makes Americans who and how we are is in no small measure
tied to our status as the most automotive people on the planet.
We may have individual experiences while on the road, but
one individual experience doesn’t stray far from the next;
driving is driving.”
passage struck me the first time I read it, and has been knocking
around in my mind throughout the process of exchanging material
with Earl Swift on this project.
of Earl’s books are the phenomenal works The Big Roads
and Auto Biography. In many ways, they are companion
pieces, with each built upon a foundation of cars, roads, and
winding histories. In a direct reading, these words from Auto
Biography work quite nicely as running thematic comment
also find a brilliantly appropriate thought a bit deeper within
the words that extends well beyond automobiles and road trips.
When you look into his complete resume—the full listing from
the “Also by Earl Swift” files—you will find a writer that knows
how to find a story, approach it, research it, and then ultimately
deliver it to an audience. He takes “individual experience”
and brings them to all of us. And as his readers will attest,
the connection he creates is strong and often capitalizes on
a sense of the familiar.
like you to keep this in mind—if you’d be so kind as to allow
it summarized, a general idea that that we all have individual
experiences and yet within them find they extend from common
ground—as you approach this interview.
close this opening segment with a few pieces of important information…
Swift’s web site
second… a link to Earl
Swift’s work as listed from Prince Books
encourage you to seek Earl Swift out, learn more about him,
enjoy his work, and experience the joy of a true artist and
master craftsman delivering simply outstanding storytelling.
that starter wrapped up… this is an interview for the web site.
So let’s get to it, and introduce you to Earl Swift.
~ ~ ~ ~
have a theory.
not necessarily a good theory. And it may not be a particularly
strong theory. But it’s based on my experience and work over
the years. It goes something like this…
has a story.
most of us have more than one.)
stories are wonderful, interesting and telling. There are lessons
to be learned, examples to be set, and all the love, happiness,
hope, tears, sadness, accomplishments, shortfalls and more that
you could ever imagine are there to be found within these stories.
not everyone recognizes that they have a story worth sharing.
And many that do will be stopped by a lack of time, motivation,
are people out there though that can tell a story. They can
find it buried beneath and hidden behind incredible barriers.
They may recognize it where others miss it disguised in plain
sight. They often follow it around corners and through labyrinths
to get from a beginning to an end. They know how to nurture
it, look it over from different angles, and present it in a
way that informs as much as it entertains.
I offer this theory in appreciation of a gift possessed by some
writers, it takes incredible work and time to turn skill and
ability into craft and expertise.
Swift is one of those people.
is, as I have personally experienced several times, an incredibly
gifted writer. Whether in a column, a chapter, or a complete
book, he has what I perceive as a natural sense of rhythm and
pacing that gives his text a beautiful weight for his audience.
It’s not heavy, and by no means light. It is comfortable. Reaching
out across a table in a coffee shop or filling an afternoon
in a living room, as only a conversation between friends can
be comfortable. He has a writer’s touch that cannot be taught.
moved from school into the newsroom, taking his passion for
finding and telling stories along as he worked at his profession.
His columns and feature articles have appeared in numerous magazines
and newspapers, and he has been a nominee on multiple occasions
for the Pulitzer Prize.
date he has published five books. Auto Biography and
The Big Roads are the latest two. Journey on the
James is a tremendous example of a book taking on multiple
personalities as it delights along the history of the James
River. The Tangierman’s Lament is an extraordinary
collection, drawn primarily from his work at The Virginian-Pilot.
And with something like Where They Lay… well, just
reading a description of the book can give a person goosebumps.
corollary to the theory: I really do believe that the gift of
storytelling often is accompanied by a gift of story
finding. Time and again, Earl demonstrates a mastery
was The Big Roads that first connected me with Earl.
I was listening to a radio interview to promote the publication,
and found myself fascinated and smiling as he discussed the
naming and numbering system used for many of those passageways
crossing our country. I would be willing to bet that a majority
of people can’t explain the significance of odd or even numbers
for routes; or what numbers like 95, 195, 295, and so on could
tell them about the road they were driving and where it could
in 2008, I drove from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon with some
friends. Even though I often use a GPS or my phone for driving
directions now, when I set off on a longer trip I’ll always
check out a map just so I can look over the general route and
have a bit of a sense for where I’ll be. On this journey, the
habit revealed that in addition to the Hoover Dam, along the
drive we had initially set up was an opportunity to break off
the most direct route and by only adding thirty minutes of drive
time we could spend 90 miles on Route 66. This experience of
mine was in the back of my mind throughout The Big Roads,
as Earl covered… in depth if not at least in passing… things
like entire rest stops and town cultures that rose and fell
around automobile travel and the passage/innovations of time.
