By Daniel Ford
Author Clifford Garstang's day jobs might be more interesting than his excellent prose. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and worked as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Why wouldn’t you try your hand at writing after all that?
The best part of Garstang’s writing career is that he’s earned high praise and impressive literary awards for his personal and moving stories published by a small publishing company. It proves that quality fiction always wins out no matter the publisher’s size.
Garstang talked to me recently about his early writing career, why he loves writing short stories, and what inspired his award-winning collection What the Zhang Boys Know.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?
Clifford Garstang: I read a lot as a kid, and so, yes, I did grow up wanting to become a writer. However, adventure, work, and a career intervened, and I didn’t do anything to pursue my dream until quite a bit later.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
CG: Hermann Hesse was the first writer who struck a deep chord with me. Others were Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Heller. But when I actually started writing, the people I was reading were Russell Banks, Tim O’Brien, Grace Paley, Robert Stone, Elizabeth Strout.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
CG: My routine is pretty standard. I write every morning and sometimes also in the afternoon, depending on what else is going on in my life. I only listen to music if I’m working in a coffee shop and need to drown out distractions, and then the music is pretty eclectic, as long as it’s only instrumental.
My experience with outlining has varied. Usually with short stories I do not outline, preferring to let the original spark for the story lead me where it will, then going back to shape the material that has resulted. A story that hasn’t worked quite yet is one that I did outline, and I think the problem with that one is that I need to free it from the outline’s constraints. On the other hand, with novels I do feel the need to outline, although not with a great deal of detail. I’ve needed to use the broad-brush outline as a guide, but not as a map from which I won’t stray.
DF: How did you develop your voice? Are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?
CG: I think voice comes most naturally to me during the rough-draft phase, although of course it will be refined during editing. But the early stages for me are very much like going into a trance and letting the voice take over. This is especially true for me in the short story because I’m only going to be with that character for a relatively short period of time, so my stories do tend to be more voice-driven.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
CG: I love the opportunity to visit new characters and new situations often. It’s also rewarding to linger with a character in a novel, but inhabiting diverse psyches can be thrilling, for both writer and reader. In both of my collections I’ve enjoyed portraying this diversity—in gender, race, sexual orientation, occupation, location. Beyond that, the crystalline form of the story is also invigorating, distilling an idea or a moment to its essence.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to explore in your award-winning short story collections?
CG: I generally don’t like to talk about theme, preferring to let readers discover them (just as I did in the process of writing), but in my first collection, In an Uncharted Country, it seems to me that I was compelled to write about people struggling to find a place for themselves, in their families, in their relationships, in their communities. And in the second book, What the Zhang Boys Know, the stories are looking at how a diverse range of people cope with loss, although I’d like to think the book is taking on a lot more than just that.
DF: Speaking of awards, your collection What the Zhang Boys Know won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction in 2013. What was that experience like and what inspired the work?
CG: The work was inspired by several things. The stories in that book, which I think of as a novel in stories, are set in a condo building on the edge of Washington D.C.’s Chinatown not unlike a building that I used to live in, and I was struck by the building’s diverse population as a microcosm of D.C. itself. At the time, I’d been traveling to China for my job and happened to witness a memorial ceremony in Nanjing for the victims of the Nanking Massacre, so that was part of my thinking as well, and the reason for my choice of the primary protagonist. And a friend of mine had recently been killed in an automobile accident on the Washington Beltway, leaving a wife and two children, so there was that, too, behind the book.
As for the experience of winning the Library of Virginia Award, I was thrilled to the point of disbelief. When I learned who the other finalists were (The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers and The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman) and read the books, I convinced myself that I had no chance to win. These are terrific writers and books and I found it hard to see my book—a story collection from a very small press—in their company. But when I did win, I certainly felt a huge confidence boost and the encouragement to keep writing in the face of a pretty harsh industry.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—ends up in your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
CG: I like to think that all my characters are an amalgam: a little bit real and a lot of my imagination. Or maybe a pearl is a better analogy. They start with a piece of gritty reality, but the character grows around that grain of sand. One of my early writing teachers recommends to his students An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski, the great Russian actor and director. A lesson that I’ve taken from that book is that a writer, like an actor, can draw on his own experiences and emotions in order to understand what a character is feeling in a given situation and how he’ll react. In the end, writing a character is not very different from playing the part of that character. That’s the theory, anyway.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
CG: Be patient. Writing isn’t a race and neither is publishing. Make your work the best it can be and all the rest will follow. And related to patience is perseverance. Don’t give up!
DF: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
CG: I currently have a family of starlings living in the vent above my bathroom and don’t have the heart to evict them.
To learn more about Clifford Garstang, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @cliffgarstang. Look for his next collection, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, this fall.