Writer Clifford Garstang is helping me wrap up the week. He’s here to chat about his literary fiction short story collection, House of the Ancients and Other Stories
Clifford Garstang is the author of the story collection House of the Ancients and Other Stories, as well as two other story collections, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, and a novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley. He is also the editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet as well as the co-founder and former editor of Prime Number Magazine. He has won both the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction and the Indiana Authors Emerging Author Award. A former international lawyer, he now lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Please tell us about your current release.
House of the Ancients is collection of stories that is both eclectic and a little quirky. The stories are set all over the place—the US, Mexico, Asia, Europe—and touch on a variety of themes, some dark, some humorous, some mysterious. One thing they have in common, though, is characters, mostly men, who behave badly.
What inspired you to write this book?
I love short stories. While I’ve turned to writing novels in recent years, I began writing stories during my MFA program and I continue to love the form for its focus and concision. The stories in this collection were written over a ten year span of time, but when I looked at them together I thought they fit together nicely. Individual stories have their own inspirations, of course. I lived in Central Asia for a year, so some of the stories are based on that experience. I lived and worked in East Asia for a very long time, so there was more inspiration there. And I’ve traveled in Mexico and Europe a fair amount, so some of the stories came from there. Others are inspired by my roots in the Midwest or living in the Shenandoah Valley for the past twenty years. But generally I’m interested in surprising situations and images, and just about all of the stories have their origin in something I observed, wherever it was.
For a sample of the stories: One of the shortest stories in the book—set in Mongolia–is available on my blog: The Learned Lama.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’ve just finished the edits on a novel that’s coming out in 2021. It’s about a young man who is trying to discover the truth about a family mystery, and the trail takes him on a journey around the world. The novel I’m currently working on is a blended contemporary and historical story set in Southeast Asia. It’s exciting to write, so I hope it will be exciting to read.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Probably not until my first short story was published. I used to practice law and being a lawyer was my identity for a very long time. It was very hard to tell people I was a writer until I had something to show for it.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I do write full time. I quit my “day job” a long time in order to dedicate myself to writing, so I now treat it as my job. I have a pleasant writing space in my house, so my commute is up the stairs to the office in the morning and I’m usually at my desk until lunchtime. I continue working in the afternoon, although that usually involves the more mundane side of the job—reading, promoting, developing contacts, and so on. That usually fills the rest of the day.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I think a lot of writers do this, but when I’m working on a novel I spend some time finding images—it used to be in magazines but now it’s on the Internet—of people who look like my characters. I keep those pictures in a file on my computer and I can pull them up to help me see them when I’m writing about them. Another quirk, one that applies when I’m writing short stories, is that I often don’t know what they’re about when I start. The theme only emerges when I’m pretty far along, or even finished with the first draft, at which point I can revise the piece with the theme in mind. That’s actually something I advise students to do, because if you start with a theme, the story may feel forced and artificial.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A vampire. Seriously, for some reason I had a thing about Dracula when I was a kid. Ran around wearing a cape with a red lining, the whole bit. In high school I told people I wanted to be President of the United States, although I don’t think I honestly ever did want that, and it’s definitely not a job I would want now. At some point before college I knew I wanted to be a writer. It just took a couple of decades of practicing law for me to get there.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I would like readers to know I appreciate them! There are few opportunities to interact with readers, so it may seem like writers don’t even think of them, but it’s the opposite. It amazes me to think that there are people out there who are reading stories and novels I wrote. So, thank you! And also, thanks to you for this wonderful blog!
Thanks for being here today!