Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Clifford Garstang

Interview by Mary Akers

Clifford Garstang is the author of the short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009). After receiving a BA in Philosophy from Northwestern University, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea. He then earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with one of the largest law firms in the United States. Subsequently, he earned an MPA from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work focused on China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Cream City Review, The Tampa Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In 2006 he was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. He has recently completed a second collection of stories and a novel. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.


MA     You recently published your first book, In an Uncharted Country. Great title, by the way. How did you come to choose it? Or did you?

CG     I did choose it. I had actually considered the title of another story in the collection, but when I was finalizing the manuscript, I realized that this title, also from one of the stories, better reflects what I think the whole book is about.

MA     And that is...?

CG     I suppose I should leave that to readers to determine, but many of the stories deal with people who are out of place for one reason or another. Either they're new in the community, or they are dislocated by something that happens in the family, or they are outcasts for some other reasons. What these people share is that they are a bit lost and are trying to find their way home.

MA     Trying to find their way home—in an uncharted country. Yes, a great way to tell the stories of a town. The idea of linked story collections is fascinating. Could you speak about what "linked stories" means for those readers who may not know? How is a linked collection different from a novel-in-stories?

CG     Writers link stories in several ways—by setting, theme, by narrator, and by overlapping characters, which is perhaps the most common form. Many of the linked collections, including mine, do all three. And they're different because a novel would have a single narrative arc that unites the stories; here, each one stands alone, but together they make one story. I think that for novelists who are also story writers, there is a natural attraction to the form—you're used to building bigger worlds and landscapes and populating them with characters who have relationships with each other. So to do the same thing in the short story form feels very comfortable.

MA     Elizabeth Strout (who wrote a wonderful endorsement for your collection) recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Olive Kitteridge, which is linked because the stories all involve the title character. Could you mention a few other linked collections? And what links them?

CG     Liz Strout's book is wonderful. It turns out that writers have been linking stories for a long time. Two influential books from almost a hundred years ago are linked collections or "story cycles." James Joyce's Dubliners is linked by both setting and theme. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, is linked in several ways—by setting, theme, and overlapping characters—and is in fact, like Olive Kitteridge, a novel in stories, meaning that it has a single narrative arc even though each of the individual stories has its own focus. Some collections are linked by a single narrator, like The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. There are others that focus very specifically on a place, like Rebecca Barry's Later, at the Bar.

MA     Did you set out to make In an Uncharted Country a linked collection? Which story did you write first? And which one last? How did these stories influence the whole?

CG     No, I didn't start out to make it a linked collection, or even a collection of any kind. The first story I wrote was "The Clattering of Bones," about a marriage gone sour. And I wrote it because I'd taken extensive notes on an incident that had happened not long before, about a deer I'd seen stuck on a barbed wire fence. When I finished that story, I realized how much more I wanted to explore—about the two main characters, about one of the minor characters, about the community. And so I kept writing stories, many of which grew out of each other. The very last story I wrote was "Red Peony," which also is the last story in the book. I had realized that I wanted the book to conclude, in a way, that in some way the issues that I'd been exploring needed to draw to a close—not necessarily to be resolved, but to be accepted by the characters. In writing that story, I actually came to understand those issues better and even tweaked some of the earlier stories with my new understanding in mind.

MA     Many of these stories have fantastical elements to them: inanimate objects that show sparks of life, mysterious and beautifully feathered creatures that lead a man astray, a deer that is not a deer. Where did these writing influences originate?

CG     I'm not really a writer of fantasy or magical realism, although when I write about Mexico, as I have in several stories, that does come out. In this collection, though, I think these elements come naturally from the characters involved. The story about the deer that isn't a deer began as a translation I did of a Korean folktale, but when I transplanted the protagonist to Virginia, I found that he was a troubled man afflicted with frustrated dreams. And so it was fairly obvious to me that his dreams would erupt and overwhelm his real life. Similarly, in the story about the talking antiques, that character is way outside his comfort zone—he's in unfamiliar territory and he's all alone. And so it didn't surprise me, as I was writing the story, when the furniture spoke to him. Of course he would talk to the things, because who else would he have to talk to?

MA     I think my favorite story is "Stonewall." Not for the main character, Willard, who is actually kind of a rotten fellow, but for the masterful way you take us through the story. We are initially repulsed by this awful thing that Willard does and to make us even less sympathetic, we watch helplessly as he frames someone else for it. And yet, by the end of the story, you have made us begin to hope he gets away with it. How did this story evolve for you, and what did you hope it would accomplish?

CG     The story began, in part, as an experiment—writing from the point of view of a decidedly unlikable character. It's my belief that the reader doesn't have to like a character to be engaged by him and even sympathize with him, and that's what I tried to do. He's flawed, certainly, but he's not all bad, and while what he does isn't forgivable, it is somewhat understandable in the context of the stress he's under.

MA     This brings up another writerly question: how do you approach characterization when the point-of-view character is someone who is very different from you politically, racially, religiously, etc? Do you find this "crossing over" to be a challenge, or a chore?

