After Regal House Publishing recently released Cliff Garstang ‘s new novel Oliver’s Travels, I asked him to be a guest author on my blog and sent him some questions about his writing process, including how he comes up with titles, the origins of his characters, literary inspirations, what feeds his writing, how he researches his books, and more.
Here are his great responses:
How do you come up with book titles?
Titles are hard, but it’s marginally easier for a story collection than it is for a novel because most story collections have titles that are the same as or derived from one of the stories in the collection. Still, that’s a challenge, because which one do you choose? As I assembled my first collection, In an Uncharted Country, my working title was different from what I ended with. But as I began to consider submitting the manuscript to publishers, I gave some thought to what the collection as a whole was really about and concluded that the story “In an Uncharted Country” was more representative of what I was getting at. My second collection, What the Zhang Boys Know, also had a different working title, but in the end I thought the truncated version of the book’s pivotal story made sense because the two young boys in that story are what tie all the stories in the collection together. My first novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, also had a different title almost until the moment it was done. The working title was a little too ambiguous, though, and I thought referring to the shaman of the story would intrigue readers. My new book Oliver’s Travels is an obvious allusion to Gulliver’s Travels and that’s been my title for this book since day one and there was no way I was going to change it.
Who are your literary influences or inspiration?
There are many. I’ve had the good fortune of studying with many great writers in my MFA program and at writers’ conferences. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by Elizabeth Strout, Richard Bausch, Tim O’Brien, Christine Schutt, Russell Banks, and others. But many of the writers I read inspire me also: Colum McCann, Wallace Stegner, Rebekka Makkai, to name just a few. And the writer who long ago inspired me to even think about becoming a writer was Hermann Hesse.
What have people most liked or found most meaningful/funny/creative/ challenging about your book?
It seems that readers find the voice of the main character rather funny. I did intend for him to be clever, and I’m glad that comes through. But other readers have noticed that he’s also manipulative, which for them was a surprising aspect of his character and helped make him feel more real. It’s his quest for answers that seems to be particularly meaningful to readers, however. He doubts his own memory of past events and wants to find the truth about what happened, which is something I think a lot of readers can relate to.
Where do your characters come from?
All over the place. In Oliver’s Travels there are a lot of answers to this question. The main characters are mostly archetypes, with features drawn from many different people I’ve known. For example, given that the book is something of a hero’s journey, I wanted the main character to have a mentor, and I ended up giving him two. Neither one is modeled on anyone in particular, I hasten to add, even if I may have borrowed an individual trait from an actual person or two or three. Having said that, the main character has a family, and of course I have a family, and I suppose it’s inevitable that I would draw on some aspects of my own experience in creating those characters. I have assured my sisters that the main character’s siblings are NOT based on them.
Ironically, possibly, the main character came about in an odd way. I had been writing a series of flash fictions about a character named Oliver, so named because the stories were set in far-off locations that involved travel and I wanted to allude to Gulliver’s Travels. My idea was a novel in flash, but that wasn’t coming together quite as I’d hoped. I’m not sure where the notion came from, but it occurred to me to invent a writer who was writing these flash fictions, so that a metafictional layer was added to the book. That writer became the main character of the book and instead of being this larger-than-life traveling hero he’s a somewhat meek young man who only dreams of adventure. I found his psyche to be far more interesting. Eventually, the flash fictions were removed from the book except by reference (many of them survive as part of my short story collection, House of the Ancients and Other Stories).
At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
That’s really hard to say. I’ve been a wannabe writer my whole life, someone who got sidetracked from writing by a career that was challenging and rewarding in many ways. Eventually, though, I carved out some time from my job and wrote a novel. A terrible novel, to be sure, but it was long and had characters and a plot and everything and I even tried to get an agent for it. Corresponding with agents made me feel like a writer, even though that book didn’t get published and I told no one about it. Because of that experience, I had the courage to quit my job and focus on learning the craft of writing in a more directed way, so I was writing regularly and, after a couple of years, started earning publication credits when short stories were accepted by magazines. Even though I felt like a writer at that point, I still had a hard time calling myself that until my first book, a collection of short stories, was published by a small press. I could hold it in my hand, people could buy it and read it, so it finally seemed real.
