Clifford Garstang on Travel, Memory, and Alter Egos

Clifford Garstang’s latest work of fiction is the humorous and philosophically-insightful novel Oliver’s Travels, which follows a young man named Ollie who has recently graduated from college and returned home. Ollie has a desire to find meaning — truth, but he struggles to do so in a life that offers little excitement. He soon begins working on a novel with a protagonist named Oliver, Ollie’s alter-ego. Oliver seems to have the world figured out, but Oliver’s creator, Ollie, just doesn’t, no matter how much he might try. Ollie, for example, can’t figure out his role in his family. He struggles to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. He fails in trying to remember the cause for separation from his Uncle Scotty. Ollie, though, refuses to give up on his quest to find his truth, and it’s this determination that might just lead him to the answers he’s looking for.

Garstang is the author of five works of fiction, including his most recent novel, Oliver’s Travels. He serves as the editor of the anthology series Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, and he currently lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was my pleasure to talk to him about balancing multiple narratives, his connection to memory, and the transportive power of travel.

I’m always interested in the background of a work’s title. With Oliver’s Travels, I can’t help but think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Was the choice in title inspired by Swift’s novel?

Absolutely. Originally, I simply had in mind writing about the experiences of a character who traveled all over the world, borrowing on my own experience traveling in my international law career. It wasn’t much of a leap to have some fun with the title and to give the character a name that would bring Gulliver to mind. Settling on the title provided me with some imagery and themes I could borrow, as well as a structure. Early on in the writing of the project I came across a beautiful edition of Gulliver’s Travels in a used bookstore and kept it nearby, which was useful because the Norton edition I read in college (high school?) had fallen apart. There isn’t a perfect correspondence between my novel and Swift’s, but I’d like to think there are echoes.

With this novel balancing two stories — the main one with Ollie and the story Ollie creates involving Oliver — I’m curious what that balancing act was like for you as you wrote Oliver’s Travels. How did you, as you wrote, keep these stories separate?   

I began with Oliver’s story, straight-up fiction, told in flash-size bites, and a number of them were published in magazines as flash fictions. At that point, they didn’t have much continuity, and Oliver himself had a lot of holes in him in terms of a backstory and narrative arc. It eventually occurred to me that a metafictional structure would allow me to do more than I had originally intended in terms of theme. That’s where Ollie came in, standing in for me as the writer of the Oliver stories. As I came to understand Ollie better, his own struggles and anxieties helped to shape Oliver’s story in a way that I hadn’t imagined. Separation did become a problem, as Ollie invented an increasingly convoluted life for Oliver that reflected in some ways what he was feeling in his own life. Eventually, I (I mean, Ollie), dialed Oliver’s story way back because we were all getting confused. I think I even imagined at one point that Oliver would long for a simpler, stationary life and invent an alter ego named Ollie to live it!

Pieces of Oliver’s Travels appear in your previous story collection House of the Ancients. At what point did you know these characters were to be part of a larger work?

The pieces in House of the Ancients aren’t actually from Oliver’s Travels, although in the novel we see Ollie writing some of them. For example, in the story collection there’s a piece called “In Hoan Kiem Lake,” set in Hanoi, Vietnam. In the novel, Ollie has written a story about Oliver set in Vietnam, although he’s never been there, and shows it to his writing mentor to get feedback. When Bruce Owens, the mentor, mentions some of the story’s elements, it’s clear that we’re talking about the story “In Hoan Kiem Lake.” In an earlier draft of the novel — before I put the story collection together — those short stories (and several others) about Oliver were part of the manuscript. As much as I loved those stories and the broader glimpse they provide into Oliver’s character and motivations, I cut them so that the novel’s focus would be more on Ollie. It was Ollie’s writing of the stories that pushed the plot forward, not the pieces themselves, so out they came. I’m glad that some of them found a home in the collection, though. Waste not, want not.

On a thematic level, this novel very much focuses on the role of memory in our lives — how fragile of a thing memory is. Ollie struggles with the memory of Uncle Scotty and Professor Russell. Q’s memories of war haunt him. Mary, in one of the funniest parts of the novel, insists a memory of watching a movie with Ollie is real (even when it isn’t).

I could go on, but the role of memory is incredibly important in Oliver’s Travels. What is your connection to memory? Do you find yourself thinking about the complexities of it often?

