where you are forms what you’re able to read. After I got back from Korea, in New York, not having a huge disposable income, I would go to used bookstores: the remainders table at St. Marks Bookshop, those little trolleys in public library branches, this great bookstore on 81st Street called Book Ark. I was introduced to many writers who became important influences on the way that I think about literature and my own writing just because their book happened to cost a dollar, and maybe I’d heard of them or the cover was cool.
When you moved back from Korea, you came to New York City. Did you come here to start the writing program at Columbia?
I was still waiting to hear from Columbia, but I wanted to be here anyway.
And then you got in. Was the MFA program the first time you were in a sort of a writers’ tribe?
In a way. I mean, in college I would hang out with the newspaper people, and some people from the one workshop that I was in. But nothing like the Columbia program. It was a different program than it is now—it was much smaller and there were fewer teachers. That’s how Heidi [Julavits] and Vendela [Vida] and I met, maybe even during orientation.
It was exciting to write that much. It was exciting having deadlines, knowing that fellow students were going to read your stuff and give you notes. I still have Heidi’s notes. We were in every workshop together. Also, there were great teachers. Maureen Howard is one I’m still very close to. Luc Sante is another who I stay in touch with. Best of all, I was writing a lot and building up discipline. I was very driven to produce there, and in the years following as well.
What were those years like, immediately after the MFA?
During the program, I did freelance copyediting and fact-checking here and there, just a couple of times a week to have some spending money. By the end of the year that I finished at Columbia, I had come on full-time as a copyeditor at the Voice. It was an interesting place to learn about the city, there were some great writers, and I had one day off each week in addition to the weekend. That was an extra day of writing. I was intent on finishing the novel that I’d started at Columbia. It was good for me to develop those habits: holding down a day job but also writing my own thing.
Were you always good at setting aside time and then diving right down deep into your fiction, or did you have a set of rituals to get you there?
I might be misremembering slightly, but it seemed like at that age I could turn it on quickly. In retrospect, maybe that was not a good thing. I could be sloppier or more convoluted than I had to be, and I wasn’t much for rewriting.
Where did you send your first novel when you were done?
I had an agent coming out of the program, who I met through Columbia. I finished the novel about a year after graduating, and she did her best to sell it. It didn’t find any takers.
How did that feel, having no takers for your first manuscript?
It felt like, what happened? I was impressed with myself. I’d worked and finished this thing, and it was hefty: close to 500 pages, and I was using a tiny, nine-point font. I have no idea how many words it was and I wouldn’t want to look at it again. But the experience of having written it was important, that sense of accomplishment and high hopes. Then you read these very considerate rejection letters, you’re like, “Oh, man. I just—wow, what happened?” I was still in my mid-twenties, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll write another one.” In my mind, the next one would be more accessible and everybody would love it, but it met a similar fate of resoundingly silent reception.
Wow. What did you do after two completed novels were rejected?
I started writing something else. I was like, “Well, what else am I going to do?” It felt important to keep trying. Around that time I also had more responsibilities at the newspaper [the Village Voice]. My fiction was still going, but I was less sure how it would become a novel. There are at least two projects that I abandoned, semi-completed.
Your life circumstance determines where you put your energy, and beginning in 2005, things at work started getting crazy. We were about to be bought by a different company, and people were being laid off. The things that I liked about that job were evaporating. People I worked with were suddenly gone. Fewer and fewer people in the office. That’s where Personal Days came in. I had other ongoing projects, but this was happening in my life and I just wrote it really quickly.
Did you still have that agent?
No. I graduated [from Columbia] in 1995; ten years had elapsed. I had no agent anymore, but someone mentioned that I should get in touch with P.J. Mark, who is my agent now. I didn’t have anything finished, but he said he’d love to see it when I was done, and that took some pressure off.
Did you feel when you were writing Personal Days that it was different from your prior efforts?
Personal Days came out of the direness of my workaday life, and that was nothing I’d written about before. Coming out of Columbia, I believed I was a pure fiction writer, even though while I was there I took an autobiography class with Joyce Johnson and probably wrote some of my best stuff in the program in that class. Those first novels were so removed from reality that they were just linguistic objects. It was hard for a reader to get a grip on them.