What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
I live alone in a big house, so I have a nice space for my office in a loft. Right at this moment, my desk is reasonably orderly, although in the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a couple of piles of books growing on one side. I’ve got a big dictionary open on a side table, a credenza behind me with other reference books, and a shelf of books in front me that include research for the book I’m currently working on. My desk isn’t right by a window, so I don’t spend a lot of time looking outside, and I also try to shut out the piles of books on the floor—I ran out of room on the office shelves a long time ago. Because I don’t have a corkboard where I can pin up images or outlines to help guide my project, I have a poster board that I set up on my desk while I’m writing. It has an outline, a map, a timeline, and a lot of note cards with key words that I want to keep in mind. In the times before the pandemic, and perhaps again soon, I frequently decamped to a coffee shop if there was a discrete project I was working on, but it’s hard for me to focus on a novel in a public place.
What genres do you work in?
I’m a literary fiction writer, primarily. I write a little poetry and I also do a fair number of book reviews, but fiction is my focus. I’m growing more interested in the personal essay, however, and I have several ideas I’d like to work on, but I think I’ll wait on those until I’ve finished my current work in progress, a novel that is a blend of contemporary and historical fiction. Within fiction, I’ve written both novels and short stories. When I first started writing, I saw myself as a novelist only and a novel was my MFA thesis. There was still one semester to go when my thesis was finished, however, and I had to submit something to workshop, so I began writing short stories. It turned out I really enjoyed the process of writing and revising shorter pieces. I also liked submitting stories to magazines and, sometimes, having them accepted for publication. The process of getting a novel published is so long and drawn out and painful, that it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep going. With stories, you might actually see some positive reinforcement now and then.
What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
I do sometimes listen to music when I write—anything without words, from a symphony, to blue grass, to new age instrumentals—especially on those occasions when I’m working in a coffeeshop or somewhere in public and need to pop in the ear buds. It actually helps me focus. And I’m most definitely a morning person. For me, writing is my work, so I get to my writing desk by around 8 in the morning, as if it were a job, because it is my job, and then write most of the morning. If an idea comes to me later, I do make an effort to at least jot down some notes so that I can use it in my next writing session. Like a lot of writers I’ve spoken to, I do some “head writing” while I’m taking a walk, often working out some problem that I’ve come across in the writing. Recently I had started a short story and wasn’t sure where it was going. I took a walk, plotted out the whole thing in my head, and hurried back to my desk to write down an outline of what was going to happen in the story.
How much time do you spend writing each day?
In theory, about four hours, sometimes more. I get to my desk right after breakfast and I write, or tinker with what I’ve already written, until lunch. In the afternoons I attend to other writerly responsibilities—teaching, editing, book promotion, submissions. It’s all part of the job of being a writer, even if I’m not actually writing all the time.
Do you travel to research your book(s)?
Everything is research, including travel, which is one of the great things about writing stories set in exotic locales. I have traveled internationally a lot for work and pleasure since I was in my early 20s, and while I wasn’t explicitly doing research for books, I’ve definitely called upon those experiences in the writing I’ve done. I’ve only made two trips that were truly for research. The first one was to South Korea in 2011. I had already finished a draft of my novel The Shaman of Turtle Valley, which is partly set in Korea, but that trip—which I would have made without the excuse of the book—helped me refresh my sense memories from the years when I lived there which were much earlier. The second trip was one that was intentionally for research of a novel that I’m still working on. That book is set in Singapore, where I also used to live, and I had a great time revisiting old haunts and doing the real research (like in an actual library) I needed to do.
Clifford Garstang is a former international lawyer and prize-winning author of two novels, Oliver’s Travels and The Shaman of Turtle Valley, and three story collections, In an Uncharted Country, What the Zhang Boys Know, and House of the Ancients and Other Stories, as well as the editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. With degrees from Northwestern University, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Garstang was an international lawyer in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Singapore and a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Learn more at: https://cliffordgarstang.com/