Clifford Garstang, a former international lawyer, earned his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His award-winning linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in 2009. A novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, is forthcoming in 2012 from Press 53. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Bellevue Literary Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. He is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.

Have you had mentors? Do you mentor? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance for a writer…

I haven’t had a true mentor, as such, although I’ve had several teachers who have been helpful in various ways. And because I don’t teach in any sort of traditional academic setting (I occasionally teach creative writing online), where I think these relationships must usually develop, I also haven’t become anyone’s mentor, except informally among some younger writers I know. I do think a mentor can be very helpful because there are so many unwritten rules in this business, not to mention the fact that introductions can be important. One teacher I worked with at a conference in a short period of time introduced me to agents, worked with me on several stories, and later recommended me to an editor. Here was this famous writer who liked my work enough to do these things-that was enormously validating at the very least.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?

I don’t really suffer from block, so much. I’m always working on a few different things, so if one piece isn’t drawing me forward, I can switch to something that attracts me more. But there are a couple of things I’ve done just to get the juices flowing. One is to look out the window and describe what I see. That helps to jump start my creativity. Another, especially if I’m working on something that might already have an influential source, is to just type something-copy the work of another writer. Merely as an exercise you understand. It won’t go into the finished product, of course. For example, I was hoping to capture some flavor of a novel I read a couple of years ago. And it was a short novel, so I had in mind retyping the whole thing. I would do a little every morning just to warm up. Eventually, though, my own project took on momentum of its own and I no longer needed the warm up.

Are there favorite writing practices/exercises that you can share? No worries if not.

Other than the exercises I mentioned above that are really just warm up exercises, I don’t generally do that sort of thing. There is an exercise I’ve assigned, though, that generally yields extraordinary results, and that’s to tell a story using sentences that follow an ABCD pattern. That is, the first word begins with A, the second with B, and so on. It’s so restrictive that it’s liberating, and word choice becomes paramount-as it should be. In terms of practice, I like to stick to a schedule. I begin around 8 am and I write for as long as I can, subject to the unfortunate distractions of the Internet.

As an editor, what does a story need to do to jump out from the others in the slush pile? How important are first sentences, etc.

I look for freshness. Either tell me a story I’ve never heard, or tell me an old story in a new, compelling way. First sentences are very important, especially the choice of verb. It’s a very bad sign if the main verb of the opening sentence of a story is “to be.” When I teach the short story I always refer students to Sven Birkerts essay from Agni called “Finding Traction” in which he deconstructs the first sentence of a hypothetical submission and rejects the story without going further because the sentence doesn’t do enough work. It’s a frightening essay, and I can’t say that I apply (or even can apply) his tests, but I think about when I’m reading submissions. (That essay is available online, by the way, and it’s easy to find.)

The best advice you ever got? Words of wisdom… What helped you as a young writer?

Don’t quit. Fred Leebron, the director of the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte, where I studied, repeated what I’ve now seen repeated often elsewhere: published writers are the ones who didn’t give up. I’ve got friends-terrific writers-who couldn’t deal with rejection, and so stopped submitting work and eventually stopped writing. And I’ve been frustrated myself by the lack of major successes, but there have been enough little successes, I guess, that I’ve been able to keep going. As for what helped me as a young writer-I’ve never been a young writer. Although I wanted to write after college and even got an MA in English with that in mind (at that time, in the late 70s, I don’t think I had even heard of an MFA in creative writing), I got sidetracked in a major way by a career in international law that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Twenty years went by and I realized that I still wanted to write, and I finally had the courage to do it. If I could advise my younger self, I would say to write anyway. Even though the career is challenging, even though you’re travelling all the time, find the extra minutes in the day to write. I didn’t do that, and I kind of regret it now. Having said that, now that I’ve given myself time to write, I have lots to draw on from my career and international experience.

Talk about your collection In an Uncharted Country. Anything here about the collection itself and the process of putting it together. And about the stories themselves, what they have in common with each other…

cliffordgarstanginanunchartedcountryWhen I was getting my MFA I worked on a novel set in Southeast Asia, where I lived for many years. I finished that and couldn’t bear the thought of starting another novel. (I didn’t realize that I wasn’t done with the first novel, but that’s a different issue.) At that point I had moved out to the country in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and as a stranger in a strange land I found everything I saw and everyone I met to be new and different and inspirational. So I started writing stories. I didn’t intended them to be a collection at first, and certainly didn’t plan on a linked collection of stories, but every time I finished one I realized that there was more about the people in the story that I wanted to explore, or there was a minor character I wanted to get to know more. Eventually I had a pile of stories that were connected by the location but also by all the overlapping characters. (People tell me it’s fun to be reading along and to recognize characters that have appeared in earlier stories.) I hesitate to talk about themes, because that’s really for the reader to discover, but I also found that there were strong thematic elements that held the collection, all related to the fact that I was in these new surroundings, trying to find my way.

What is new, what is next in your writing world? anything here about what you may be publishing in the future.

I’ve got a new book coming out this fall. It’s a novel in stories called What the Zhang Boys Know and it’s set in a Washington DC condominium building. Unlike the first collection, I set out to write a series of connected stories all focused more or less on a single family. The stories are all independent-almost all have been published in literary journals at this point-but the arc of the whole is that a widower is looking for a new wife to help raise his two young sons. I’m excited about it because people have reacted very favorably to the stories and I think they’ll like the book as a whole, too. While I was looking for a publisher for that book, I was writing a novel set partly in Korea (where I lived for a couple of years) and partly in Virginia. I have an agent for that book now and we’ll be going out to publishers with that in a few months, I hope. And then I’m writing a play and a new novel and . . . still editing Prime Number Magazine.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Susan Tepper

    So much enjoyed hearing more about Cliff, who is a very kind editor. I look forward to reading his books which sound wonderful.

  2. Andrew Stancek

    Cliff is a first-rate writer, wonderful editor, generous and thoughtful man. Oh, and an excellent subject for an interview, obviously. Congratulations!

  3. Robert Vaughan

    Great to “see” you here, Cliff, in this insightful and articulate exchange with Meg. I look forward to reading more of your work, as I loved In An Uncharted Country. Thanks!

  4. Bonnie ZoBell

    Good questions, Meg, and smart to get so much info out of the wonderful Cliff Garstang. Can’t wait for your next book, Cliff!

    Bonnie Z

  5. Susan Woodring

    Great interview. Loved the peak into Cliff’s process, and am anxious to run off and read the Sven Birketts essay!! Also, really, really looking forward to Cliff’s new book!

  6. ruth taylor

    Great interview, Cliff. And instructive too. I may try some of those execises you mention myself!

  7. Pamela Erens

    Very interesting interview!

  8. Shelley

    My mentors have always been…unalive.

  9. Diana

    A great interview! Cliff may not see himself as a mentor but he’s always giving excellent advice, sharing generously all he knows and all he finds out along his way as a writer. I’ll take a look on that Agni essay this time!

  10. Faye

    There are some great tips in this interview as well as interesting thoughts on writing and process. I especially am interested in the essay on the first sentence. Thank you!

  11. Marjorie Hudson

    Great interview, Meg and Cliff! You are both such interesting people!~ Meg, I want to interview YOU. I love your idea for writer interviews. love Cliff’s ABCD exercise, may try that on my students!

Leave a Comment