December 07, 2012
Clifford Garstang’s newest book, the novel-in-stories What the Zhang Boys Know (released this October by Press 53), is published by a small press, but it is making a big splash. Patrick Somerville says it is the Winesberg, Ohio of the 21st century, comparing it to the grand-daddy of all contemporary short story cycles. Katherine Weber likens it to Susan Minot’s Monkeys, Rand Cooper’s The Last Go, and David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan. John Casey calls it a “wonderful and haunting book.” For me, it’s a brilliantly affecting and authentic evocation of the grief, confusion, and magical thinking of childhood. It’s also a microcosm of America in a striving-to-become-gentrified building in our country’s capital.
Garstang is also the author of In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), the editor of Prime Number Magazine, and the author of the popular literary blog, Perpetual Folly. Garstang’s literary success—he has published two books and dozens of stories since he earned his MFA in 2003—shows that’s it’s never too late to become a serious writer. I met him for the first time when I had just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a fixture of the vibrant literary community. He lives west of town, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. We conducted this interview through e-mail, from Paris (where I am spending a sabbatical year) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (where he was spending a residency).
We talked about his book’s hybrid form, how a book can represent the whole world, writing as a second career, why writers should blog . . . and pugs.
What’s a novel-in-stories?
For me, it’s a collection of stand-alone short stories that, as a whole, presents a unified narrative.
The stories in Zhang Boys were published in literary journals. When did you know they were going to be something more?
From the very beginning. I first imagined the setting—the condo building in DC—and then populated it, focusing on the Zhang family but immediately branching out to the building’s other residents.
The diversity of the book is impressive: from preschool to elderly, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, Asian, working class, professional, sexually deviant, sexually timid, married, single, unluckily fertile, unluckily infertile, bohemian, yuppie, jet-setting rich, and almost-starving poor. Did you plot out the book to be so inclusive, or did this diversity happen more spontaneously and organically?
The diversity is no accident, but your catalog of the varieties represented in the book surprises (and impresses) even me! One of the reasons for the urban environment of the book and for choosing a condo building in the center of the city as opposed to one of DC’s more racially homogeneous neighborhoods was to find that realistic microcosm that represents not just America, but the whole world.
In some ways, Zhang Boys is a domestic novel, about two children’s quest to find a new mother. On the other hand, you manage, without compromising the structure of linking all stories to one co-op building in DC, to take us to far-flung locales and cataclysmic world events. Were you trying to strike a balance between public and private?
The books I enjoy reading do tackle larger issues that aren’t exclusively domestic, but in order to be relatable they are, necessarily, particularized. The best literature exists in multiple dimensions and I suppose that’s what I was striving for (intentionally or otherwise).
The book is so much about the setting, as if the setting is an actual character. How much research did you need to do to bring the place alive?
I knew the DC neighborhood well, having lived there. I’ve spent enough time in Shanghai and Nanjing, the two Chinese locales that play a significant role in the book, too. But other aspects of the book required research, such as the medical issues in “The Replacement Wife.” I think most writers enjoy that part of writing. I know I do.
I won’t give away the ending, except to say that I found it deeply satisfying without being too neatly wrapped up, a life-affirming answer to the question of grief, with some possibilities for a sequel. Maybe?
Probably not, but I’ve been pleased to hear a number of readers say they’d like to see a whole book about Jessica Lee, who features in several of the stories.
The book that Zhang Boys reminds me most of is Olive Kitteridge, which is high praise, because it is one of my favorite recent books. I know you studied with Elizabeth Strout, so I wonder how she has influenced your work.
As far as novels-in-stories go, Olive Kitteridge is the modern masterpiece. Strout’s influence on me has been mostly at the sentence level. She taught me to think about sentences in ways I never had before, helping me trim away the unnecessary and ask myself if what I’ve written in every sentence is “true” within the context of the work.
You studied with Strout in your low-residence MFA at Queens University, and I’m interested in hearing about your experience. I did a low-residency MFA myself, and I think they have some benefits over the traditional model.
When the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program began in 2001, it was only the ninth low-residency program in the country. Now there are more than fifty, I think. The experience was excellent. Although I’m a fan of returning to school at any age, and I’m usually enrolled in some kind of class online or in person, it would have been difficult for me to become a full-time student at that point. But because the focus of the program was writing, which is essentially solitary, it made sense to stay home to do it, showing up for the periodic residences that are very similar to writers’ conferences, with their lectures and readings and workshops. We had great faculty and peer writers, so for me it worked really well, way beyond my expectations. The reason I applied was to find a community of writers, which I certainly did. But I also discovered weaknesses in my own writing that might have taken me a very long time to ferret out on my own.
You’re a prodigious blogger, and your site, Perpetual Folly, has become famous for its annual ranking of literary journals, for one thing. I was at a panel at AWP (Association of Writing Programs) in DC, and in front of an audience of hundreds, the editor of Ploughshares started talking about your blog. How did it come to be? Any advice for other writer-bloggers?
I started blogging long before I had a book because I wanted some practice with maintaining an online presence. At first it was pretty wide ranging, but then I started Perpetual Folly, which focuses solely on literature. I believe that the key to blogging is consistency, which for a busy person is the biggest challenge. But I try to post a few times a week and I have a few regular features, such as reviews of each week’s New Yorker stories, that bring readers back frequently.
In the bio at the end of your book, you emphasize your life and work experience, prior to becoming a full-time writer. I found that really refreshing. You served in the Peace Corps in South Korea, practiced international law in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Singapore. You earned your MPA then worked for Harvard Law School in Kazakhstan. Finally, you worked for the World Bank in Washington, DC, focusing on Asia. How has your pre-writing life informed your writing?
I haven’t always been a fiction writer, so there’s a lot more to me than what I’ve published. I’ve lived and traveled outside the United States a lot, and so my work often has either an international theme or setting or takes a global perspective. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is how interconnected everything is—countries, cultures, communities—and so I think that contributes to the point of view I bring to each subject.
When I first met you, I remember someone asking if you were retired and you answered, no, you’re working full time—as a writer. That emphasis on writing as a legitimate full-time career has stuck with and inspired me.
I think writers who want to be taken seriously have to take themselves seriously (though maybe not too seriously). We write when we can, on a schedule that works for us. For me, though, it means arriving at my desk at around 7:30 every morning and staying there throughout the work day.
What’s next? I heard you’re working on several books at once, which doesn’t surprise me, given your indefatiguability. A book set in Kazakstan? Los Angeles, Chicago, Singapore, Boston?
Ha! Several of the above, actually. I’ve finished a novel set partly in Korea and partly in Virginia, and I’m working on a new one set mostly in Singapore. I’m considering resurrecting and rewriting my unpublished MFA thesis novel, set in Thailand and Malaysia. Another project that I work on from time to time is set in many different countries, Kazakhstan included.
When I was listing the diversity of your characters, I missed two of my favorites: the dogs. Their stories add comic and poignant elements, and they can also serve as stand-ins for the two Zhang boys. Anybody reading this book would know you have a dog.
Yes, I have a beautiful chocolate lab named Bhikku who appeared in my previous book as Bosco. The pugs, Chips and Sasha, are very loosely based on my sister’s pugs. But don’t tell them that or they might quit talking to me.