Nobody likes to be fired or laid off, but I would not have written my novel had I not encountered that concrete problem in real life. Processing what was happening with my job into writing was both natural and something I hadn’t done before. It felt to me like the demarcations between nonfiction and fiction were bolder then. Obviously, there are countless examples of autobiographical novels, things that mix memoir and fiction, but for some reason that didn’t seem like an option to me. But then, more and more, it was.
Did your writing process have a different momentum with Personal Days?
I think so. Even in the early stages, it was very easy to write about. The pressure of the office was just expressing itself on the page. Once I got a little ways in, I had a better idea of how the book would be structured, plot points and things like that. But it was really almost a voice that was speaking to me. I’m a big believer in that hallucinated experience of writing, of hearing a voice. That’s where it starts: you’re going to have to figure out what to do with it, but first you hear something and trust it and go with it.
So, you graduated from Columbia in ’95. In those ten years when you were writing and editing for the newspaper, did you doubt yourself as a fiction writer?
I definitely had doubt. It didn’t stop me from writing. Having been in the MFA program and having worked so long on books that were failures, that was part of who I was: I was someone who writes.
I’ve given the impression of being this recluse, typing away, and that’s partly true—you have to shut yourself off a bit—but I don’t want to minimize how much it meant to me to have people encouraging me along the way. Maureen Howard was always there for me. I can’t tell you how much it meant to have her read my stuff when I was no longer a student, and to encourage me that maybe this wasn’t the book, but I should keep writing. Another friend, James Browning, would exchange writing with me. There was a place on 6th and 12th that sold manuscript boxes, and we would send each other physical copies of our books. You need someone, even just one person or two people, to read your work.
Every so often I would publish something in a journal, and that would buoy my spirits. I thought of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, but if a friend asked me to write something for his or her journal, I would write a short thing. If I was asked to do a reading, I would write something designed to be read under ten minutes. I’m a big fan of constraint writing, where there’s some rule to abide by.
You seem to have a strong internal motor that keeps you writing. You were doing a lot of things at this same time, working for the Voice, but also putting together The Believer. How did you and Heidi Julavits and Vendela Vida join up to do that?
We started putting The Believer together toward the end of 2002. We knew each other from Columbia, and Heidi was also living in New York and asked if I would be interested in this magazine that McSweeney’s would publish. I knew how great Heidi and Vendela were, and I loved McSweeney’s. I remember buying the first issue at St. Mark’s Bookshop. I didn’t even know what it was, but it felt so necessary. The hope was that The Believer would be a similar thing.
It was an amazingly fertile period. I started taking over the book review section of the Voice and then their literary supplement, too. That was really the only job I ever wanted at the Voice: Literary Editor. That was happening, and The Believer was happening, and it was great. I was also reviewing a lot of movies. I’d get to see a movie during the day and write about it.
There were a couple of years when I was still writing fiction but it was actually very satisfying to be doing these other jobs. The first issue of The Believer came out in March 2003, and very soon thereafter it was a monthly. It was incredible how much we worked, gradually expanding the scope of the magazine, getting talented people on the editorial side. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Editing this magazine that was growing and getting some love must have been a big step in your identity as a writer.
Definitely. It was a different kind of editing, too, much longer pieces than at the Voice, and working with some great writers who were also novelists. It’s not something I could have planned.
Where were you living in New York then? What was the living like?
By the time The Believer had started, I was living on the Upper West Side. I didn’t stray far from Columbia. I was married by then. The bookstore that I mentioned, on 81st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, was no longer there. It might be a foot massage place now, but it used to be this cultural enclave. There was Book Ark and a place that sold used CDs. I can’t tell you how much stuff I bought on that street. As you can probably see, I don’t really buy clothes; left to my own devices I would eat peanut butter on crackers and wear the same clothes and buy books and read.
I was living on 89th Street and I had a little office with bright green walls and a bookcase where I’d only put books with green spines. It was such a productive space for me, this extra room in the apartment. This was before we had kids. It was a great room with great light where I could work on The Believer and write articles. That’s where I wrote Personal Days, in that room.
