Travel, Lived Experience, and the Craft of Fiction: A Conversation with Clifford Garstang, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Clifford Garstang grew up in the Midwest and received a BA from Northwestern University. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea, he earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with Sidley Austin, one of the largest law firms in the United States. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development 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 concentrated on China, Indonesia, Korea, and Vietnam.

After leaving the World Bank, Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. His award-winning collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, was published by Press 53 of Winston-Salem, NC, in 2009. Press 53 also published his second book, What the Zhang Boys Know, a novel in stories that won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. Garstang’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary ReviewBlackbirdVirginia Quarterly ReviewShenandoahCream City ReviewTampa ReviewLos Angeles Review, The Hopkins 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 has had a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and scholarships to Sewanee, Indiana University Writers’ Conference, Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, and the Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference, as well as residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. In 2015, Garstang received the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Emerging Authors Award from the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation.

Garstang has also edited an anthology series for Press 53. Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet Volume I is a collection of 20 stories by 20 authors set in 20 countries. Volume II, with 20 more stories, came out in 2016. The third volume was published in October 2018.

Garstang’s first novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, set in South Korea and Virginia, was published by Braddock Avenue Books in May 2019. Press 53 brought out his third story collection, House of the Ancients and Other Stories in 2020. His second novel, Oliver’s Travels, will be published by Regal House Publishing in the spring of 2021.

He is the co-founder and former Editor of Prime Number Magazine and currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where he serves on the Augusta County Electoral Board, the Board of Trustees of the American Shakespeare Center, and the Board of Trustees of the Frontier Culture Museum.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, Oliver’s Travels, was recently launched by Regal House Publishing.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself? 

Clifford Garstang: First, the book’s main character, Ollie, is, I think, relatable on several levels, so readers might want to think about what they have in common with him. For example, he’s a seeker, and as a young man he needs guidance. He looks to various people for instruction, including his older brother, his college philosophy professor, and a fiction writer he approaches for help with his writing. The idea of a mentor or spiritual guide is one that I find appealing in fiction, but also in real life. Second, Ollie is obsessed with the source of knowledge and establishing what is true. As a lawyer, always focused on evidence-based argument, this obsession resonates with me, and it seems particularly meaningful right now with the viral availability of mis- and dis-information. We should all be questioning what we read and hear and ask: Is this true? And third, Ollie’s not perfect. While the book is a hero’s journey of a sort, Ollie is a flawed hero. Some readers might not like everything about Ollie, but I hope they understand where he’s coming from.

KMD:  As a writer myself, I admire your surprising, charged transitions between scenes and sections.  This particular excerpt of Oliver’s Travels makes expert use of cinematic jump cuts to heighten the mystery of the narrative and create productive tension.  From a craft standpoint, what are the advantages of leaving some things unsaid in the story you’re telling? 

CG: The main advantage, I think, is in pacing. A story is generally accessible to the reader in its scenes, which is certainly true in filmed stories but also applicable in literature. Sometimes the connective tissue between scenes can be beautifully done, and may serve to slow the action intentionally, but readers can be impatient to move on to what happens next—the next scene. Writers can trust readers, given enough clues, to fill in the blanks. Because this book actually began conceptually as a novel-in-flash, these scenes came naturally to me in place of a more corpulent narrative.

KMD: A former Peace Corps volunteer & international lawyer, you have lived all over the world.  What has travel opened up within your creative practice? 

CG: As Professor Russell says to Ollie in this excerpt, travel is the key to the locked door of consciousness. When I was Ollie’s age, no one told me that; it was something I discovered on my own. For me, joining the Peace Corps right after college was a revelation, and way more than I bargained for. The experience of being dropped into another culture, with its own language, food, and customs, was eye-opening, to say the least. And it’s not just in my creative practice—over the course of my legal career, spending considerable periods outside the United States has had an impact on every aspect of my life. In terms of writing and creativity, though, I’d say I’m more aware of other cultures and other ways of doing things, I’m attuned to nuances in language and the need to be both precise and concise in order to be understood, and, perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned how my culture is perceived by others. We’re going through this kind of awakening within our own country now and the disparate cultures that make up our American Culture, but I believe many Americans who have lived abroad have a head start.

KMD:  What advice do you have for emerging writers who struggle to break out of purely autobiographical modes of writing fiction? 

CG: What a great question that is! First, it’s important to recognize that there is value in calling upon lived experience when creating a work of fiction. There’s certainly nothing wrong with incorporating incidents and details from one’s own life in the writing, even when the story isn’t strictly autobiographical; those things are likely to convey to the reader that the writer is credible and authentic. The danger, however, is that sometimes autobiographical fiction falls flat because the writer fails to really imagine fully formed characters, instead relying on the incomplete versions of those characters that live in memory. With my first attempt at a novel, I begin with a first-person narrator who resembled me. As a result, he was one-dimensional because I felt constrained by my own reality. In a later rewrite, I changed the point-of-view to third person, which allowed me the freedom to imagine this character as someone other than myself, and that’s something I recommend to writers who are trapped in auto-fiction and unsatisfied with the result. After that, I enjoyed writing short stories in third person, creating protagonists who were clearly not me, or even first-person stories about people who also were clearly not me—women, people of other races and professions, and so on—so that my imagination had free rein to invent. It’s ironic that when we allow our imaginations to soar, we can create characters who feel more real than characters based on real people simply because we can know what these fictional characters are thinking since we are planting those thoughts in their heads, we can invent backstories that underlie their actions, and make them rounder and more multi-dimensional than their real-life counterparts.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements a fiction writer, you are well-known for your generosity and literary citizenship.  Your ranking of literary journals offers emerging writers a road map to publication and career development.  Could you say more about the importance of giving back to the larger arts community, and helping other writers navigate the literary landscape? 

CG: When I was beginning my transition from my legal career to writing, I was advised to enroll in an MFA program, not because I needed the teaching credential it provided but because it would give me a writing community to be a part of. Now, there are other ways to find a writing community, and mine certainly has expanded over the years beyond my MFA cohort, but I am convinced that a community is essential for writers. It’s one reason I still attend conferences and go to residencies when I can, because the interaction with other writers is, I believe, beneficial. Just as citizenship in a nation requires participation—voting, paying taxes, obeying laws, volunteering for causes you believe in—literary citizenship also requires participation, in my opinion. That participation can take many forms, but I’m surprised that more writers don’t do book reviews, for example. For several years, I’ve felt an obligation to seek out works of fiction published by small presses (mostly—occasionally I review books from bigger presses) and review them for various literary magazines or review publications. That takes time, and I can’t do it for every book I read, but I can certainly take a few minutes when I finish reading a book to jot down my impressions on Goodreads or Amazon. And, not that there needs to be a quid pro quo, but the good literary deeds you do today may be repaid tomorrow.

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can readers look forward to? 

CG: I actually finished Oliver’s Travels several years ago, and I’ve been working on a new novel since then. I think I might finish it later this year, but then will begin the process of looking for an agent and publisher. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s a blended historical and contemporary novel set primarily in Asia, and it touches on some themes that I think will resonate with readers—post-colonial conflict, terrorism, and unequal power dynamics generally.

An Excerpt from Oliver’s Travels, Courtesy of Regal House Publishing