Exploring the recesses of male psychology: Cliff Garstang’s 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.
His latest book, Oliver’s Travels, explores the fragility of memory and identity and our desire for adventure and escape through a protagonist and his alter ego who probe the leading character’s past for hidden secrets.
Here’s an interview with Garstang about his new book:
Why do you think that philosophical, skeptical Ollie created the more wild Oliver as an alter ego? Do you think too much over-analysis can get in the way of our living our best lives?
I think Ollie, as a recent college graduate, is afraid of stepping out of his comfort zone. He knows that his family has certain expectations of him, expectations that he feels obligated to conform to, and so creating an alter ego is, he thinks, his only option for escape. And it’s not just a question of travel, either. Ollie is afraid to be adventurous in his relationships, too, or to really express himself, which is why he’s willing to settle for someone who may not be the best match for him. He does over-analyze, and that exacerbates his general paralysis, until he is finally able to urge himself forward and into the world.
Why did you make your character an aspiring writer? Was it a different experience to write about a writer?
Ollie is a dreamer. Because he’s imagining a life for himself, or for some version of himself, outside of the life he knows, I saw him as a creative individual. Until now, he’s lived vicariously through the books he’s read, but he’s beginning to shape his own narratives, so that impulse naturally expresses itself through writing. But I have a confession: the real reason I made him a writer is that the stories Ollie writes — which don’t exist in the novel as it now stands! — came first. I wrote a series of flash fictions about the adventurous Oliver, and it was only later that I envisioned a fictional creator of those stories, a sort of metafictional inversion (the egg came first). I’ve written about writers before. There’s a novelist in my story collection What the Zhang Boys Know and another one in my collection House of the Ancients and Other Stories. Those writers, though, are more experienced and world-weary than Ollie, who is just beginning to get his feet wet in the swamp of his imagination.
Do you think that childhood memories are especially unreliable, or is that true of just about any human memory?
Memory is fallible, which is one of the lessons Ollie learns, and it’s not just childhood memories. I do think as children we don’t always understand what we’re seeing, and so our childish misinterpretation of events contributes to errors in memory. But adults don’t always see what they think they see, either. It’s an interesting phenomenon that in a courtroom, forensic evidence is often given more weight than eye-witness testimony for this very reason. We’re not perfect observers, and memory can be influenced by a variety of factors.
Did your past work as a lawyer inform or inspire this story in any way?
Although there are no lawyers in this book, I think my interest in the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge, evidence, and truth is definitely informed by my legal experience. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I was a philosophy major in college, and that might have influenced my decision to pursue a legal career. In either case, Ollie is somewhat obsessed with learning the truth and in gathering evidence to support his arguments. This is what lawyers do, in and out of the courtroom, often to the annoyance of family and friends. If Ollie’s writing career doesn’t work out for him, he might need to go to law school.
Why does he head off to Singapore? What role does travel play in the book, and why did you choose Singapore as a location?
Singapore is just the first stop in Ollie’s search for answers, and I chose it for two reasons. First, it’s just about as far away from Ollie’s starting point as he could get, which is significant for what he’s undertaking — turning his world upside down. And second, I lived in Singapore for almost ten years, so I know it well. I was keen to revisit it through my fiction in this way, although Ollie doesn’t see much of it. As for the role of travel, it’s quite important to the story and to Ollie’s awakening. Ollie has two mentors. His college philosophy professor has taught him that “travel is the key to the locked door of consciousness,” and Ollie is desperate to find that key. His second mentor is a fiction writer he meets who advises him to seek out experience wherever he can find it, preferably through travel that will help him see through a new lens. Ollie is fearful, but he’s finally able to internalize the advice he’s received from these two men and take to the road.
It sounds like a mystery if he’s looking for answers. Is that how you see it?
It’s absolutely a mystery in that Ollie is trying to piece together a puzzle, searching for hints and clues along the way. It’s not a whodunit sort of mystery, but it is filled with lies, secrets, and half-truths that Ollie must sift through before arriving at his conclusion. But it’s my aim that the process of looking for the answer is what will be enjoyable for the reader, not necessarily the mystery itself.