BA: Readers of this blog may not know your works. Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell us where you live?
CG: When I got serious about fiction writing in 2001, I moved from Washington DC out to the Shenandoah Valley. I live near Staunton, Virginia. I began publishing short stories in literary magazines in 2003 shortly after I received my MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, a collection of linked short stories, was published by Press 53 in 2009. My new book, is What the Zhang Boys Know, published on October 1 this year by Press 53.
BA: Before we learn about your latest book, can you tell us the last two exciting places you visited? Why did you pick these destinations?
CG: I love travel, so there’s no shortage of answers to this question. Last year I made two exciting trips. The first was South Korea. I lived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1970s and have been back a number of times, but my 2011 trip was unique because it was something of a Peace Corps reunion at the invitation of the South Korean government. I visited Seoul and also my old duty station, the city of Jeonju. The second trip last year was to Toulouse, France and the nearby village of Auvillar. I was in Auvillar to work on a book and I included Toulouse on the trip because I had never visited that part of France and it’s such a historic city.
BA: I know What the Zhang Boys Know is your second published novel. You call it a novel in stories. Can you tell us what that means?
CG: Some collections of stories are just a bunch of disparate stories that have little to do with each other. Some collections, like my first book, are linked in some ways. Either the stories have overlapping and recurring characters, or they share a setting, or they have a unified theme, or some combination of the three. A novel in stories, though, carries that linkage further. In the case of What the Zhang Boys Know, all the stories are set in the same condominium building and serve in some way—to a greater or lesser extent—to move a single narrative forward. The stories are independent of one another, but they also contribute to the overall story of Zhang Feng-qi, a Chinese immigrant who is looking for a new wife for himself and mother for his sons.
BA: Do you model any of your characters after real people or are they a composite of many different people?
CG: None of the above! For the most part, all of my characters are figments of my imagination. Having said that, I may endow a character with some aspects of real people if it helps to bring that character to life, but mostly I’m doing that subconsciously.
BA: Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer?
CG: When I was a kid, especially in high school, I wanted to be a writer. Oddly enough, I didn’t do much writing then—I just imagined myself as having written. Who knew it was such hard work! I began to prepare myself—or at least that’s what I now tell myself I was doing. I studied philosophy in college and literature in graduate school than then . . . I got sidetracked. I somehow found myself in an international legal career that was completely absorbing and my writing ambition was all but forgotten. Until, that is, I began to be somewhat disillusioned with the practice of law. I started toying with an idea for a novel and that eventually grew into a complete draft. And while I now know that it was pretty terrible, the fact that I had completed a draft gave me the courage to take more concrete steps. I took some classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., just outside of DC. And that was sufficiently encouraging that I moved on to an MFA program and started taking the writing very seriously.
BA: You can help your fellow writers with this question. What are you doing yourself to promote What the Zhang Boys Know?
CG: Because my book is published by a small press, which means that many traditional publicity channels are not available to me, I’m trying to be as creative in the area of book promotion as my natural reticence will allow. I have maintained a blog for many years and I recently merged that with my website (http://cliffordgarstang.com). The blog has a following, and I like to think that I offer some valuable material there in the way of posts.
I also have an extensive social media presence—Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Goodreads, and so on—and I make myself available to readers through these outlets. Similarly, I’m reaching out to book bloggers as well as reviewers in commercial media, both print and online, to widen my reach. I’ve hooked up with a website that reaches out to bookclubs to appeal to their members. And finally I am putting together readings and book signings at some bookstores, but also at other venues, such as libraries and clubs, including the alumni clubs of my university.
BA: Do you have another book in the works?
CG: Yes. I’ve completed a novel that is set partly in Virginia and partly in South Korea. I am currently in search of an agent and publisher for that book. In the meantime I’m at work on a novel set in Singapore (where I used to live).
BA: What are the last three books you read and why did you choose them?
CG: I read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, which is set in Haiti, because I’ve always enjoyed his work but also because I was interested in a book that addresses with some subtlety the sensitive political issues in an underdeveloped country. I also read Susan Woodring’s Goliath, a novel book about a small town in North Carolina that is entirely dependent on a furniture factory on its last legs. I read that because Susan was an MFA program classmate of mine and I wanted to interview her on my blog. And in the area of non-fiction I read E.J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart for a book club, but also because I’m struggling to understand the great political divide in our country.
BA: What haven’t I covered that you’d like to add?
CG: I'd like to add how much fun this book was to write. Not only did the setting and theme allow me to explore several subjects that were important to me, but also the format—the novel in stories—allowed me to give voice to a wide variety of characters. There is the family at the heart of the book, but also their many neighbors: the painter, the sculptor, the teacher, the lawyer, the copywriter, the novelist, and so on. It's a bit like play-acting when we were kids. You sit down at the keyboard each day and you ask yourself, "Okay, self, who do you want to be today," and then you make it happen. It's magical.
Cliff, thank you for your candor and for your two great books.