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An Interview with Clifford Garstang, author of The Last Bird of Paradise

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Clifford Garstang’s most recent novel, The Last Bird of Paradise, was published in February 2024 by Black Rose Writing. He is also the author of two other novels, Oliver’s Travels and The Shaman of Turtle Valley, and three story collections, House of the Ancients and Other Stories, In an Uncharged Country, and What the Zhang Boys Know, which won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. In addition to a JD, Garstang holds an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. A former international lawyer with a large US law firm and the World Bank, he currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

You can buy The Last Bird of Paradise here!

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I began reading the works of Hermann Hesse in high school, and I believe my desire to write fiction derives from that. His work, little discussed now, is deep and dark and I longed to write like him. I even chose to major in Philosophy instead of English in college because I thought that would give me greater insight into what Hesse and other philosophical writers were doing in their books.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

My first job after college was as an English teacher in South Korea in the Peace Corps. I thought I might continue as a teacher after getting an MA, but I was drawn to international work, so I went to law school and became an international lawyer. Besides the US, I’ve lived in three other countries: South Korea, Singapore, and Kazakhstan, where I worked briefly as a legal reform consultant.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I had a different working title for the book for a long time, a reference to the historical incident at the heart of the historical thread of the novel. As the book’s shape emerged, however, I wanted a title that meant something in both the historical and contemporary threads. Because the book’s setting is in Singapore, which both of the main characters refer to as a tropical paradise, the word “paradise” seemed fitting. A good title, in my view, needs to do double or triple duty, and I think “The Last Bird of Paradise” does that.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I was blown away when the publisher sent me the cover. I had suggested an idea, but the design team’s execution was perfect. It’s a stunning cover. With my previous books (from other publishers) I’ve asked for changes to the first stab at the covers, but not this one.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

The two women who are the protagonists, one in 1914-15 and the other in 2002-03, are both pianists trained in classical music, so something by Chopin would no doubt be on the soundtrack. In an early scene in the novel, one of the characters attends a reception at which a musician is playing a Bach cello suite, which is something I often listen to while writing, so that’s on the soundtrack, too.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope readers would recognize the value of at least attempting to see the world through the eyes of other people, to recognize that their lives are different and their perspectives are unique to them. That’s one of the lessons of the epigraph, which is by Marcel Proust. I think both of my main characters learn this. My ideal reader is someone who is interested in the larger world and the issues that we all face together.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

Because of the historical research involved (only about one-third of the novel is historical), this book took me much longer to write than my five previous books. Having it finally see print and find readers has been immensely rewarding. And, of course, the reaction of readers—so far extremely positive—has been thrilling.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

Even during the editing process for this book after it was accepted by the publisher, I began work on what I think will be another departure for me—a short novel with European influences. I normally write about my experiences living and working in Asia, but I’ve been Europe a lot in the last few years, so that has begun to take hold!

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