Cameron Conaway sits down with Clifford Garstang to discuss life, law, inspiration, and now, writing.
Clifford Garstang served as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, and after earning an MA in English and a JD from Indiana University he practiced law in Chicago, L.A., and Singapore with one of the largest U.S. law firms. He then earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam. Now, Clifford Garstang is a writer. And a damn good one. His linked collection of short stories, In an Uncharted Country, won the IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction-Mid-Atlantic. The prestigious Mid-American Review said, “Read Garstang for his handle on craft, his ability to imply.” Though his next novel-in-stories, What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53), will be released September 1, he agreed to answer a few questions for us here at the Good Men Project.
Peace Corps, Harvard, World Bank, international experience. Your resume represents the pinnacle of law. When did you know it was time to be a writer and was it hard to pull out of the field in which you’ve achieved so much?
I had always wanted to write. That was my plan in college and in my first graduate school program (English). My Peace Corps service got me headed in a different direction, however, and that led me to international law, which opened so many doors for me. But in 2000, as the new millennium approached and I had been doing law for almost 20 years—occasionally tinkering with a novel manuscript—I realized that it was time to get serious about writing, that thing I had set out to do all those years before. When I left the World Bank in 2001, I didn’t pull out completely, though. For several years I was a frequent consultant for the Bank, which helped me make the transition. Still, I think everyone else thought it was harder to make the break than I did.
Of all the reviews for your work, the one from the Mid-American Review stands out to me. Your “ability to imply.” I couldn’t help but think of that skill coming from your previous work in international law. John Grisham’s background in law is made obvious in the genre he works in, but you’re work is more literary and often has the search for identity at its core. Can you tell us what ways your law studies have directly or indirectly influenced you as a writer?
Actually, legal writing can get in the way of good fiction. Not only is it usually very dry, it is often repetitive in order to be certain that the point is made. But with fiction, especially literary work, we can trust the reader to get the point without hitting her over the head with it. So I would say I’ve had to work hard to dial back my legal writing overkill tendencies and let the work “imply” more than the actual words on the page. Having said that, legal argumentation is all about logic, a subject that has always been a passion of mine, and in some ways fiction is also about assembling a logical argument, making sure the reader has available all of the evidence needed to reach the conclusion you want her to reach. I think a lawyer is also good at asking questions, and that’s another skill that a fiction writer needs to have. And by that I mean asking your characters what they want and why they want it, or asking yourself the “what if” questions. All of that is part of building the story’s case.
Henry David Thoreau’s quote comes to mind when I think of your travels: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Aside from traveling extensively, you’ve also lived for years at a time in foreign countries. What are some tangible ways that your world travels inhabit your life and current career as a writer?
You mean besides all the stuff in my house that I’ve picked up on my overseas postings? First, I have to say that that’s a favorite Thoreau quotation, and while I might wish that I’d spent those 20 years honing my fiction craft and getting published when I was younger, I certainly had a challenging and fulfilling international career that has provided me with more material for my fiction than I’ll ever be able use. Even my first book, which is set in rural Virginia and has only a few obvious international accents to it, is influenced by the feeling that I’ve always had, thanks to my travels, of being a stranger in a strange land. That’s where the search for identity comes from, I think. But I also think it gives me the kind of empathy that a writer needs in order to understand people who are different from himself, and it certainly gives me the courage to explore diverse settings, perspectives, and cultures in my work.
Lastly, from who or where do you draw your own inspiration as a man? And what makes a man “good” in your mind?
Let me answer the second part of that question first. It may sound ironic coming from a fiction writer, but the one character trait I value above all others is honesty, so a “good” man, in my view, is one who tells the Truth. Of course, Truth isn’t just about facts, and that’s why fiction can also be True as long as it is emotionally true. The same applies to people. So my inspiration as a man comes from the people brave enough to speak or write the Truth, even in the face of political or religious distortions. That’s the kind of man I want to be.
Thanks for taking some time out for us here, Clifford. Where can our readers connect with you and stay informed about your forthcoming works?
It’s been a pleasure! And I’ve just launched a new website, so that’s probably the best place to keep track of what’s happening: http://cliffordgarstang.com
Photo — ButterflySha/Flickr