Unlocking the Door of Consciousness: A Conversation with Clifford Garstang about his newest novel, Oliver’s Travels

Clifford Garstang is the author of five works of fiction including the novels Oliver’s Travels and The Shaman of Turtle Valley and the short story collections House of the Ancients and Other Stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, and In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of the acclaimed anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. A former international lawyer, he lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers of the world?

Cliff Garstang: My name is Cliff Garstang. I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, 150 miles west of Washington DC. I grew up in Indiana and Illinois, and went to college at Northwestern. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and was in South Korea teaching English for a couple of years, then came back and went to grad school. I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know about MFA programs back then, so I got a M.A. in English.

Then, because I wanted a career in international work of some kind, I went to law school. I worked for a law firm in Chicago for a couple of years before they sent me to the firm’s Singapore office, where I worked for almost 10 years. Then I went back to grad school to study international development and I worked in Kazakhstan for a year as a legal reform consultant, and then finally I got the job I really wanted, which was at the World Bank in Washington D.C. doing international law for them. After a while, I finally decided I really wanted to write fiction full time so I quit and started writing.

Tiffany Troy: That is such a fascinating journey. How do you tell different versions of a story through flashbacks, interspliced dialogue, and having the protagonist, Ollie, write Oliver’s Travels?

Cliff Garstang: First, on the subject of flashbacks. I’m always hesitant to use flashbacks, especially when I’m writing a short story because you want the story to move forward, and not spend a lot of time going backwards. It just slows things down. On the other hand, if you start your story pretty late in the action, you’ve got all this backstory that you have to get in there. In Oliver’s Travels, flashbacks are an essential part of the plot because the novel centers around memory—what is reliable, what really happened, do you remember events correctly. 

As a lawyer, you also know that first-hand accounts of stories often differ from different people and they’re far less reliable than other kinds of evidence. Ollie realizes fairly early on that his memories are just not always going to be reliable. He thinks he knows something happened but he’s not sure. The use of flashbacks for that was really important. It also heightens the suspense, because we can show in flashback something happening but we don’t really know that it actually happened, seeing only the way he remembers it happening.

I also use flashback to pull in the philosophical issues, because I didn’t want Ollie to just tell us what he learned from Professor Russell in his college philosophy classes. It was much more effective to actually show scenes of being in the philosophy classes, so that we see this Socratic method that Russell uses in the philosophy classes in action. This is something that is very influential on Ollie. It’s the technique he uses with everyone—he’s always questioning his girlfriend Mary, his friends and family—because he’s keen to get at the truth. 

The other technique that you mentioned, having Ollie write stories about Oliver, his alter ego, is the opposite of flashbacks. The stories are not things that happened, but are things that Ollie would like to have happen in the future because his alter ego is a more adventurous version of himself, suave and worldly. He lives vicariously through Oliver. 

Tiffany Troy: How did you come up with the characters in the story? How did you make them come alive in your novel?

Cliff Garstang: Starting with Ollie, his name was a given because of Gulliver’s Travels. I wanted that echo. In fact, at one point, someone wanted me to change the name of the book and I said well that’s the whole point, so Oliver was a given.

Mary was more reflective of her character because, first of all she’s religious. She’s also plain and Mary strikes me as a plain name. I also wanted to use her name in all its other forms, so there’s Maria from Mexico in Oliver’s story, and Mariko who Ollie meets in Japan. I wanted all of these echoes to be there.

The name Oliver itself is a little unusual and the name Mary is very not unusual, and that added to the contrast between these two characters who are certainly not suited for each other. They fall into a relationship by default. They think they should, and so they do, even though they have opposite views of everything.

The character of Professor Clark Russell is not really based on anyone. I don’t think I ever had a relationship with a professor who was quite like that. He is what I thought of as the ideal of a philosophy professor and he has the kind of experience in his background that Ollie really needed to learn from to travel and experiment. Bertrand Russell was a famous philosopher and that might be where I got that name from, and I have a friend named Clark, so I suppose I borrowed his name.