Turner… Carl Graham Fisher… and plenty of others get some wonderful
coverage in The Big Roads. In fact, the book serves
as a pretty darn good biography for many of those included.
Often, The Big Roads made me wonder if am I an aging
and decreasing member of the group excited by “hey, we can drive
on Route 66,” and what may be lost in the future. Indeed, an
intertwining of individual experiences made possible by a wonderful
Fisher, Thomas MacDonald… these are people that dreamt of things
and worked on projects that right now are amazing parts of daily
life for millions of people - millions of people that have never
heard any of their names. Nicholas Thornhill, Dave Marcincuk,
and Tommy Arney are not people with lives that would normally
be woven together… yet all of us probably have connections to
items that we don’t plan and may not even recognize.
the unexpected, the unappreciated, and maybe just the unseen,
that I enjoy watching Earl discover, dust off, and present.
Riveting stuff and fun to read, and it happens again and again.
reading the book, and the subsequent release Auto Biography,
I reached out to Earl and asked if he would participate in the
interview you are about to read. To say he was patient, generous
and kind are all understatements of the highest order. We had
originally hoped to match the interview’s posting with the paperback
release of Auto Biography. Delays on my end meant missing
that target window only by several months.
yet… he was still there when I reached out to him with a finished
text. He offered some feedback, additional details and stories,
and we finally arrived at a finish line.
is my sincere pleasure to share a few moments with Earl Swift…
~ ~ ~ ~
did you get started writing? When and how did it become your
I was drawn to writing in the same way, I think, that many are:
My high school teachers were enthusiastic about the work I turned
in and encouraged me to keep at it. And while I didn’t find
writing easy, exactly, I looked forward to term papers, while
most of my friends dreaded them.
for my college newspaper sealed the deal. I loved digging up
facts, fashioning them into a coherent story, racing to meet
deadlines. And I enjoyed interviews: I tend to be a bit introverted,
and reporting gave me an excuse to get to know people I’d otherwise
have been too shy to approach.
years into my seven-year stretch as an undergrad, I landed a
job as a copyboy at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The
moment I stepped into the newsroom (which was straight out of
“The Front Page” - reporters and editors banging away on typewriters,
cradling phones on their shoulders, and yelling across a sea
of army-surplus desks piled with paper and coffee cups, a thick
stratum of cigarette smoke overhead) I had an overpowering sense
that I had arrived where I was supposed to be. The editors gave
me a reporting internship the following summer, which was my
first real writing job.
Do you find yourself drawn to any particular writing
by others, or writing style? What are you reading right now?
I have favorite writers, whose work I’ll read regardless of
subject, but as their work is all over the park in terms of
style and genre, I can’t really say I favor any particular type.
I read as much fiction as nonfiction. In the past few weeks
I’ve read T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville
(fiction), Tim O’Brien’s July, July (fiction), Charles
Shields’ And So It Goes (biography), William Bushnell
Stout’s Tomorrow We Fly (nonfiction), and Gabriel Garcia
Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (fiction). I
also reread Truman Capote’s novella-length Handcarved Coffins
(purportedly nonfiction, but there are questions) for about
the tenth time, and McSweeney’s Issue No. 37 (a mix).
Right now I’m reading V.S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South
(nonfiction) and Eileen Warburton’s biography of John Fowles.
read every morning on the elliptical. I’m mighty grateful that
I’m able to do that; my fiancée, who gets motion sick,
can’t pull it off. No matter how busy the day turns out to be,
I have that 45 minutes to an hour to concentrate on reading
- and the better the book, the longer I tend to stay on the
machine, so I can honestly say that literature has been important
to my health.
What part of the writing process do you find the most
exciting? And, are there particular moments from your writing
that stand out as surprising, unexpected, or just beautiful
though accidental discoveries?
various parts of the process have different appeals. Reporting
yields discovery, which is always exciting - and devising ways
to get information that might resist the getting calls on every
bit as much creativity as actual wordsmithing, if not more.