Memory is a rabbit hole, right? One memory leads to another and that leads to another, and so on. It’s both incredibly important to our sense of ourselves, to our identity and our connections with family, and it’s also notoriously unreliable. (Another example you might point to in the book is Ollie’s father, who suffers from dementia that virtually erases his memory.) I recently read an article about a psychologist who routinely gives expert testimony in criminal cases about this issue, particularly with regard to childhood memories of trauma. If I had read it before I wrote the book, I would have written it exactly the same way, because that’s always been my belief of how memory works. Even deeper than memory, however, is the question of where knowledge comes from, and that’s something that has always interested me. Like Ollie, I was a philosophy major in college, and find epistemology and logic to be fascinating. And, of course, I also practiced law for a long time, so evidence-based arguments are my thing, so they are also Ollie’s thing, to the point of annoyance. For Ollie, and I guess for me, too, the notions of memory and knowledge are inseparable.

Travel, too, is something that is a central focus for Ollie, especially as the narrative progresses. Early on, a character asks Professor Russell about how to find “universal consciousness.” Professor Russell replies, “All you have to do is travel. […] That’s the key to the locked door of consciousness.” Do you find yourself agreeing with him?

Absolutely. Growing up in the Midwest, like Ollie, I had never been anywhere when I graduated from college. My horizon was extremely limited. All that changed a few months later when I joined the Peace Corps, and suddenly I was living in Korea. I can’t say that the experience unlocked any repressed memories, but there is no doubt that it opened my eyes to a much broader world than I knew existed — languages, cultures, food, music, art, etc. Suddenly I wanted to learn everything, to see everything, and go everywhere. This is Professor Russell’s message about Ollie’s education and the importance of opening one’s mind, and it’s meant for all of us. If you really want to understand the world, you have to go see it for yourself. Ollie’s writing mentor, Bruce Owens, has a similar lesson for Ollie: if he wants to write about the world, he needs to experience it. My Peace Corps experience changed my life and turned me into an internationalist; I’ve been traveling ever since.

I love a lot about this book, but one of the things I appreciate most is how funny it is. The email exchanges with Mary and Ollie’s family when the couple goes to Singapore had me laughing out loud. (And so did the awkwardness of some of their ice cream dates.) For you, how important was it to include humor in Ollie’s story?

I don’t think of myself as a particularly funny person, and my previous books have been mostly pretty serious. Something about Ollie, though, made me want to go in a different direction for this novel, and I’m glad the humor came through. (The blurbs for the book, from some writers I greatly admire, also note the humor, which was gratifying.) Given his situation and confusion, I saw Ollie as being a young neurotic, a member of a generation of neurotics. So I wanted to play with his voice — which I could do more readily in first person than in my usual third person — and I think his neurosis manifests itself in humor, some of it self-deprecating and some of it sarcastic. And speaking of voice, I believe I was influenced by the wonderful voice in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.

I underlined these thoughts from Ollie: “Whereas, in a work of fiction, the characters on the page are the originals. They are real, not shadows, and have the potential to be multi-dimensional. In that way, fiction is more real than reality.

            That’s what Bruce Owens says, anyway. He says that family, or other real live human beings, provide only models. The writer can’t know what they’re really thinking, for example, or how they really felt. But the characters we create, we know them. Their thoughts are our thoughts. Their feelings are our feelings.

            The more I write about Oliver, the more real he becomes.”

Did you find this to be your own experience, too? Did writing Ollie — and all of these characters — make them become more real?

I believe I borrowed those thoughts from Tim O’Brien, whom I greatly admire, and with whom I’ve studied. He is best well-known for his novel, The Things They Carried, which is based on his actual experiences in the Vietnam War, but I always encourage people to also read If I Die in a Combat Zone, which is his memoir about some of the same experiences. He emphasizes the difference, notably in a chapter of the novel called “How to Tell a True War Story.” As important as facts are to our understanding of the world around us, they limit what we can do in fiction, as Bruce Owens says to Ollie. There’s only so much we can know about what’s really happening, which is maybe how Professor Russell would put it, because what we see and what we think we see get in the way. So this is also my philosophy of fiction. The writer is the creator, and by giving characters memories and thoughts and emotions, all the quirks real people have, they become real.  

Thank you so much, Cliff! And congratulations on the release of Oliver’s Travels. It is a fantastic book.

Oliver’s Travels
By Clifford Garstang
Regal House Publishing
Published May 18, 2021