Tiffany Troy: You mentioned that Ollie and Mary are basically complete opposites of or foils to each other, and I certainly agree with you. How do you think the juxtaposition help you advance the plot of the novel? Is there any character development that you feel for either of them through the journey?

Cliff Garstang: Mary and Ollie are already different, but their journey takes the two of them in opposite directions. Both Professor Russell and Ollie’s fiction writer mentor Bruce Owens advise Ollie to travel to gain experience for writing and open his eyes to everything, and Ollie does that. The journey makes Ollie bolder, as he learns from his experience and becomes open to that experience. In a way, he becomes more and more like Oliver.

Whereas Mary becomes even more withdrawn. She reluctantly goes with Ollie first to Singapore. Ollie wants Mary to come with him to Japan, but she refuses. She isn’t really interested in seeing the world; she just wants her closed little existence and it seems to get smaller and smaller. That’s really the development there, which pulls them even further apart.

Tiffany Troy: It feels like Ollie and Mary’s travel to different geographies and cultures allows for their differences to come into play. How does traveling to different places serve the greater purpose of the novel, which is about memory and mis-memory and trying to figure out the truth?

Cliff Garstang: Really good question and not something I’ve thought much about before. Just from my own experience, my own travels, beginning when I was right out of college and seeing things that were so different from what I had previously experienced, made me open my eyes to everything, not just the new things that I was seeing but also everything that had come before. So, Professor Russell tells Ollie that unlocking the door of consciousness is something that you achieve through travel. I personally believe that: Ollie does so by traveling and seeing himself more clearly. He goes to Singapore and he sees this culture that he’s not familiar with. He also comes to have a greater understanding about himself.

I know that not everyone has the privilege of undertaking the kind of trip that Ollie takes but travel really is so good for expanding the mind. If there is a lesson to learn from the novel, that’s it.

Tiffany Troy: I think that is so wonderful and fascinating. Earlier, you mentioned that Mary’s world sort of gets smaller and smaller as the plot goes on. One memorable moment was when Ollie and Mary were playing a game of making up the backstory of people they spot. Ollie was taken aback when Mary reimagined a dark boy as a terrorist. He thought, why is she doing that? I am not feeling very comfortable with that. At the same time, though, Ollie makes up this exotic version of Mary, Maria, in his story. How do you treat the delicate topics of racism and exoticism in your novel but in a way that advances the plot?

Cliff Garstang: Yes, so this is difficult to talk about, but I think Maria, or the Mexican version of Mary, that Oliver is fiercely attracted to, is very much not Mary. I don’t think I really deal with exoticism directly but in some ways, Maria mirrors Mary’s fear of people unlike herself. In Ollie’s story about Oliver, Oliver reacted in the same way, and that was important to Ollie’s own story.

In terms of the issue of exoticism, that’s something that I do think about a lot, because much of my work is set outside the United States. Sticking to Oliver’s Travels, Ollie goes to Japan and he meets Mariko. He doesn’t have exactly a sexual attraction for Mariko, but he’s fascinated by her. This is something that happens to anyone who travels and meets people unlike themselves. If they’re willing to interact at all, they’re often quite engaged and wanting to know more and understand them more.

Tiffany Troy: You did such a great job balancing the excitement of being in a foreign country and learning about a different way of seeing the world and through that different way of seeing the world delve deeper into the characters’ selves. 

There are a lot of cycles in the story. There’s Mary’s obsession with marriage, children, and grandchildren. There’s Ollie studying under Professor Rusell—and later teaching himself. There’s the movies and ice cream. Then there are wars. How does the recurrence of the different cycles shape the plot of the novel?

Cliff Garstang: Maybe another way of saying cycles are repeated tropes. So, starting with war: Ollie’s elder brother is a veteran of Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD. Ollie’s mentor, the fiction writer, briefly served in Vietnam. When Ollie is imagining who Oliver is, he struggles to place him in time and puts him in all of these different wars. None of them really quite fit. but he’s working through that in his mind. He’s developing a worldview that is very close to Professor Russell’s, which is very much peace-oriented. Later, when he meets a woman in Mexico, he grabs on to that even more and becomes more of a pacifist.