I enjoy the hunt. I love finding information that no one else
has been able to get.
couple of examples: I wrote a profile for The Virginian-Pilot
about a spiritual leader in the Blue Ridge, a swami who had
a sizeable following but would say little about his past. Other
papers had attempted similar stories, and had been unable to
determine who he was before his enlightenment. The swami had
written a memoir in which he’d been carefully vague about his
upbringing, but he included a photo of himself as a high school
football player. I figured out where he went to school and tracked
down a retired football coach who, on eyeing a faxed copy of
the picture, was able to ID him. When I hung up the phone after
talking with the coach, I stood up at my desk and let out a
I was reporting a newspaper series that served as the skeleton
of Auto Biography, I found myself with a gap in the
chain of ownership - one owner remembered selling the car for
far less than the next one recalled paying, and the second owner
remembered the seller living where the first owner had not.
I had the second owner walk me through his discovery of the
car in detail, and was able to pinpoint where he made the purchase
- not the actual house, but the rather short dead-end street.
I then broke out the city directory, which is a decidedly low-tech
reporter’s tool that combines a standard phone book with listings
by address and phone number, and found that there were four
people still living on the street who’d been there when the
car was sold. One of those four was able to ID the seller, whom
I tracked down in rural North Carolina. When I spoke to him,
I not only verified that he had, in fact, owned the car, but
learned that he’d bought it from someone else I didn’t know
actual writing offers a completely different sort of satisfaction,
similar to the pleasure you take from working a puzzle. In 1987,
when I was applying for a reporting job at The Virginian-Pilot,
I interviewed with the managing editor, Jim Raper, who asked
what I’d scored on my SATs. I was in my late twenties at the
time, and didn’t remember my actual numbers, but I did recall
that I’d scored higher on math than verbal. Jim told me that
in his experience, that was true of many good writers. I was
surprised by that observation, and maybe a bit doubtful, but
I’ve come to see that what he said makes sense: Writing is a
form of engineering. What makes it work isn’t words so much
as organization, structure, the mechanics that drive the story’s
engine. Lyrical prose in a badly constructed piece are like
lovely skin stretched over ugly bones. They don’t add up to
I know you’ve both tried to focus on your immediate
surroundings and traveled greatly for your writing. What are
some of your great memories from your home town(s)? And, what
stories have provided exceptional moments from journeys?
Sense of place is a major element of much that I write, so I
try to get the lay of the land, so to speak, wherever I am,
and to the greatest degree time permits. I don’t always have
as much time as I’d like - on the canoe trip that spawned Journey
on the James, I was on the move all the time, passing the
places and events I wrote about at 5 or 6 mph. For many of my
newspaper and magazine stories, I’ve had just hours on the ground.
often I’ve had the luxury of staying put for long enough to
glimpse the soul of a place. I spent more than a month in Laos
to report Where They Lay, and the book was informed
by two other trips to Southeast Asia and another to Papua New
Guinea. I hung around a classic car restoration yard, and with
the cast who worked there, for three years while writing Auto
Biography. I drove 15,000 miles of interstate highway while
researching The Big Roads. I spent the better part
of six weeks living on Tangier Island, in the middle of the
Chesapeake Bay, while reporting the title story in The Tangierman’s
of those journeys left me with strong memories: of listening
to the pragmatic and community-oriented sermons in the Methodist
church on Tangier, which for all practical purposes is a functioning
theocracy; of a rainstorm that blew up while I was in the Laotian
jungle, so fierce that it covered the ground with tiny black
frogs; of trying, with my 12-year-old daughter, to free a rented
Chrysler minivan sunk to its axles in wet sand in western Nebraska;
of several trips into Nelson County, Virginia, to meet with
the survivors of a devastating rain in 1969 that wiped out entire
memories of quick-hit assignments are snapshots more than coherent
narratives, but many have stuck with me. I spent nearly three
years as a reporter for the late, great Anchorage Times,
which sent me into situations you can only encounter in Alaska
- and really, only if you’re a journalist in Alaska. I remember
many over-the-top moments clearly, as you’d expect, but one
that I find myself thinking frequently about now, nearly 30
years later, was pretty sedate: a day trip with a group of Federal
Aviation Administration officials to Middleton Island, about
80 miles off the coast, out where Prince William Sound gives
way to the North Pacific. The FAA was in the process of automating
a radio beacon there, and a photographer and I flew out to witness
the departure of the old manned station’s last crew. Before
the FAA’s arrival, the island had been an Air Force communications
base, part of the White Alice antennae network built during
the Cold War. Before that, it had been a Civil Aeronautics Authority
radio outpost. And in 1986, when I visited, it was a time capsule
of all three habitations: The CAA huts, the Air Force buildings,
and the FAA complex all stood abandoned but intact on this now-uninhabited
island - uninhabited, that is, except for seals, puffins, and
thousands on thousands of rabbits descended from a pair an Air
Force guy had brought there in the 1950s.
