Aiken Alexander left his family home and high school sweetheart to join the army and live in Seoul, Korea. He’d hoped to leave behind indecision and immaturity. Maybe that explains why he is so quick to marry his Korean girlfriend Soon-hee when she gets pregnant. Aiken brings her home, hoping they can build a life together. Such a choice would be difficult for any couple to get through gracefully but when interfering relations amplify Soon-Hee’s fears, Aiken may end up losing the one thing he holds more dear than any other – his son Harry.
Clifford Garstang’s poignant telling of this story of loss, superstition, and family secrets, leaves a mark on the soul. He’s captured its truth in a way that tends more toward poetry than prose. Not in the way the words are organized on the page. Rather, it is how each element resonates with feeling – whether it is Soon-Hee’s communication with the dead, or Aiken’s hobby of building birdhouses. Each choice has integrity and power, as though it could only be told this one way. Seldom is a novel written so purely, and I commend Mr. Garstang on his achievement. We’re thrilled to learn more about The Shaman of Turtle Valley
Amy M. Hawes: The main character of Aiken is flawed but likeable. Most of all, he is believable. We can understand what led him to his choices. The same is true for each of your characters. Their authenticity adds such power to your story. How did you find their voices?
Clifford Garstang: I’d like to think this is a result of my love for the short story form, in which I can inhabit a new character and create a new voice with each story, as I’ve done with both of my published story collections and the one that’s coming out in 2020. With this book, I began with Aiken’s voice and then layered in the voices of the women in his life. To do that, I tried to put myself in their places and to ask myself what I had in common with them. Even if I don’t share their precise experiences or gender or race, I can tap into a range of emotions that I know they’re feeling that I also have felt. It helped, too, that the four women in the story are so different from one another. It was really fun to bring them to life. As you say, Aiken is flawed but likeable. Left to his own devices, I’m not sure he would ever grow up, but because of the people around him, people who interact with him, he eventually does achieve a certain self-awareness.
AH: The Shaman of Turtle Valley incorporates many supernatural elements. What inspired you to this element in the storyline?
CG: I’ve been drawn to Korean Shamanism since I first saw it in action when I lived in Korea in the 1970s. More recently, as a relative newcomer to rural Virginia, I’ve read about various folkways and superstitions that are centuries old but still persist, if only vestigially. I was struck by the similarities in these customs and wondered if they didn’t offer an avenue of understanding between cultures that initially seem completely different and at odds. Then, too, I was amused by the idea of having a parallel, entirely rational viewpoint—that would be Aiken—who is oblivious to these supernatural forces around him.
AH: When Soon-hee is speaking, I got a real sense of how she thought differently than the others. Her foreignness and the way she interpreted the world around her, had a distinct quality to it. Where did you find the skill and experience to speak in the voice of a young Korean female shaman?
CG: As I mentioned, I lived in Korea for some time, and I’ve been a frequent visitor and student of the language and culture ever since, so I had that as a base on which to build. The experience of being a stranger in a strange land is universal, though—after all, that’s how I felt when I lived in Korea—so I tried to imagine how this particular young woman would react in her new environment. Writing outside of one’s own culture is a tricky thing for a writer to do, however, and I made a sincere effort to present her sensitively. Ultimately, writing is acting—using whatever tools are available to establish an illusion—and I thought her point of view was crucial to the story.
AH: So much of The Shaman of Turtle Valley revolves around the theme of how integrated people’s lives are in a small rural community. There is no privacy but plenty of secrets. What was it like to explore these layers of interconnectedness?
CG: Secrets and lies are the “special sauce” of fiction. Everyone builds a façade meant for public viewing, but behind that façade, there are always darker truths. This is one of the great pleasures of writing a novel: the writer gets to build up the house of cards into an elaborate structure, knowing that eventually, it’s going to tumble, mostly for the entertainment of the reader. And while the events of the novel are pure fiction, anyone who has lived in a small town, or even a neighborhood in a city, will recognize both the fabric that is the community and the flaws that can lead to its unraveling. As a writer, it was exciting to see where those flaws could be exploited, and what the impact would be. On the other hand, sometimes the fabric can be mended and the community can come together.
AH: In your story, those who are led by fear fail. The hopeful seem to find a path through their sorrow. Did you intend to send this message or was it simply the story that wanted to be told?
CG: That’s a great observation, but I don’t think that specific message was intentional. That’s something I believe, however, so maybe it’s inevitable that it would show through in the work. Fear of the unknown is something we all have to struggle with. We see some politicians now trying to exploit that fear for political gain, but the truth is that we’re stronger when we confront our fears and learn, developing empathy so that what was strange becomes familiar and unthreatening.
AH: How did working with others assist in your crafting this novel into something that I think is quite poignant and special? How essential were feedback and co-creation in the whittling down to its pure essence?
CG: I learned in pursuing my MFA and attending writers’ conferences that gauging the reaction of early readers is a very helpful tool in finding the work’s “pure essence,” as you call it—an apt expression. While this work is entirely my own, I surely did benefit from the contributions of workshop participants. My former agent also helped me see issues that I was able to address in the book’s final form. Plus, I’ve been in various writers’ critique groups over the years, and that’s been beneficial as well. While no writer should blindly adopt the suggestions early readers might have for a work, a wise writer will also examine those suggestions with detachment and ultimately judge which ones resonate with whatever the work is attempting to do. I’d like to think that’s what I do.
AH: What advice would you share with new writers?
CG: This isn’t going to be new advice to anyone, but the key to publishing success is perseverance. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep submitting. Don’t give up. I started working on this book more than ten years ago. When I finished it—the published version isn’t terribly different from that version—it took nearly seven years to find a publisher for it. I could have self-published the novel (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but I didn’t want to limit the book’s potential readership. So I kept working on the book, making it better, and submitting it to publishers until I found the one that was right for me.
Clifford Garstang is a former international lawyer and prize-winning author of The Shaman of Turtle Valley and the story collections, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, and editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. With degrees from Northwestern University, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Garstang was an international lawyer in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Singapore and a legal reform consultant in Kazakhstan. Learn more here.