Earl Swift


What 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.

~ Earl Swift
Auto Biography

This 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.

Two 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 for both.

I 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.

I’d 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.

Let’s close this opening segment with a few pieces of important information…

First up… Earl Swift’s web site

And second… a link to Earl Swift’s work as listed from Prince Books

I 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.

Now… that starter wrapped up… this is an interview for the web site. So let’s get to it, and introduce you to Earl Swift.

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I have a theory.

It’s 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…

Everyone has a story.


(And most of us have more than one.)

These 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.

Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes that they have a story worth sharing. And many that do will be stopped by a lack of time, motivation, and ability.

There 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.

While 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.

Earl Swift is one of those people.

He 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.

Earl 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.

To 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.

A 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 of both.

It 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 take them.

Back 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.

Frank 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 writer.

Turner, 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.

It’s 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.

After 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.

And 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.

It is my sincere pleasure to share a few moments with Earl Swift…

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How did you get started writing? When and how did it become your professional path?

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.

Writing 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.

Two 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.

I 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?

The 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.

A 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 heavy-metal shriek.

When 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 about.

The 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 pretty.

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.

But 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 Lament.

All 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 villages.

My 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.

I 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.

I spent all of three hours on the island. I’ve wanted to go back ever since.

There 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.

Considering 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?

Sure, 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 replacements.

A 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.

Maybe 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.

That 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 the day.

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I 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 of reasons.)

Until 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.

But 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.

Here 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).

Earl Swift’s web site

Earl Swift at Amazon

Earl Swift at Barnes & Noble

Earl Swift at Prince Books

Thank 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.)

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com