Street Talk

Clifford Garstang

Clifford Garstang is the author of What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012), which won the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction, and the prize-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009). Garstang’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and has been awarded fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine. He is also the author of the popular literary blog Perpetual Folly.

"Bearing Witness": An interview with Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Know


Braddock Avenue Books: Nanking Mansion, the lofts/condos that serve as the setting for What the Zhang Boys Know, has a name that bespeaks the dubious hope of gentrification. Yet it also provides the perfect setting for a narrative that encompasses the multicultural nature of America in general and Washington, D.C. in particular. Would you talk a little about this setting and the opportunities it afforded you?

Clifford Garstang: I was very interested in a diverse cast of characters, and Washington, D.C., which I know well from having lived there, was perfect for this. The neighborhood I chose also offered a racial mix, being transitional both in racial and socio-economic terms. But what made this work, in my opinion, was the condominium building itself, which throws the diverse cast into close proximity. I knew, too, that I wanted to include some Chinese themes and characters—I had been doing a lot of work in China when I began writing the book—so I gave the building a name that suggested a larger Chinese connection than the neighborhood might have warranted, despite its proximity to Chinatown.

BAB: Several of the characters in the stories are either artists or aspiring artists. What do these characters and stories bring to the larger work? Is there something about artistic production and the lifestyle necessary to its creation that you wanted to emphasize in Zhang Boys?

Garstang: There were several factors at work here. First, I asked myself who would occupy such a place, and that was easy to answer because I knew artists who lived in a building very much like Nanking Mansion. Second, I wanted the residents of the building to be diverse in temperament and occupation as well as in nationality and race. So in addition to the painters, sculptor, and writer we have a lawyer, a teacher, a statistician, and so on. Third, one of the themes of the book, as I see it, is about bearing witness. Who better to represent the notion of telling stories about what is witnessed than artists? 

BAB: The novel-in-stories is a form that, if you want to look at it optimistically, has the advantages of both forms. What do you think it has allowed you to do thematically in your book?

Garstang: Yes, I believe the form does claim the best of both worlds, although I don’t think the publishing industry has yet fully accepted this. Not all novels in stories are told in the multiple voices that I chose for this book (Jennifer Egan uses the term “polyphonic novel” for A Visit from the Goon Squad and perhaps I should follow suit), but I thought it allowed me to create more vibrant secondary characters than I might otherwise have been able to do through simply shifting points of view. It also, it seems to me, offers alternative histories and perspectives that in some cases challenge the reader’s understanding of what has happened in the book. Finally, the characters don’t necessarily recognize this, but they all do share a sense of loss, which ultimately is what the book is about. To me, the reader’s sense of that loss becomes most personal when experienced through each of the characters’ lives.

BAB: I’m wondering about the place of the Zhang family within the book. On the one hand, they have their own stories: the death of Zhang’s wife and the boys’ mother, the final episode of the grandfather’s life, the new relationship with the American-born Jessica Lee. On the other hand, their presence, especially that of the children, seems to have an impact on the other inhabitants of Nanking Mansion as well.

Garstang: Except for the Zhang Boys, this is a world without children, at least at the outset. But these aren’t just any children. They are biracial and bicultural. They are, in a sense, the distillation of the building’s residents, and they are the future. And, perhaps more importantly, they are the glue that holds this world together.

BAB: For a time a few years ago, there was a surge of novels-in-stories. Considering the form’s jolt in popularity, I wonder which writers have most influenced What the Zhang Boys Know?

Garstang: Although they are very different from Zhang Boys, I think both Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried gave me permission to work in this form. And, as it happens, I’ve had the good fortune to study with both Strout and O’Brien, who are warm and generous teachers. Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City—which is actually set on the same street in D.C. as Zhang Boys—was also an influence. And to some extent, my book, like most linked story collections and novels in stories can trace its lineage back to Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Dubliners by James Joyce.