I’ve admired Cliff Garstang’s elegant writing for years but in his latest novel-in-stories, “What the Zhang Boys Know,” it seems that straightforward elegance has become richer, in both a narrative sense and an emotional one.
I’ve known Cliff through his writing for over a decade now. We met virtually through an online workshop site and literally in a real-life workshop at Bread Loaf in 2006. Cliff can write from any point of view, whether from a child’s, a woman’s, or a foreigner’s, to list a few found in this novel, with authority and verisimilitude. If you haven’t yet read this beautiful novel of disparate characters connected by an elegant mansion turned into condos on the crumbling edges of D.C., then you’re in for a treat when you do. I asked Cliff a few questions about the novel and his process:
K: You have quite an amazing background. Among other things, you have worked as Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in D.C. with a focus on China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia. How did your work, and the time you spent in East Asia, inform this novel?
C: Since joining the Peace Corps after college, my work has always had an international bent to it—first in private law practice and then in the World Bank—so it’s natural for my fiction to reflect this interest of mine as well. I used to do a lot of work in China, so it didn’t surprise me when a Chinese character popped into my head when I was conceiving this book. More specifically, though, when I began planning for it, I had just returned from a work trip to Nanjing where I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It was incredibly moving, and that visit helped shape the story.
K: In the opening story, “Nanking Mansion,” you begin with a chaotic scene in which the narrator is surrounded by “all the people he knows in America” then you circle back to help the reader become acquainted with those people and also help him understand how they came to be standing in the foyer of Nanking Mansion. How did this structure idea come to you? Did it present itself in the first draft?
C: It did present itself in the first draft. In fact, originally, it was even more chaotic and included all the characters in the book. The current version is trimmed down so that the reader gets a feel for the cast without being overwhelmed. The scene is a reaction to two things. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, which is a collection of linked short stories, ends with a story in which most of the book’s characters appear at a 4th of July Celebration. It seemed to be a good way of drawing the book to a close. Because Zhang Boys was conceived as a novel in stories from the beginning, I wanted to begin with a scene in which most of the book’s characters would be introduced. The other impetus was an essay by Sven Birkerts that suggested the modern story needs to create a new world for the reader without relying on assumptions. The scene, I hope, accomplishes that, complete with chaos.
K: Is there a real Nanking Mansion from which you drew inspiration? When did you know the mansion would be a central character and the other stories would be connected by it?
C: Although all of the human characters in the book are complete figments of my imagination, the building itself resembles the condo building where I used to live in DC, although with a different name. As soon as I realized that my characters would be the building’s residents—very early on in the process—the building also became a character.
K: Many of the residents of the mansion are artists of some sort. Was this intentional? What does it say, if anything, about our society here in America, that often our artists are left to survive on the fringes?
C: It was intentional in the sense that I was trying to be true to the neighborhood as it existed at the time. We had a real mix of artists and business or government people in the building and in the neighboring buildings. But I was also thinking about the people who observe the world and those who participate in it. To some extent, the artists see things more clearly than others do, and I think they were useful for that. And certainly artists, like other communities in America that I also tried to represent in the book, are often marginalized.
K: What or who was the inspiration for the “Face in the Window”? Was there a particular artist you had in mind? How did you come to decide on the omniscient point of view for this story? Were there any challenges for you in using that point of view?
C: No particular inspiration—no artist, no artwork. Having said that, I suppose abstract art in general was the inspiration, or, rather, the ability of the abstract artist to see clearly something that the rest of us may miss. I chose the omniscient point of view because I wanted to show the reader things that the painter couldn’t see, including moving forward in time. When I started working with it in this story it was exhilarating. I sometimes felt as though I were running alongside the painter, who is a runner. Because I don’t think I’d ever done anything omniscient before, it might have been hard to strike a balance at first so that the main character’s consciousness doesn’t overwhelm the story.
K: Which story was the most difficult to write? Easiest?
C: The easiest was “Counterpoint,” in the sense that I wrote it one amazing sitting—like no other day of writing I’ve ever had. There was revision, of course, but remarkably little. The first story, “Nanking Mansion,” was very difficult because at that point in the writing I wasn’t sure what the book was about. So a lot of thought went into that story, work that paid off by making the rest of the book much easier to write.
K: I’m always interested in revision. Would you share some of your insights and habits regarding the process of revising?
C: Like most writers I know, I firmly believe that revision is the key to good writing. If you’re going to revise something, though, you have to have something to work with. So I like to pour words onto a page when I’m creating a first draft and hope that I will have the discipline to cut and shape and rewrite in a later stage. With this book, after the painful writing of the first story, I had what amounted to an outline of the rest of the stories. I had a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and wrote first drafts—very rough, for the most part—of all of the remaining stories over the course of four weeks. When that was done, I saw clearly the shape of the book, and knew what I needed to do to polish and revise. I began to revise one story at a time, because I was also sending stories out for publication in journals. So that process was working through each story sentence by sentence, reading them aloud, searching for the right rhythm and the perfect word. I’d finish one, submit it to a journal, and move on to the next. The process of revision was many times longer than writing the first draft. Of course.
K: Which story and which character are your favorites?
C: I usually don’t write about children, but here I do, and so I might say that Simon and Wesley are my favorites. As for stories—I think “Nations of Witness” is my favorite, for several reasons. I hesitated to answer this question, but let me turn it around. Which story and which character are YOUR favorites?
K: I liked many of your characters. One of the strengths of the novel is that they’re all so different. Though Simon is the one for whom I have the most empathy, I suppose Feng-qi is my favorite. He seems the most earnest, and perhaps even the most complex, even as he seems unaware he’s still mired in grief. As for my favorite story…This is a difficult one. I admire the first one for its depth and structure, and “Last Lilacs” is quite moving. That said, I would have to say my favorite of all is “The Replacement Wife.” It’s authentic, moving and surprising. So my next question is how easy was it for you to write from the female point of view?
C: Not as difficult as I thought it would be. I had also written from the female point of view in my first book, and have been told that it worked well. In the case of “The Replacement Wife,” I think I understood Jessica’s dilemma, and while her medical problem is female, her range of emotions isn’t, particularly.
K: Which leads me to another question. The voices and characters are all so different. Do you have any tricks, any revision techniques, that help you nail down the voices?
C: One of the things I like most about writing short stories is the opportunity to inhabit many characters. I’m not an actor, but I think the process of writing the multiple voices is similar to what an actor does in moving from one role to another. In fact, one of my first writing teachers recommended Stanislavsky’s book An Actor Prepares because it offers some tips for achieving emotional authenticity, even if the character’s actual experience is foreign to you. I may not have felt the specific pain the character has felt, but I have felt pain, and so I try to tap into that feeling. Also, of course, on most of these stories I sought feedback from trusted readers, and that’s often crucial in measuring whether the desired effect has been achieved.
K: What’s next? What are you working on?
C: I finished a novel last year, set partly in Virginia and partly in Korea, and I’m looking for a publisher for that. And now I’m working on a novel set in Singapore–a mix of historical and contemporary action. Plus, I’m also working on a new collection of flash and longer stories. Lots to do!