Interview with Clifford Garstang, Author of The Last Bird of Paradise

24 Apr 2024

What’s the story behind the story? What inspired you to write The Last Bird of Paradise?

I worked for a US law firm in Singapore for many years and wanted to write about my mixed feelings for the city. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful, clean, and efficient place—a kind of tropical paradise on the surface. On the other hand, it has a paternalistic, sometimes repressive government, a hangover from its sometimes brutal colonial history at the hands of the British. While I lived there, I acquired three antique paintings done by an English artist during World War I, a woman who was married to a colonial official. I’ve always been curious about the artist, and when I discovered how the war impacted Singapore, I realized there was a story there I’d like to tell, one that was tied thematically to my own experience of living there.

If you had to pick theme songs for the main characters of The Last Bird of Paradise, what would they be?

The two women who are the protagonists, one in 1914-15 and the other in 2002-03, are both fond of classical music. So, for one of the women, I think a Chopin nocturne might be her theme song. For the other woman, possibly a Bach cello suite, because early in the novel she attends a reception where that is being played, and it’s something I listened to while writing the book.

What’s your favorite genre to read? Is it the same as your favorite genre to write?

I read a wide variety, but I suppose I read predominantly literary fiction, which is how I describe the genre in which I write. But I also read a lot of creative nonfiction.

What books are on your TBR pile right now?

So many! I just bought James by Percival Everett. I’m also keen to crack open Russell Banks’s last novel, The Magic Kingdom and So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan, to name two.

What scene in your book was your favorite to write?

Early in the novel, one of the main characters visits an art gallery showing the works of a contemporary Singaporean artist. She is enthralled by the work, which is vibrant and colorful, reminiscent, she believes, of Gauguin. While studying the painting, she sees it come alive, almost as if it is animated. Because one of the themes of the book is the narrative possibility in visual art, I enjoyed describing this painting—which exists only in my imagination—and how it transforms from a static piece of art into a work that tells the viewer the full story the artist wants to convey.

Do you have any quirky writing habits? (lucky mugs, cats on laps, etc.)

Nothing particularly quirky, although I do tend to use the same coffee mug every morning, one that one of my publishers gave me with thumbnails of many of the books they’ve published, including one of mine. I also like to write in coffee shops, where the multiple distractions—background conversations, music, chatty baristas—actually help me focus.

Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~Stephen King.

If you could choose one thing for readers to remember after reading your book, what would it be?

I suppose one thing I would want readers to remember comes from the epigraph, a quotation from Marcel Proust in which we are urged to “see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others.” Because how else can we truly understand the pain that others feel, and thereby prevent ourselves from inflicting it upon them.


Clifford Garstang is the author of the new book The Last Bird of Paradise

Connect with Clifford Garstang

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