Questions and Answers with Tim Parks

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PAJNewman (PAJ): ‘Hotel Milano’ tackles Coronavirus head on and is set in a very specific time period. Yet, most novelists I’ve spoken to recently, say they have decided to try and skirt the pandemic. When did you know you were going to base your latest work so directly in this time frame and, I suppose, what was the thing which drew you to it as a topic?

Tim Parks (TP): Well, I’d beg to differ. Neither Coronavirus nor Covid are mentioned in the book. Nor does the word lockdown occur. Yes there is an epidemic, yes people find their movements drastically restricted. But the only thing that interested me was the dramatic situation that this circumstance allowed me to explore: an older man, who doesn’t follow the news, suddenly finds himself isolated, then forced into a relationship with people of a different ethnic community whom he would never otherwise have met, in a drama that immediately presents itself as crucial for their survival. It was this existential drama that interested me. Not a grand novel about the pandemic. It’s too soon for that I suspect and anyway it wouldn’t be my kind of novel.

PAJ: How was your own pandemic? Did you adapt fairly well to lockdown?

TP: Like everyone else I hate being shut in the house. But for the purposes of the book, what mattered was understanding just how fragile normality is, how swiftly the circumstances of your life can change.

PAJ: In terms of the novel, it has a first person, stream of consciousness narrative. Do you begin from a position of wanting to write in that form or, for you, does the story dictate the narrative?

TP: For many years, Frank, an ageing journalist, has refused to follow the news in whatever form. Newspaper, radio, TV, internet. He’s isolated and he’s sought isolation. Hence what happens is an even greater surprise to him. Given this situation, the first person seemed the way to go. I imagined it this way. A person locked in their own private world. It is not a ‘stream of consciousness’ in the Joycean sense. Joyce wrote in third person and includes a lot of passive perceptions that waft through the mind. The first person in ‘Hotel Milano‘ is very much a man debating with himself. What we get is what he consciously articulates. But I always have fun playing with the way the voice works. It’s one of the pleasures of writing.

PAJ: Based on reading some of your previous, non-fiction works, it appears to me like there are a number of biographical parallels with your own life. Are those resonances important for you as a novelist?

TP: For sure one can imagine things more easily when there are parallels with your own experience. One can play with turns your life might have taken and so on. It’s rare to find a good novel where the author doesn’t have some intimate knowledge of the places and people in the story.

PAJ: It seems like a novel of the now, encompassing loneliness, the migrant crisis, the role of the news in the narratives of our lives, grief and the virtue of caring for others. Were these threads you planned to explore or is there a more organic discovery as you were writing Frank’s journey?

TP: My novels aren’t essays. Perhaps they dramatize phases in the arc of a life. In this case old age. One of the things that most perplexes me in Milan is how separate the various ethnic communities are, how little we meet each other or know about each other. We presume this or that about the lives of others, but it’s another thing entirely to be forced to engage with people in dramatic circumstances. Frank suddenly finds himself in a position to do something noble, but dangerous, this when he’d presumed his active life was over. What would a situation like this feel like? How will Frank respond?

PAJ: You have a varied career as a man of letters, encompassing roles as a university professor, translator, reviewer, writer of non-fiction and celebrated novelist: do you have a favourite role and what dictates your next project?

TP: My ambition was always to be a novelist. Then I realized that it’s much more fun to write a range of things, and to teach and translate, though I’ve given up teaching now. Life is richer if one keeps it varied. And all these professions feed into each other. Generally what determines the next project is the requirement that it be refreshingly different from the one before. You could think of some kind crop rotation. I leave the novel field fallow for a year or two, then come back to it. But novels remain ‘the ambition’.

PAJ: Following on from this, do you have a “typical” writing day?

TP: Write in the morning. Go to the gym at lunch or early evening. Other stuff in the afternoon. But nothing’s fixed. There are times when I’ll write all day and others when I’ll drop it for a week.

PAJ: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

TP: I know so little about the situation for a first-time writer these days. What matters above all, I think is a profound sense of vocation, a determination to keep learning and improving and trying. I had written five or six novels before I was published.

PAJ: Obviously at least two of your non-fiction books – ‘A Season with Verona’ and ‘The Hero’s Way’ have required enormous time and commitment just in order to complete gathering the raw material for. Were they enjoyable and are they artificially dreamt up or things which you would have done organically without the objective of a book at the end?

TP: I have never done anything in order to write a book about it. But when I decide to write a book about things I’ve planned to do anyway, I might start getting more deeply involved than I would have done anyway. In the end, the thought, Perhaps I could write a book about this walk (‘The Hero’s Way‘), allows me to engage in the whole adventure much more intensely. In the same way, I read more excitedly and carefully when I know I’m going to write a review about a book, or an essay on its author. Life and writing are wonderfully mixed up for me.

PAJ: On the subject of ‘A Season with Verona’, to a certain subset of readers, this is still perhaps the work you are best known for in the UK. Now 20 years old, I was wondering do you still support the club and are you still able to make it to games? Do you ever re-read your older work?

TP: I live in Milan now, so I’m hardly a regular at the Bentegodi. But I certainly keep my eye on Hellas and watch anxiously for each result. A melancholy habit this year. Only very rarely do I pick up an old book of mine and look at a couple of pages. Perhaps because I have to mention it in an interview or at a presentation. I like to stay focused on what I’m doing now.

PAJ: Books like ‘Italian Neighbours’ and ‘An Italian Education’ can now seem like postcards from the moon to UK-based readers post-Brexit. As a long-standing Brit-abroad, how do you reflect on the changes to your country of origin?

TP: I’m not sure I understand this question. There was no free movement of people in Europe when I arrived in Italy. I had to fill out endless forms, apply for permission every three months. Today, I see plenty of people around me in Milan who have come from non-EU countries, Britain and the USA included. The days of travel are not over. Nor is my affection for Britain, though I wouldn’t claim to ‘understand’ the place, having been away so long. It’s always a great pleasure to me when I go back for a few days.

PAJ: What is the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do?

TP: Really, I have no such wishes. One hopes readers will find one’s books a pleasure. The aim is always to intrigue, to establish an intimacy, to keep the reader guessing about what the story is most deeply about. Perhaps because the greatest pleasure for me as a reader is the book that stirs the greatest activity of mind. As for interviewers, they must ask what they want to know. Fortunately it’s not a police interrogation and I don’t have to make sure my answers are consistent.

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Born in Manchester in 1954, Tim Parks grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. In 1981 he moved to Italy where he has lived ever since. He has written nineteen novels including Europa (shortlisted for the Booker prize), DestinyCleaverIn Extremis and, most recently, Hotel Milano.

During the nineties he wrote two, personal non-fiction accounts of life in northern Italy, Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, books that won acclaim and popularity for their anthropological wryness. These were complemented in 2002 by A Season with Verona, a grand overview of Italian life as seen through the business and passion of football, and Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo. 

A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, in recent years he has been publishing a series of blogs on writing, reading, translation and the like in the New York Review online.

Aside from his own writing, Tim has translated works by Moravia, Pavese, Calvino, Calasso, Machiavelli and Leopardi; his book, Translating Style, which analyses Italian translations of the English modernists, is considered a classic in its field. (Biography adapted from

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