Clifford Garstang recently won the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction for his novel-in-stories, What the Zhang Boys Know. He took a break from his busy schedule of editing Prime Number Magazine (gearing up for Issue #53!) to answer a few of my burning questions.
P53: What initially drew you to short fiction?
CG: Honestly? I had just finished a draft of a novel that was my MFA thesis and I had one semester left. I had to write something for my workshop and I couldn’t bear the thought of starting another novel so soon! But then, once I began writing them, I discovered how much I enjoyed writing them, and how much fun it was to switch characters and voices from story to story.
P53: What kind of movies do you like? What are the parallels you see between film and literature?
CG: I’m not a big movie buff because I have trouble sitting still that long, but I do like dramatic adventure films and psychological thrillers. Until I took a screenwriting class a few years ago I’m not sure I would have been able to answer the second part of that question, but it’s clear to me now that a compelling novel—and maybe a story, too—follows a three-act structure that is quite similar to a film. Films are ultimately derivative of literature, and yet writers can learn a lot from films about holding the attention of a reader and delivering a satisfying experience.
P53: When did you first truly feel like you were a writer?
CG: I tentatively felt like a writer when my first short story was published, but I only truly felt like a writer when my first book—In an Uncharted Country, from Press 53—came out in 2009. I feel a bit sheepish about saying that, though, because being a writer isn’t about being published. And yet I had a hard time identifying myself as a writer until there was something tangible to point to.
P53: You can only eat one food for the rest of your life; what is it?
CG: Salmon. I was going to pick something else, or try to be clever about it, but I realized that I almost always order salmon when I eat in a restaurant, so that must be my favorite thing. And healthy, too! (My mother would be so proud.)
P53: What is the one personal belonging you simply could not do without?
CG: My laptop—it’s my office, my filing system, my connection to the rest of the world, my source of information and entertainment. Take away all the rest, but leave me my laptop.
Three Facts About Clifford:
1. My mother wanted to be a writer, but she never pursued her dream.
2. Other than English, I’ve studied seven languages … and can’t really speak any of them.
3. The one project I remember most distinctly from my days of law practice is the leveraged buyout of Hills Brothers Coffee in the early 80s when I was a junior associate at my firm; you’ve never smelled anything so heavenly as the aroma of a whole building full of fresh-roasted coffee.