Interview: Pasha Malla, People Park

Pasha Malla would like to set the record straight. Contrary to what has been reported elsewhere, the Toronto author did not burn all of the notes related to his debut novel, People Park. I mean, sure, he destroyed his notes—they went straight into the garbage. But there was no fire involved. That would be a little too dramatic.

Exact methods aside, why did he do this? For the same reason that the novel has no dedication or acknowledgments page: because Malla wanted to sever as many ties as possible between himself and his creation. He wants to let it fend, and speak, for itself.

“I really wanted this book to be an island, and exist independently of our world—and the only tether to the real world is me,” Malla says, in a late-night telephone interview from his home. If it had been up to him, he’d have gone even further. “I didn’t want there to be my name on it, either, or my author photo. But you’re not allowed to do that, I guess.”

This talk of islands and isolation makes all the more sense when you consider that the plot of People Park involves an unnamed island city that, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the titular park, hires a magician to perform a spectacular trick that will bring the residents together. But they get more than they bargained for when he makes the only bridge connecting the city to the mainland disappear, and then vanishes himself.

The world of Malla’s novel is an imaginative feat, with a culture, geography, and citizenry each built from scratch. Law enforcement is handled by a quasi-Masonic group called the New Fraternal League of Men; there’s a fully realized network of elevated-train lines crisscrossing the island, some of which we never even see in action. (A handy map is provided inside the back cover.)

In fact, the first traces of the book date all the way back to 2004, when Malla started writing “this terrible, terrible novel” about a terrorist attack in Montreal. Some of those elements have shifted and settled into the finished product, but mostly they were sanded away during his extensive revision process. The final cast of about three dozen characters—which includes politicians, youth workers, conspiracy theorists, a family of tourists, and a subterranean army of anarchists in hoodies—was whittled down from a number closer to 100.

Despite this teeming population, as well as several scenes that revolve around crowds, mobs, or both, Malla says what he was really trying to do was get in close and pay tribute to the individual citizen as best he could.

“The base unit of democracy is supposed to be the individual, and I feel like the reason our democracy has been compromised is because we don’t value that unit anymore,” he says. “There are other types of units that now supersede that as being more important in our society. And what the novel can do is really honour the individual. So I wanted to write a book that honoured people, and also honoured each individual reader.”

Malla made a big splash when his first book, the story collection The Withdrawal Method, was published in 2008. It won Ontario’s lucrative Trillium Award and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. But despite his accolades and talents (Malla also writes some very funny humour pieces for the Walrus and Maisonneuve, among other places), the 34-year-old remains wary of any author who’s too confident in his own abilities. It’s no coincidence that of the dozens of characters in the book, the one with whom Malla identifies most strongly is the magician, Raven.

“I use that magician character as a proxy for me, in some ways, as the author: somebody who’s come into this place and thinks that he can show everyone the truth about themselves,” Malla says, thinking back again to his ill-fated book about Montreal. “But he’s clueless! He’s an absurd, ridiculous figure who, in the end, has to admit he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and doesn’t have any control. He just slips out the back door.”

This connection may not be readily apparent on the page, but in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. For instance, look at how Raven describes his tricks—sorry, his “illustrations”: “merely scratching at a frosted window to reveal the hidden wonders on the other side. But with a shift in light, every window can become what? A mirror.”

You know who else speaks like that? A blowhard author. Thankfully, that isn’t Malla. Not by a long shot.

House of Anansi, 304 pp, $24.95, paperback

(interview originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, July 5, 2012)

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