Monday, April 4, 2011

My First Time: Clifford Garstang

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Clifford Garstang, author of In an Uncharted Country (Press 53), a collection of linked stories set in rural Virginia.  Elizabeth Strout said of In an Uncharted Country: "This collection delivers on its title: each story takes us into an area—emotional and geographic—that we may not have been before.  There is an impressive variety here, and Garstang's ability as a storyteller is on display each time.  These characters are real, vulnerable, and always, in unique ways, brave."  He is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and received a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and teaches writing courses at  He is also the editor of Prime Number Magazine.  His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Ledge, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Potomac Review and many other places.  He blogs about the literary life at Perpetual Folly.

My First Ghost

I’m not a believer in the supernatural.  Never have been.  It’s called “supernatural” because it’s not natural, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been all about what’s natural and knowable.  If I can see it or touch it, then it’s real.  Otherwise, forget it.

That goes for jolly, old red-suited elves with flowing white beards, as well as hobgoblins, imps, demons, and ghosts.  Even as a voracious young reader I preferred realistic stories to fantasy and science fiction.  There’s a reason we call those genres “speculative”!  They aren’t real!  Although I found all the Hobbits amusing, and I did my best to grok Stranger in a Strange Land, mostly I stuck with the Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton.  I suspect that if Harry Potter had come along when I was a kid I’d have been unimpressed.

When I started writing my own fiction, then, it was no surprise that I was strictly a realist. I wrote the world as I saw it, and that left no room for speculation about other realms, mysterious creatures, or time-travelling spouses.  Not that I threw my hands up in disgust (or the book across the room) when I encountered any of these in my reading, and sometimes enjoyed them, but they weren’t going to be part of the fictional world I was creating.  As a beginner, I wrote (and re-wrote several times) a novel that became my MFA thesis.  Set in the 70s, the only thing other-dimensional about it was that the story took place in a fictional country in Asia so that I wouldn’t be hampered by actual historical events.  Other than that, though, it was about as real as fiction gets, and remains stuck in a drawer, probably forever.

After finishing that novel, I turned to short stories.  I did this because (a) I still had one semester left in my MFA program and needed material for workshopping, and (b) I couldn’t bear the thought of another long project after I’d struggled with one novel for years.  For inspiration, I turned to the world around me.  I had recently moved out of Washington, D.C., into the rural Shenandoah Valley, and so everything was still new.  That newness, I think, sparked a different kind of creativity in me, one that was less wedded to reality.

Which brings me to ghosts.  One of the first short stories I wrote was based on a translation of a Korean fairy tale I had done while I served in Korea in the Peace Corps.  Originally it was simply a language-learning exercise, but the story stayed with me.  The protagonist of the tale, a down-on-his-luck Korean woodsman, resonated with some of the other characters I was imagining in what eventually became my linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country.  As the character developed in my consciousness, he became a grizzled Vietnam war veteran in Virginia whose rich fantasy life included the nymphs, the talking deer, and the flying tiger I borrowed from the fairy tale.  Having made that leap, it wasn’t hard to envision this dark character being visited by his late father—my first ghost—and the ghosts of several buddies killed in Vietnam. Suddenly the supernatural was the most natural thing in the world—for that particular character, in that story.

With my first ghost out of the way, I found that I enjoyed straying from realism now and then in service of the story.  Another story in my first collection includes talking antiques, although it is only the young store owner who can hear them.  Those make sense in context because of the metaphorical demons the man is facing.  And a couple of my stories set in Mexico have veered toward magical realism, featuring paintings that offer a threshold to another world, and children who age before our eyes, both reflecting themes that worked well in their Latin American settings.  Nor did my new interest in ghosts stop with stories.  The manuscript of the novel I’ve just completed is loaded with them, because that’s what the character who sees them needs.

What I’ve learned from watching the ghosts and other otherworldly forces enter my fiction is simply that a little of the unreal is sometimes helpful to unleash my imagination and to move a story forward.  We sometimes try too hard, to stick to the facts, to what is observed and known, and we forget that the magic of fiction can take us on much longer journeys.  Instead of taking another tour of the known world, these days I’m inclined to take the hand of a ghost who will show me what other worlds are out there, beyond my imagination.

Photo credit: Carol Turrentine


  1. Excellent essay! In particular, what struck me is the comment: We sometimes try too hard, to stick to the facts, to what is observed and known, and we forget that the magic of fiction can take us on much longer journeys.

    I'm all for the longer journeys!

  2. Nicely done, Cliff. Playing with ghosts has a kind of freeing effect, don't you think? I've been finding it fun.

  3. Yay! Love the journey into the unknown. There's so much magic that can happen when we open ourselves up to new things.

    Terrific essay.