remember walking into the generator hut for the Air Force installation,
which contained two or three big Cummins diesels, each painted
with a woman’s name in careful, cursive script. A garden planted
in the CAA days, back in the forties, remained in a cluster
of eight-foot rhubarb. Antennae in geodesic spheres slowly succumbed
to the weather, as did a World War II shipwreck on the mudflats
off the island’s western shore - the S.S. Coldbrook, beached
in June 1942, and now a rookery for seabirds.
spent all of three hours on the island. I’ve wanted to go back
are advantages to parachuting into a locale on assignment: You
sometimes notice things about the place that the locals take
for granted, and you’re not ensnared in so much backstory that
it gets in your way. But there’s great satisfaction in getting
deep into a town, in knowing its history, its quirks and feuds
and love triangles, its behind-the-scenes power brokers. I spent
25 years in Norfolk, which I love and still regard as home base.
It’s a seaside city and a port that was settled by the English
in the seventeenth century, and it’s been built, knocked down
and rebuilt many times over - by ambition, disagreement, pestilence
and the occasional hurricane. Walk down a street, and there’s
stratified history underfoot. It takes a long time to get to
know such a place. It takes a lot of digging. Which suits me.
the way you capture the passage of time in your books, and seem
to be aware of history and hold an appreciation for the way
things used to be, this thought has been particularly strong
for me considering your writing history/career… does it get
a bit dusty in the room for you when you look at the current
distribution methods and think of days gone by (with people
moving away from daily newspapers to the internet (and now to
their phones))? Or, in other words, time moves on… but do you
miss morning and evening editions of the paper? And how have
these advancements changed your professional efforts?
I miss the days of two- and three-newspaper towns, and fat daily
editions with page after page of classified ads. I don’t think
you can be serious about writing, or news, or American democracy
and not lament the depleted state of today’s newspaper industry.
And “advancement” isn’t the label I’d use for its prospective
tiny fraction of Web sites are actually chasing down stories;
most don’t have the first clue about how to do it, don’t have
the resources to do it, and aren’t inclined to make the effort,
anyway. The most incompetent of the bunch seem to be those who
complain the loudest about the mainstream media - which, of
course, provide all the factual legwork for everything they
post and tweet about. I don’t mean to paint all online news
sources with the same brush; some do a solid job. But the vast
majority merely piggyback on real journalists.
I’m old-fashioned. I don’t want data; I want information. I
don’t want opinion-laden screeds; I want stories. And
I want something else that newspapers, even bad newspapers,
deliver every day: I want to get smarter.
happens because you have no idea what’s coming when you turn
a newspaper page. You don’t select a story from a menu and seek
it out - your eye falls on whatever headlines and stories are
there, and you might scan the first few words to decide whether
you’ll dive in deeper. You wind up reading stories you didn’t
know you’d be interested in beforehand, and here’s the real
bonus: You’re educated by the tops of even those stories you
don’t choose to read in full. You repeat this process of accidental
learning on every page, so that by the time you get through
the whole paper, you’re a genius, baby. You’re a force. And
you have something substantive to talk about for the rest of
~ ~ ~ ~
owe Earl Swift much more than a thank you and ever-lasting appreciation.
At some point, hopefully, our paths will cross… we’ll both have
an hour or two… and I can express to him how grateful I am for
his patience, time, and consideration on this project by buying
him lunch and sharing a few tales in person. (Perhaps tales
exaggerated ever so slightly, but with no details changed so
as to best preserve the stories. I can only imagine the moments
he could convey that haven’t been included for any of a number
such a time arrives, my true hope is that you’ll check out his
work. It will entertain you… it will make you smile… it will
connect in all sorts of unexpected ways… it will, as he might
hope, make you smarter.
more importantly to me, it will connect with your story. It
does, as I started this offering by noting, capture tremendous
pieces of “…who and how we are…” that are beautiful, breathtaking,
inspiring and wonderful.
are some places where you can find out more about Earl, as well
as purchase his books and enjoy his talents (while also supporting
a tremendous writer).
Swift’s web site
Swift at Amazon
Swift at Barnes & Noble
Swift at Prince Books
you… thank you… thank you, Earl. We stumbled a bit with the
timing, and I am indebted to you for staying with me, and for
your contributions on this project. (And seriously… I do owe
you a meal or two when our roads ultimately do cross.)