In the summer of 2020, Clifford Garstang, author of House of the Ancients and Other Stories, and Terese Svoboda, author of Great American Desert, interviewed each other via email about their most recent releases of story collections. This is a transcript of their conversation.
| | |
Terese Svoboda: The first story in House of the Ancients, and several others, veers magically to capture the disorientation of the tourist. As the writer, does the surreal represent an escape from the confines of the story, or does it point the story into an unexpected direction?
Clifford Garstang: The few surreal stories in the collection were my first forays outside the land of realism, although my recent novel has some arguably supernatural elements that might be an extension of that trend in my writing. So in that sense, yes, the surrealism opens up another avenue of storytelling for me. But I don’t think the surrealism had as much to do with me as the writer creating an alternate reality as it was just a reflection of these characters’ mental states in the situations in which I found them. I’ll confess, though, that the Mexico stories were influenced by some of the Latin American magical realists I was reading when I made a couple of visits to Mexico.
On a related note, let me ask you about the stories in Great American Desert. The bulk of the stories are set in a relatable environment exploring both domestic and environmental issues. But these are bookended by fascinating glimpses into prehistory and the future. How do these speculative pieces function in the overall theme of the collection?
TS: The prehistory piece came out of my experience living with the Nuer in Sudan who practice a nearly tech-free life. They, however, like to move in the summer like everybody else and the young men especially, to pastures where they can perfect their skills and compose songs of glory for the girls. The overlay of their guarding a psychotropic plant also made reality-sense, as most people have some way of escaping it, be it beer or staring at the sun. The cruel advance of another people has always happened. Most recently it was the Nazis who enslaved the conquered. Why waste such a resource? So, in a sense, history is always sci-fi, out of our chronology, only capable of being understood if we use contemporary emotional information. The introduction of agriculture was our first big foray into environmental destruction.
With regard to the last story set in the far future, it takes the environmental degradation of the past as illustrated in the earlier stories and extrapolates. Sex has changed, food, death — but not the attachment of mother to child.
How do you see your title, House of the Ancients, and the titular story, encompassing or referring to the whole collection?
CG: The title story introduces the character of Nick, who at first seems a typical American tourist charmed by Mexico City. As we get to know him through the related stories — the book is divided into four parts, with stories linked within each part — his manipulative self is revealed. While the remaining stories focus on other characters, many of them, the men especially, share Nick’s flaws, including his narcissism. As for the title itself, and the old people’s home to which it refers, it is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing and a warning to men like Nick.
It’s interesting that you mention your experience in Sudan as being an inspiration for the first story in your collection, given the book’s title, Great American Desert, a term I did not realize is applied to the Great Plains of North America. Although some of what you’re writing about deals with actual, specific places — I’m thinking of the bomb depot in “Bomb Jockey” — the environmental issues you confront aren’t solely American. Do you see these as universal problems? What is the path forward? I guess I’m also asking if, like Scrooge imploring the Ghost of Christmas Future, is your final story an outcome that can be avoided?
TS: I would like to say that the pause that the pandemic has forced shows that we as a species are capable of changing the ever-quickening pace of annihilation but I’m not optimistic, given that the pause has been traded for a pact with Death in a capitalist winner-take-all, last man standing or, rather, last person ordering from the online god. It’s been great to see birds again, and the odd raccoon — they will inherit.
I can’t see a way out. A Jamaican friend of mine premiered her most recent eco-documentary about bauxite mining on the island in which their government can, without recompense, throw you off your land for mining and when it’s returned, there’s no topsoil. Her previous film was about the selling of all the beaches. There’s only one beach in all of Jamaica that Jamaicans can enjoy. And now vast stretches of the interior have been destroyed. We live on that island.
Clifford, your background in the World Bank and international law must give you a unique vantage on travel outside of the US. I’m surprised you haven’t been tempted to write a thriller.
CG: Funny you should say that. When I left the World Bank I enrolled in an MFA program and my thesis novel was something of an international thriller. I think of it now as my practice novel, since it wasn’t published and now lives in a digital drawer, but in some ways I’ve been working my way back toward it. The novel I’m working on now does feature a lawyer as the main character, in a thrilling overseas setting, and when that’s done I’m seriously considering resurrecting that old practice novel for my follow-up project, possibly turning it into a series.
But you also write and have published much poetry and work in several other genres. What’s it like working in so many different forms?
TS: When I start to feel as if I’m failing in one of them, I switch. Or sometimes I get overwhelmed with the genre’s demands, like, for example, all those pages in a novel. That said, I’m always writing poetry. It sort of leaks out between bigger projects. It demands to be written. And then, of course, rewritten. I like the rewriting of anything, figuring out how to make a raw something fit. Other than that, I get called “prolific” and it seems dismissive.
Late in House of the Ancients, you have the porn-loving Danny Fleischman (no pun there?) finding his wife more attractive by the end of the story. All characters are challenging to write. Were you surprised by Danny’s?
CG: Not really. I think Danny, like a lot of people, including the men in the book, lives in a fantasy world where he is in control. But the discovery he makes in the course of the story challenges that fantasy, which isn’t all that surprising either. His choice is clear. He can deepen the fantasy, like a drug user diving deeper into the well of addiction, or he can embrace reality. I’m not big on the epiphany style of short story endings, but I let Danny have his.
Speaking of challenging characters, I was taken by the relationship between father and daughter that comes up in several of the stories in Great American Desert. In particular, “Hot Rain,” feels King Lear-ish, and Dad in the story is a very complex individual. I’ll ask you the same thing you asked me. Was his character a surprise to you? And was the narrator’s response to him a surprise?
TS: This story unabashedly veers into memoir, a compression of events that are still not resolved. Like many men suffering from intermittent dementia in advanced old age, my father was full of surprises, not many of them pleasant. The epiphanic moment is one that fuels many stories but not one you want to experience too often, especially with regard to relatives. I think it was Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker who said that the writer is an eight-year-old child perpetually wounded by the realities of the world. I’m holding up the bloody bandage.
CG: Terese, thank you. I enjoyed our conversation!
| | |