CG     A challenge, yes, but then so is any character, and that's what makes it exciting. If every character I wrote about were exactly like me, I'd soon run out of things to say! I don't believe that a writer has to be black to write about African Americans, and I don't think a man should shy away from writing from the point of view of a woman. Recently I spoke a group of college students who had read my book and one student asked me how, since I'm not a middle-aged, oxycontin-addicted woman, I was able to write "Saving Melissa," a story told in the first person by just such a woman. And the answer is research and observation, the latter of which is of course just another kind of research. I think writers need to be empathetic, to understand where a character is coming from and what pressures he or she is feeling, and if I allow myself to do that I think I can make a character convincing on the page. Even if he's a Republican.

MA     You won the GSU Review Prize for a short story that is not in this collection, titled "Nanking Mansion." Is that story part of something larger?

CG     That story was the first thing I wrote after I finished In an Uncharted Country. It was a lot of fun to write because I set out to break a "rule" by cramming a lot of characters on the "stage" at one time. And now it's the opening story of a novel in stories that is completed and in the hands of my agent. The book is called What the Zhang Boys Know and is set in a condominium building in Washington, DC. The Zhang Boys, Wesley and Simon, tie the book's stories together as they search for their mother, who has died, at the same time that their father, a Chinese immigrant, is looking for a new wife. Several of the other stories in the book have appeared in magazines, and I'm hopeful that my agent will find a great publisher for it.

MA     You write about the Shenandoah Valley, but you grew up elsewhere and have traveled extensively. What inspired you write about Virginia?

CG     Looking outside my window. Seriously, I have lived in a lot of places, including a few stints overseas, but when I turned to writing short stories, I had just moved to the Shenandoah Valley. It came very naturally, to observe the places and people I was seeing for the first time. Maybe seeing things that people who have lived here a long time do not.

MA     Yes, fresh eyes can give one a great perspective. You were a Peace Corps Volunteer, too. Where were you assigned, and how did that inform your writing?

CG     Right after college I went to South Korea with the Peace Corps to teach English. It was an amazing experience that has impacted me deeply in several ways. It gave me an international outlook, which pushed me in the direction of international jobs and travel. But it also taught me about poverty and international development, and so it shaped my understanding of how the world works, and how interconnected we all are. So, just about everything I write reflects that experience in some way. Even when I'm writing a book set in rural Virginia, it's no surprise that there are international elements that creep in—antiques acquired on an Asian trip, an adoption in China, a Vietnam vet. In other work that I've done—the novel in stories I mentioned and the novel I've just finished—this is even more apparent.

MA     You are editing a brand new literary journal that is just about to launch its first issue. Could you fill us in on how that came about and provide a link?

CG     I used to read slush for Shenandoah, and although it was a lot of work, I enjoyed the connection it gave me to others in the publishing world. So I've wanted to be involved in another magazine for some time. It occurred to me about a year ago, as I was preparing In an Uncharted Country for publication by Press 53, that in a changing publishing world a small press was really a perfect home for a magazine outside the university. Not long after that I pitched the idea to Kevin Watson at Press 53. He said he'd had the same thought, and so we ran with it. We came up with the name Prime Number Magazine (53 is a prime number) and brought on Valerie Nieman, who has also been published by Press 53, as poetry editor. We're at www.primenumbermagazine.com. The debut issue will be live July 19, and then we'll open our submission manager to everyone!

MA     Aside from Shenandoah, what are some of your favorite literary magazines both as a reader and a writer? Did you use any of them as a model in designing Prime Number?

CG     Well, online there's Eclectica, of course, which I like for its variety and ease of navigation. I also like FRiGG, which has a very different look, and Blackbird. There are so many great magazines. In the print world, I'm a fan of Ploughshares, Southern Review, New England Review, A Public Space, Subtropics, Agni. Again, there are so many that I enjoy. I think one of the most important things a writer can do—people must get tired of hearing it, but it's true—is to subscribe to literary magazines, and I subscribe to all of those and more. The world of publication is changing, and the move online is inexorable, but I like the artifact, I still like holding the magazine in my hands and seeing it on my shelf. That's why, in planning Prime Number, we decided we wanted a print annual, even though mostly we'll be online. As far as other design features go, we didn't use a model—we've started fresh.

MA     Besides the magazine, what are you working on now?

CG     I've recently finished the manuscript of a novel that tries to bring my Asian experience home to where I live now. It's partly about the immigrant experience and very much about bridging cultural gaps.

MA     Bridging cultural gaps. I like that. Did you end up using any unusual point-of-view characters or magical realist elements in this novel, as you did in your collection?

CG     I don't know that I want to give too much away, but I do have alternating points of view in the novel, including that of a Korean woman who is new to America.

MA     And my final question: why tell stories?

CG     I love telling stories because I think the process of telling helps me to see more clearly. Or, put another way, it helps me to understand what it is that I think and believe. Which is why it is always interesting to find out what other people see in the stories, to find out whether what I think I believe is what I actually said and what's actually important to me. Because what's real and true in the stories is what shines through.


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