This was several years ago, so I didn’t have wireless on my laptop. You had to plug it in. So I would unplug it and take the cord to the other end of the apartment and throw it behind the couch. Then I would close all the intervening doors and put a bench in front of the last door, so that if I had to go get the Internet cord, it would be a pain.
You were literally barricading yourself from the internet.
It worked! Now you can turn off the wireless on laptops, but you’re still going to go online.
Karolina [Waclawiak, Deputy Editor of The Believer and author of How To Get Into the Twin Palms ] told me she uses a program that blocks the wireless—
Oh, is it Freedom?
Yes! I love that it’s called Freedom. But there’s this feeling of, “What if I need to get online right now?!” But, really, why would you? It’s just obsessive.
When Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, came out, I loved those interviews where he admitted that in order to write he did something so that he physically could not put the internet cord into his computer. Even now, when I’m trying to write, I go to places where there’s no Internet, or sometimes I write by hand. The internet is great for many things, but it’s terrible for getting work done.
Jo Ann Beard said that writing is like sinking to the bottom of an ocean and observing the sea creatures that float by. But it takes a lot to get to the bottom of the ocean, and if you look up and you’re too shallow, there’s all this fun, interesting light happening on the surface. You think, “I could be tweeting instead of trying to be productive.”
[Laughs.] With the kind of pleasure you can get from the immediate interaction of tweeting or blogging or Facebook, sometimes I’m curious as to why there’s still any desire to be a writer. I wonder if creative people now are often more about designing a great web experience. I’m not saying one is more important than the other, but as much as I waste time online like everyone else, my formative experiences in writing were pre-internet.
So when did you start writing the New-York Ghost literary newsletter?
That started around the time I was finishing the first draft of Personal Days, before it was ready to send out. The fall of 2006. I’d suddenly been let go at the Voice, where I’d worked for eleven years, so I no longer had that outlet for my writing. Out of both curiosity and a fear of not having that outlet, I thought, “What if, rather than write a blog that no one visits, I could send out a publication with no printing costs?” Other people eventually contributed to it, but for the first issues, with the exception of one poet who gave me a poem every week, I would just open a document and write.
I was surprised and happy that people started writing to get on the subscription list. It was a lot of fun. The Times did a nice piece on it, but that made me self-conscious. That was partly why I stopped, but also it had been a couple years and maybe it had run its course.
You seem to have always been producing things and finding ways to put them out into the world. What was it like when someone actually offered to publish your first novel?
It was shocking. My agent told me there were people interested, but I was going to Taiwan that day for my wife’s grandmother’s funeral, so as the plane flew across the Pacific some editor or another was going to make an offer. When the plane landed after this long trip, I called my agent to find out. It was unreal to be sitting on that plane [drums fingers on table] and incommunicado, having a good feeling but wondering.
How did things begin to change from that point on?
After the book came out, I was doing readings on a larger scale. At times it could be too much. You want to say yes to everything, and sometimes it was a little stressful, but overall I couldn’t have been happier. It got reviewed in a lot of places, and the reviews were good. Of course, I remember the two places where they weren’t. But having been on the other end of things as a book review editor, I knew that there are so many worthy books that don’t get reviewed. To get reviewed at all was great.
Writing Personal Days, on some level I knew this was something that could find an audience, whereas the other books I’d written were ornate and willfully difficult. Which is not to say there aren’t some experimental things in Personal Days as well, because I love that stuff. Some readers couldn’t forgive the last part of the book, which is a forty-page sentence. In reviews on Amazon or other sites, some people said, “I liked the book until that point.” It’s all valid.
People tell you never to read online reviews or comments sections because they tend toward ranting. Great books often get the worst and weirdest reviews on Amazon. But wait, you work for Amazon now, so—
Yeah. No comment. [Laughs.] Those reviews, like comments on blogs, can take on a life of their own. On the other hand, if somebody wants to write something nice, then it’s like, “Hey, okay! You’re right, I am a genius.” [Laughs.] But there have been comments on articles I’ve written where, I mean, I did all this work, and there’s one comment and it’s calling me an “Ass Hat.” That’s not helping anything.
[Laughs.] True. We talked a bit about your early writing habits and discipline, but that was before you had kids. How has being a parent shaken things up?
