Clifford Garstang

Clifford Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003. His work appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Ledge, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Potomac Review and elsewhere. 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.

Short Story Collections

In An Uncharted Country
(Press 53, 2009)

reviewed by Diane Becker

Interview with Clifford Garstang

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

CG: Most of the stories were written in about a two-year period just after I finished my MFA in 2003. I began them as a way to "recover" from the writing of my novel, which was also my thesis, and which now - at least for the time being - resides in a drawer. But the last story in the book was written a couple of years later when I realized that I wanted the book feel more complete.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

CG: Not at first. There was an incident I needed to write about, something that had been very disturbing, and so I worked it into a story. That process made me realize how fertile the landscape around me was, which inspired another story, and those characters suggested another, and they just kept piling up. The characters kept reoccurring, playing cameo roles in the new stories, and that's when I realized I was working on a collection.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

CG: The stories in the book are all set in an around the same small town, and so I gathered all of the stories I'd written about the town. There are actually a few others I've written or started that could have fit, but I just don't feel that those stories were ready - I haven't even submitted those to magazines, yet, for example. So the choice to leave them out wasn't that hard. The order, on the other hand, was tricky. As I mentioned, the stories are linked - by overlapping characters, place, and theme - and while I wouldn't call the book a novel in stories, there is a trajectory that is evident, to me at any rate. Also, there are three stories that form a triptych involving three generations of a single family, and to a certain extent they form the backbone of the book. So I placed them at the beginning, the middle, and the end. The rest seemed to fall into place around that structure.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

CG: "Story" is a big concept and I have an expansive definition - it's a narrative about something that happened over time. With one major exception, the stories in this collection are somewhat traditional in their form and in the arc that they follow: characters in conflict, something happens, people change. In some stories the time frame is quite short, but in others - I'm thinking of one story in particular - it covers many years. But apart from this book, I also write flash fiction, and the main element I'm looking for in a very short piece so that it still qualifies as "story" is movement over time.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

CG: Yes and no. I mean, I do imagine that someone is going to be reading the stories, otherwise there doesn't seem much point in telling them. And as for who that reader is, I'd say it's someone very much like me, I think. I write the kind of stories that I like to read. I'm blown away by some "post-modern" writers, but I don't always enjoy reading their work. Since I'm more traditional in my reading, I tend to be more traditional in my writing, as well. Beyond my own sensibilities, though, I'm not thinking of any other reader. I do like to think of an implied auditor within the context of the story, though - the person to whom the narrator is telling the story - but that's very different.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

CG: May I ask two? First, have you joined the sun cult yet? And, second, did you decipher the code?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

CG: People are buying the book? Seriously, it seems kind of unreal. What really knocks me out, of course, is that people are reading it. When people make a comment about one of the stories or the characters, I'm pretty much stunned.

TSR: What are you working on now?

CG: I have a completed novel in stories that my agent is shopping to publishers. I'm really very fond of that book and am optimistic for it, although it's not likely to appeal to the big trade publishers. It's about a Chinese American family and their condo neighbors in Washington DC, but it also includes stories set partially in China and France.

But currently I'm working on a novel set in Virginia involving a young American and his Korean wife.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

CG: Nothing Like An Ocean by Jim Tomlinson, Tunnelling to the Centre of the Earth by Kevin Wilson and Women Up On Blocks by Mary Akers.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>

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