Novel Explores Cultural Clashes and Similarities
An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Cifford Garstang

A painting hangs over the fireplace in Clifford Garstang’s home in rural Virginia of a temple with the Mountain God between two mountain ranges. The Mountain God is surrounded by a pine tree, a tiger, fungus, and other elements of Korean Shamanism. Garstang got the picture more than 40 years ago when he lived in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer. He returned from Korea with much more than a keepsake. His time there deepened his understanding of how cultures can clash and how cultural traditions of vastly different regions can mirror one another.  

“I loved living in Korea, I was both a student of the culture and part of the community. Over time, I grew to understand the parallels between Appalachian culture and traditional Korean culture,” said Garstang. 

His debut novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, which hits bookstores on May 14, centers on those similarities. It tells the story of Aiken Alexander, a soldier who marries his pregnant Korean girlfriend Soon-hee and brings her home to rural Virginia. Aiken struggles to deal with his own complicated family legacy while trying to make sense of his new wife’s responses to life in a strange country. 

The story began as the struggle of a young single father trying to raise a son and grew into something more complex as Garstang began to populate Aiken’s world with other characters. One of the more surprising discoveries was the similarity between Aiken’s mother and wife in their belief of spirits and use of native herbs for healing and potions. 

When Soon-hee disappears with their son, Aiken is compelled to return to the family home and face his own demons and a complicated family history.  

Garstang said as he wrote he continued to be amused by Aiken’s cluelessness of Korean food and folkways. It is Aiken’s obtuse nature and poor communication skills that led Garstang to tell the story through multiple points of view. 

“Aiken is self-centered and not aware of the feelings of others. His story is told in third person and makes up the bulk of the book,” said Garstang. The rest of the chapters are first person from the point of view of Aiken’s mother, wife, cousin and ex-girlfriend. 

“The greatest challenge of writing the book was getting Soon-hee’s voice right.”

The greatest challenge of writing the book was getting Soon-hee’s voice right. “Anyone who attempts to write from a point of view so different from themselves faces that challenge,” said Garstang. He drew on his time in Korea and his experience as an international lawyer and legal reform consultant in the United States, Singapore and Kazakhstan. He also consulted The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman and Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits by Laurel Kendall, and sought feedback from a reader of Korean descent.

When he started thinking about writing toward the end of his legal career, Garstang took classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He went on to get a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he studied under Elizabeth Strout.

“Coming into the profession late, after a twenty-year legal career, it was important to me to be around a community of like-minded people,” said Garstang. He immersed himself in that world, working as an editor, publishing a blog and maintaining a literary magazine ranking system helpful for deciding where to submit work that is based on the Pushcart Prize.

“Helping people with their work helped me with my own.”

“Helping people with their work helped me with my own. Knowing where to submit was something I didn’t learn in my MFA program, so I developed the rankings for myself and saw no reason not to share it,” said Garstang.

The author of two collections of short stories, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys KnowThe Shaman of Turtle Valley is Garstang’s first novel. He worked with two agents on the books, which was not picked up by a big publishing house. He knew Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso of Braddock Avenue Books and sent the work to them. Garstang noted that working with an independent publisher allows for a more personal relationship with the editor, greater input into things like cover design and a longer life in print than is often the case with larger publishing houses.

Garstang follows up his debut novel with two other books from independent presses, House of the Ancients and Other Stories out in the spring of 2020 and Oliver’s Travels out in the fall of 2020.

His advice to apprentice writers taking their first steps in joining the community of writers is to read good writing across the genres. “That is how you stir the imagination. If you aren’t reading you don’t know what is possible,” said Garstang.

He is now at work on a blended historical and contemporary novel set in Singapore.

About the Author: Clifford Garstang is a fiction writer and former international lawyer. His first novel, THE SHAMAN OF TURTLE VALLEY, will be published in May 2019.  His novel in stories, WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW, won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. He is also the author of a story collection, IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY, and the editor of three anthologies, EVERYWHERE STORIES: SHORT FICTION FROM A SMALL PLANET, Volumes I, II, and III.