The six people queueing for Tim Parks' autograph would be enough for many writers after a standard reading to acolytes over warm chardonnay in a boutique bookshop. But it is a little disappointing to see such poor reward for one of the planet's most accomplished writers and one of a handful capable of entertaining at a literary festival. After all he has just offered uninterrupted laughs and insights on D.H. Lawrence to more than 1,000 people, most of whom had never heard of Parks, in Adelaide's Botanic Gardens. At the end of the event he has no new work to sign. His 14th novel, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, has yet to reach Australia, so the merchandise tent offers his year-old essay collection, The Fighter. Next to him at the signing table is Siri Hustvedt: former model, wife of Paul Auster. She has at least 60 people queueing for her autograph, all reading the blurb on the back cover of freshly purchased copies of her new novel, The Sorrows of An American. Later, Parks stares at the grass when asked if any of this bothers him. The question is more irritating than the issue. 'When you start talking about the mechanics of all of this, you're heading for a dull, depressing conversation, basically. I'm aware of it but try to stay away from it,' he says. 'I could complain that my books aren't selling as well as Ian McEwan's, but at the same time I've been published for 20 years, I'm still publishing and people tell me my books are nice.' They also tell him he's among the best essayists, they give him his share of prizes and they are mightily impressed by his translations of Italian writers such as Alberto Moravia and Niccolo Machiavelli. The associate professor of English literature at IULM University in Milan, where he has lived since 1981, stands out among the writers in town. We could put that down to the superb beige cotton suit, immaculately pressed and complemented by a dark blue cotton shirt and the panama hat, whose rigid brim provides a roaming verandah in the South Australian heat. But we could also say that around Parks is the feeling that other writers might tip their hats in his direction if they had the nerve to wear more than a baseball cap. They would certainly be wary of taking on this polymath, who has no qualms about dismissing magical realism, for example, or pointing out the flaws in James Joyce's work or describing Jose Saramago as 'a writer of absolutely no importance'. Parks is rarely interested in giving his readers likeable characters, so why would he beg people to buy his books, or create a Tim Parks brand that publishers could work with? 'It's very curious to me to see a writer like Ian McEwan, who is constantly producing books which do have a certain amount of similarity. I'm looking to change a lot, constantly, because I feel that if I don't I won't find the interest and energy to do it.' This approach has also helped him produce eight non-fiction titles on the art of translation, 15th-century Florence and his best-known effort, A Season With Verona, about his favourite football team. The dominance of marketing and publicity in publishing means a literary journalist could easily specialise in polishing the images of young debut novelists freshly spat out with industry-orientated creative-writing degrees. Finding a writer on the publicity circuit flogging more than 20 books, as well as 16 translations, who has avoided a template and the reliance on the bigger awards, shouldn't be so remarkable. 'There have been periods in recent years where I've felt my energy levels were a little low,' Parks says. 'But if you look at the body of work and the rhythm at which it's come out you'll see that really what's going on is that I've varied immensely the kind of work that I do. 'To embark on the football book, to bring in an area of my life which had just been about going to the stadium for home games every other week because I was a season ticket-holder, you get a huge influx of energy when you start going to the away games. I wouldn't have got that from starting another tough novel,' he says. 'A lot of my books come in twos or threes. The first couple, Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger, were first-person narratives. Then I wrote two books that were epistolary novels, a complete change of position. Then a couple of books which were densely metaphorical. 'In all of this you do begin to realise there's something staying steady in it all - a voice of mine that nevertheless comes through. That's a nice thought, because it means you do have a voice,' he says. 'So, having over three novels - Europa, Destiny, Cleaver - built up a very particular style that puts a major mental figure at the centre of the work, with a strangely fragmented, obsessive narrative style, I just completely dropped that for the new book, which is just narrative. It's an absolutely straight, metaphor-free, simile-free, narrative. Everything depends on the rhythm, the pacing, the sequence in which the information is given. It's something completely different.' The first information the reader is granted about the central consciousness of Dreams of Rivers and Seas is that he is dead. Anthropologist Albert James writes of his days before he passes away in Delhi: 'For some time now, I have been plagued, perhaps blessed, by dreams of rivers and seas, dreams of water.' His son John flies to India to arrange his father's cremation. His mother keeps her distance. A biographer becomes interested in Albert's unusual work. John's confusion over his understanding of his parents is exacerbated by being cut off from his homeland. 'It had become important not to set another book in Italy,' Parks says. 'This book has to happen in a very foreign country. That really put me on the spot because I don't travel very widely. But I had been to India for a very long conference. So last summer I went back there for a month on my own. 'All I did all day was walk the streets of Bombay [Mumbai] and Delhi alone. That's all I did all day - walk the streets, talk to people. This book makes no attempt to explain India or anything, but just to be confused and disorientated in India for a few weeks. I did just about get enough to talk about being in a place where culturally you're outside. 'I was interested by what happens to a woman in her early 50s who's widowed. The marriage in the book is a very particular and weird marriage and the book is really about a decision on her part. I won't tell you what it is. 'But as you go on you start to realise that actually there are other things that the book is about. The book is about my own death and what will come after it and what kind of legacy you leave to the people around you. And it's also about the business of having done everything not to influence your son's life - it might be much worse than having engaged with your son and tried to influence his life. You might have influenced him ... profoundly and negatively. The other question is: how far is the death of the man suicide? 'People write books in different ways. There are guys who really know what the stuff's about at the beginning and they do it. I take my hat off to them. But I wouldn't be able to write the book that way. It has to be for me that I'm riding a bicycle somewhere and I don't know where it's going. I'm exploring a path,' he says. 'I don't like to walk in the same places all the time or have a map to tell me exactly what I'm going to see before I get there.' Writer's notes Name: Tim Parks Born: 1954 in Manchester, England Home: has lived in Italy with his wife and three children since 1981 Education: Cambridge and Harvard universities Genre: literary fiction, essays, translation, poetry, history and football; 38 books published. Next project: A translation of The Prince by Machiavelli, due out in 2009. What the papers say: 'He is breathtakingly good on Borges and Beckett and does stunning demolition jobs of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, whose work he dismisses as a 'careful exercise in crowd-pleasing'.' The Times on essay collection Hell and Back Author's bookshelf Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg; Ka by Roberto Calasso 'The big influences on me were people like Natalia Ginzburg, Henry Green, Samuel Beckett and Roberto Calasso. [My] first couple of books, Tongues of Flames and Loving Roger, were young persons' first-person narratives, very much based on influence I was getting from Ginzburg, an Italian writer; a certain deadpan, wilfully innocent kind of thing.' The Conformist by Alberto Moravia 'Moravia at his best presents this rationalising and lucid mind, which comes cruelly to life and gazes steadily at something to arrive at an explanation. And the more intense that gaze becomes, the more puzzling life becomes. The whole thing is a mockery of the intellectual's engagement with life.' The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli 'I've done a new translation and I wrote a preface for another edition way back.'