In terms of the other images, I mostly wanted to highlight the conflicts between various people. Marriage is a problem in the book, obviously. His parents are divorced. Ollie observes his sister’s marriage and Mary’s parents have their problems and everybody has problems. Ollie learns through all of these differences between them in terms of the things like the movies, books and ice cream. He learns how different he is from Mary and somehow, he’s still able to go forward. Thus, he’s not surprised when they struggle.

Tiffany Troy: I was interested in this tug of war between philosophy and religion in the novel. How do you convey the philosophy of Russell for the readers? How does his philosophy, which Ollie takes on, shape the novel?

Cliff Garstang: So, it’s interesting that you mentioned religion because I enjoyed writing the scene where Ollie’s elder brother tells his parents that he’s not going to go to church anymore. Then, that gives Ollie the courage to do the same thing. That happens because Ollie already has this need for certainty, even at that age. Because Ollie has these doubts about faith, he is able to accept the things that he learns from Russell in college. Russell is teaching epistemology, or the source of knowledge, and this is greatly appealing to Ollie, as it was to me as a philosophy student.

I joke and say I share a lot of Ollie’s obsessions with logic and truth. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a lawyer, or it’s why I became a lawyer. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ollie goes to law school next because I think he’d be a good lawyer.

The technique of having Russell ask Ollie questions was an effective way of having his teaching conveyed without being too blunt and without just having Ollie tell the reader what he believes. There are many times when he insists on being told the truth. He insists on knowing exactly what happened and where his Uncle Scotty is—the man who holds the key. How do we know this happened? I think those sorts of questions really convey to the reader where he’s coming from.

Tiffany Troy: Your writing was super fun and interesting to read. How did you cultivate that narrative voice of Ollie’s.

Cliff Garstang: The voice for Ollie is very different from anything that I’ve done before, and the reason for that is that Ollie is really different from characters that I’ve drawn before. I pictured him as a young, naïve, self-centered but not terribly confident sort of a flip personality. I thought that he would be somewhat sarcastic, that he would say things that the reader will see as being funny whether Ollie thinks they’re funny or not. I was frankly also inspired by the voice in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation in a couple of ways: the voice in that book is also humorous and sarcastic, and comes in very short pieces. I really wanted the paragraphs or the sections to be distinct like fragments of Ollie’s thinking and speaking because he does have this sort of scattered personality.

Tiffany Troy: Yes, I thought it was hilarious that Ollie would like say one thing but think something entirely opposite, sarcastic and judgmental about Mary. Like a running commentary with everyone he is in dialogue with, which makes the novel very unique.

What are you working on today?

Cliff Garstang: Five years ago, I started working on another novel that is set almost entirely in Singapore. In Oliver’s Travels, he and Mary go to Singapore, but they don’t stay very long or get too deeply into culture. But because of my own living experience in Singapore, I wanted to dive more deeply into the country. The novel is still about Americans in Singapore, but it’s actually a braided story of a historical event and a more contemporary event. It’s very complicated and a real struggle, but I hope to finish my novel by the end of the year.

Tiffany Troy: I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for you. You have a good four more months to finish. I can see the tension between Ollie’s vision of Singapore as this wonderful, fantastical world where everything is clean and Mary’s vision that it is clean only because there is a police state play out in your novel. 

In closing, do you have any thoughts you want to share with your readers of the world?

Cliff Garstang: I seem to be on a path of writing stories that are set in lots of different places and it’s something that I enjoy reading in other people’s work, and something that I enjoy writing. Of course, because I’ve had a lot of international work experience, I can do it with I hope authenticity and credibility.

What I would want to convey to readers is that that travel is really a way to open your eyes to other cultures and also to yourself. Reading about other countries is a way to do the same thing.

I’m currently reading a book by Andrea Lee called Red Island House which came out earlier this year. I had read her fiction in the New Yorker before, but this novel is set in Madagascar. I don’t know anything about Madagascar, and it is fascinating to read this novel. Now I want to go. 

I would say the same to readers: read widely and visit through fiction places that you might not otherwise get to go.

About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.