To be honest, I’m still trying to find a way to write with a day job and kids. Where is the time? I’ve talked with writers who are somewhat older than me who have had kids, and they’ve said, “I’d just write in any window I could get.” So I try to be prepared, anywhere that I am. If I know I’m going to be waiting in line somewhere, I make sure I have paper and pencil.
I mentioned before that if I have to give a reading, I’ll sometimes write specifically for that reading. There’s something to the anticipation of standing up and reading for people and wanting to entertain them. I don’t know if I should announce this, but I’m hoping to do more readings to keep the deadline thing going.
There it is again—the usefulness of constrictions and deadlines.
We think of creative writing as “I can just write what I want,” but I find rules and deadlines so necessary. Writing for the Voice or writing a book review, you want to take enough time to do a good job and know your stuff, but this is the deadline, and if you don’t make it, they’re not going to publish it. You come up with good stuff under that pressure. Creating deadlines for myself, though—let’s just say that is a work in progress.
That brings us more or less to the present day. Last year you decided to leave The Believer to work as an editor at Amazon Publishing’s New York office. What was your motivation for that shift?
Having been there from the beginning, I feel very close to The Believer. I’ve also taught and done all sorts of things. One thing that I haven’t done is edit a book, and I was curious to see how that would work. I like the idea of finding writers I love, books I love, and bringing them out into the world. This is a pretty new thing; the New York office is not even a year old. Our first real list is coming out this fall.
You mentioned that you teach in the writing program at Columbia. As a teacher, what advice do you give to student writers?
All the clichés they hear already are probably true. For me, one thing was finding myself as a reader. What kinds of things do you like to read? Are there books that you wish you had written? Who are your models? There are great books that everyone loves that I also love, but I’m thrilled when I find something obscure that I love that no one else has read—or that I would not have read had it not been sticking out of that cart at the used bookstore. I’ll still be strolling with my family and if there’s a bookstall I’ll be like, “Hold on.” You never know: there could be something there that will be a lot of fun to read and also change the way you think about what’s possible. My students know that my syllabi always mix in lesser-known things that I feel passionately about. If you let these books into your life, they can help you write in a way that you didn’t know you could. To discover yourself as a writer, you have to read interesting stuff. It’s strange to me when people who want to write seem not really to want to read. It doesn’t have to be highbrow—just something that activates your imagination.
The other thing is dedicating time to actually writing, and not squandering your time liking stuff on Facebook, which is what I’ll probably do once I get back to the office. [Laughs.]
Looking back, what early hurdles—either professional or personal—stand out as pivotal moments that were difficult to get over or through?
The obvious thing would be rejection. I wasn’t the kind of person who would send out tons of short pieces, because I didn’t think of myself as a short story writer, but even that stung, to get rejected from a journal. With the novels, each one was a couple of years of my life, and not getting the response that one hopes for was hard. I was stunned. I had no alternative but to keep going. I wouldn’t let that stop me. When I finished the second book, I was not quite thirty. I thought, “I’m still relatively young. I can still do it.” Before I got the idea for Personal Days, I was working on this long, free-form book. I would get very excited about parts of it, but if I stopped too long to think I would say, “Why do you think this book is going to be any different from the other two?” So I would not think about it and just write.
What is your idea of success?
When the book is published and your name is on it, it has to be something that you’re proud of, that you did on your own terms, whatever those terms might be. At some point when I was writing Personal Days, I knew that the last section had to be this really, really long sentence that has no period. That section is the shortest in the book, but it took the most effort. It’s not like no one else has done it before, but to write a sentence like that that’s both technically interesting and that feels alive and completes the book in a way that normal sentences wouldn’t—that to me is success. To get something on the page that matches up more or less with what’s in your head.
Nobody has to know it when the book or the story comes out, but you have to believe and pursue an ideal. It sounds corny and mystical, but why else write? Why spend years of your life obsessing over characters and plot and sentences if you don’t care that deeply about it? Writers like Nabokov, or Harry Mathews, they wrote these books that nobody else could write. And to bring something original into the world, what could be cooler?
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Edited by Harvest Henderson
Photo by Forsyth Harmon