1/10/2015—INTERVIEW WITH CLIFFORD GARSTANG, AUTHOR OF IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY AND WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW
I discovered Clifford Garstang through his excellent blog “Perpetual Folly.” I was looking for information for a SheWrites.com blog post I was writing about literary magazines, and Garstang had the information right there when I needed it. So I started reading his blog and realized that his writing is both engaging and provocative. His collection of short stories, In an Uncharted Country, won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award and the IPPY Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction–Mid-Atlantic 2010. His novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, won the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction. Most recently, Garstang served as curator and editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, published in 2014. He is also editor of Prime Number Magazine.
On February 1, Garstang will be our guest blogger on Late Last Night Books. Then on February 10, I’ll offer a review of What the Zhang Boys Know. Today, in an interview, the author shares his ideas on various aspects of reading and writing.
SW: You’ve had lots of success with writing traditional short stories. How do stories in a novel-in-stories differ from traditional stand-alone short stories?
CG: In the most important way, they don’t differ at all. That is, for me, the stories need to stand on their own even in a novel-in-stories. Ideally, the reader approaching a story shouldn’t need to know anything about the other stories in the book in order to appreciate the work. So, one could argue that there is no difference at all. And yet, the obvious difference is that when seen in the context of its neighboring stories, a novel-in-stories story should be enlarged. It is part of a larger picture and some of its elements that may not seem pertinent do take on significance. Tropes and themes emerge. A reader may not see that until she’s read the whole book.
SW: Which are harder to write? Do you approach writing stories for a novel-in-stories differently?
CG: There are trade-offs. With a single story, you have to invent new characters, setting, and theme every time. With a novel-in-stories, you may be working with repeating characters, so you’re not recreating them for each story. You may have a common setting, as I do in Zhang Boys, and a common theme. On the other hand, as in a novel, the writer has to keep a lot in mind with each story. What happened in the last story that affects this one? Where is this character right now? Does the chronology make sense? As far as my approach to the writing goes, that was very different. With my first book, I wrote a story, polished it, and started submitting it to magazines before I moved on to the next story. With Zhang Boys, I outlined the whole book in terms of what stories I wanted it to include so that the overall narrative arc was covered, and then I did a draft of the whole book before I began the process of polishing and publishing individual stories. The exception to that was the very first story in the book, which served as something of a blueprint for the collection. I needed to get that one right before I could move on, so that one was done, more or less, before I jumped into the others.
SW: In the past five years, two novels-in-stories (Olive Kitteridge in 2009 and A Visit From the Goon Squad in 2011) received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Do these awards bode well for the popularity and strength of novels-in-stories in the 21st century?
CG: Some would argue that Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin also is a novel in stories, and that won the National Book Award in 2009. It certainly contains disparate narrative threads that ultimately come together. So I suppose, yes, given these successes, the form will be popular, at least for a while. But it’s always been more popular than most readers realize, I think. Olive Kitteridge, for example, was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, and there are other recent books that have roots in James Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published in 1914. Personally, I think it’s a fascinating form and more versatile than either the story collection or the novel.
SW: What type of fiction do you read mostly? What are some specific titles that are your favorites?
CG: I read mostly literary fiction because I like to be challenged. There are so many books out there, and if a book doesn’t make me think then it isn’t worth my time. Having said that, my tastes are eclectic. One of my favorite books is one I mentioned earlier, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and I also liked his recent novel, Transatlantic, very much. Tim O’Brien’s work inspires me, too, and his Going After Cacciato is stunning. Louise Erdrich’s work is pretty mind-blowing. I’m thinking of her most recent, The Round House, but all of her books are great. I’m a big Barbara Kingsolver fan—it was a thrill to meet her recently—and I really liked The Lacuna. And speaking of Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge, she was a teacher of mine and her recent novel, The Burgess Boys, is also terrific. Going back in time a little for a title that people might not be so familiar with, an excellent forgotten novel is Raintree County by Ross Lockeridge Jr. It’s kind of like Ulysses but set in rural Indiana. I could go on and on.
SW: How do you select which fiction books to read?
