Interview: Alumnus Aaron Garretson '11 Wins San Diego Public Library's Inaugural Short Story Contest

BY Corinne Lestch, June 22, 2018

Alumnus Aaron Garretson '11 figured he’d be an unlikely winner of the San Diego Public Library’s inaugural short story contest after taking an old story and reworking it to fit the word count.


But Garretson, who works in an infectious disease lab at University of California San Diego, ended up taking first place, along with $300, for his short story, Abbott’s Pursuit, about a retired theater-set designer who lives in a senior home and has to contend with a variety of pests. The story will be on the library’s website for a month.


Before enrolling in Columbia, Garretson studied biochemistry and cell biology at UC San Diego and has worked in research labs around the country studying HIV, Zika, Dengue, diabetes and neuro-developmental genetics.


At the same time, he has always been working on his fiction and another passion, painting. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Best American Nonrequired Reading.


He writes that science informs his art, “as does a fascination with the border between chaos and order, the intersection of rational and irrational thought—which is where he hopes to reside one day.”


We spoke with Garretson about the intersection between science and art, his time at Columbia and his writing process. 


How did you hear about the library contest and what made you apply? What did you think when you won?


My father sent me an email with a link to the library website. 'You guys should enter,' he wrote, meaning my wife and I. They were only accepting pieces less than 3,000 words, so our initial reaction was to pass. Neither of us had stories that short. But I kept thinking about it.


And because my father had brought it to my attention (he doesn't normally do that kind of thing, though I suspect it may now become a regular occurrence), I took a closer look and decided there was one older story that I could probably whittle down to 3,000 words. One never expects to win these sorts of things, so I was very surprised to learn that I had. And pleased, of course. It's always nice to receive some form of validation. 



Do you have a favorite story or anecdote from your time at Columbia? Did anyone in particular make an impact on you?


There were a number of professors who made an impact. I have particularly fond memories of classes and workshops with Binnie Kirshenbaum, Sam Lipsyte, James Wood and Jaime Manrique. I've been wracking my brain for suitable anecdotes (I somehow missed all the workshop fistfights and James Franco run-ins).


As much as anything, I just loved the feeling of being on the campus. I spent a fair amount of time in the Graduate Student Center in Philosophy Hall. I saw Mary Gaitskill and Natasha Wimmer speak there. But one afternoon, two older gentlemen entered the room wearing matching clothes. They were twins. And I'm not sure I had noticed before, but there were two pianos in the room, about 15 feet apart, on the north wall. The twins each sat down at their own instrument, and they began to play this very elaborate duet. I don't know what they were playing. I didn't recognize it. It's possible they were making it up as they went. But it was incredible. And joyful. And surreal. The way they played off of each other, and around each other. It was probably something they did all the time. But I found it magical.



How do you balance writing with your day job, especially considering how different they are?


For a long time, I imagined—or I at least told myself—that having a day job that did not compete for the same mental resources as writing was an advantage. I'm not sure there's any truth to it. But laboratory research isn't a terrible position for a writer to be in. There's frequently a lot of free time during experiments, while samples incubate or amplify, that you can use to check in on the story or chapter you're in the middle of.


That said, I'm not sure I have ever been successful at balancing the two. In my experience, unless one is hiding away at a writer's retreat, there's no such thing as having enough time to write. I am constantly unsatisfied with the amount of free time I have and am forever trying to steal hours from other commitments.     



When is your favorite time of day to write?


I used to be more picky about this, but I have learned to be more than happy with any time between 8 in the morning and 6 at night.