CG: I have a lot of writer friends and I do try to keep up with their publications. Last year I was a judge for a published novel competition, so that dictated my reading for a few months. And then if one of my favorite writers has a new book, I’ll pick that up and read it as soon as I can. But the truth is I’m an impulse book buyer. I love to browse in bookstores and I’ll get something that looks interesting or that a bookseller recommends. I rarely look at book reviews until after I’ve read the book, so that’s not a big source for me, but I do read book blogs and learn about good reads that way!
SW: The characters in What the Zhang Boys Know are a diverse group. Which one is your favorite?
CG: That’s hard to say. Like many readers, I’m fond of the Zhang boys themselves. But I like Claudia a lot. She’s dealt with some hard times and has stepped back from the edge, which isn’t easy to do. I also like Nathan, the novelist. He’s kind of despicable, but that’s what makes him interesting to me.
SW: You’ve said that a favorite theme of yours is the outsider trying to find a place where he or she fits in. Why does this theme resonate with you?
CG: That was especially true for the stories in my first collection, written when I was a newcomer to my rural Virginia community. But in a way, that’s the story of my life, so it’s probably always going to be meaningful to me. And most people are outsiders in one form or another, so I think it’s a theme that appeals to everyone.
SW: As a reader, what makes a story memorable for you?
CG: Freshness. So many stories are about the same old thing—someone’s dying of cancer or a husband is cheating on his wife. We’ve read these stories a million times. But set that story in a fresh context, then it becomes interesting. Tell me a completely new story, and that’s memorable.
SW: How did you choose What the Zhang Boys Know as the title for this book? How important do you think the right title is to a novel’s success?
CG: That title is a truncated version of the book’s pivotal story, “What the Zhang Boys Know about Life on Planet Earth.” My working title for the book was “Nanking Mansion,” which is the title of the book’s opening story and the name of the condominium building where the book is set. After the book was finished and I needed to get serious about a title, I considered a few other titles of stories within the collection as possibilities. But I settled on What the Zhang Boys Know for several reasons. The boys really tie the stories together—they appear in every story, they visit every apartment and the basement and the alley behind the building. They know things about the residents that even the residents don’t know, although they’re maybe too young to process that information. But learning how to deal with loss is one important theme of the book, and that’s paramount for the boys.
SW: What are your favorite topics to read about and write about?
CG: I think I most enjoy reading and writing about international experiences. Not the tourist experience, but about what happens to people who actually live in other countries—both expatriates and locals. That’s what was behind the anthology that came out recently—Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. I had the idea of pulling together stories by a lot of people set in different countries. The stories that appealed to me most were by writers who have spent a lot of time overseas, living and working. They really know the territory they’re writing about. Ultimately, that comes through in the work, and I love it. The novel I’ve recently finished is partially set overseas, and so is the one I’m working on now.
SW: The settings of What the Zhang Boys Know, In an Uncharted Country, and Everywhere Stories are all different. What do you think is the significance of setting?
CG: Except in some more experimental works, I think setting is crucial. And it is part of the reason I read fiction. I want to be transported, not only to whatever the story is but also to the place. So I hope in Uncharted Country the reader gets a sense of what it’s like to live in a small town. It’s a big part of what that book is about. With Zhang Boys, the setting is also part of the point of the book. DC is a multicultural city and so is the building where the Zhang family lives. The proximity in which very different people live is important to understanding the conflicts that arise at the cultural level, an issue that I explore in the book.
SW: What was the most important thing you learned from serving in the Peace Corps in South Korea? What, if anything, do you bring to your writing from this experience?
CG: Being in the Peace Corps changed my life in countless ways. I grew up in small cities in Indiana and Illinois, and the furthest I’d been from home was when I went to college in Chicago. And then suddenly I’m on the other side of the planet, among people who neither look like me nor understand me. Everything was new—the food, the lifestyle, language, religion—and my eyes were opened. At the time, South Korea was still a very poor country, and that kind of poverty was also new to me. I was there to help the people, in theory, but I was living among them and they helped me much more. So the most important thing I learned, I think, is empathy. And that, it turns out, is probably the most important thing I bring to writing from the experience. How can you write about people if you don’t empathize with them? It’s absolutely essential for a writer to be able to put himself in the shoes of his characters. But the experience also made me interested in a wide variety of cultures and people and stories, so that expanded the subject matter I write about. And that’s vitally important to my work as well.