By Sarah McCall
SM: Was Jarhead your MFA thesis?
AS: No. I started it the day I graduated Iowa. My thesis was short stories, maybe thirteen of them or so, many of which I’ve published over the years but never put together for a book. I’d been working on a novel, 150 pages or so, a Gulf War novel, and I decided to be very post-Modern and create a character called Swofford, and I realized that I really had a memoir to write. I consider myself a reluctant memoirist in that way. So basically my MFA was a total waste of time and money and resources. Kidding.
SM: But there’s a lot out there about this argument—whether or not the MFA is “worth it” for a writer.
AS: I think that’s generally people who don’t have an MFA. It’s ridiculous. It really depends on the person—who the writer is, and who the writer wants to become. For me, I was 29, I’d been in the Marine Corps, put myself through public school in the University, worked a crappy job at a warehouse, and this was the first time that all I had to do was read books and write. And that’s all anyone expected of me. It took a couple months for me to figure that out, and to be okay with it. But also, it’s a place where, when you’re in a program, you’re being taken seriously as a writer. And I think that matters, too. When you’re writing seriously, and you’re critiquing other people’s work seriously, you’re in this system that reveres work and process. And that’s the only way you ever finish any project—it’s process.
SM: Yeah, entering the space and people saying how much it matters is not something I had really embraced yet. And it’s invaluable. The time allowed for reading is, too. Do you feel like you can do that as much now?
AS: I certainly read less, because I’m not just writing books now. Which is probably a mistake, honestly. I have less time to write books, and less time to read books. And I miss that. But I’ve set myself up for this.
SM: I cursed when Jarhead was over, because the ending was crushing, and beautiful. I wonder if that’s the best that an author can hope for, that a reader be mad when it ends?
AS: Yeah, that’s good to know. I finished a novel recently and felt that way. And you don’t always feel that way. I think the highest compliment I ever got was when a friend’s husband told me after he read Exit A—“I cried three times and got two hard-ons. I love that book.”
SM: Yes! If people cry, then it’s working. I aim for that in my poetry. Not really—but of course, in our work, we want to elicit an emotional response.
AS: And there’s nothing wrong with making the reader turn the page. You have to keep them in their seat, and keep them wanting more. And that’s all about timing, and the music of your storytelling, which is hopefully totally unseen to the reader, because they are in the story.
SM: The idea of not wasting your life can feel like a heavy burden, yet at the same time the pursuit of art can, in some moments, feel both frivolous and inherently necessary. Perhaps the most urgent thing we can attend to. Do you feel pulled in these different directions, or do you not worry so much about it? How do you strike the balance?
AS: I do worry about it. I care about books. Books changed my life. Books were a refuge for me when I was a teenager, when I was in the Marine Corps, when I was pursuing the life of a writer and didn’t even know what the hell that was. I know that books matter. I don’t know that books save lives—I wouldn’t go that far. I have a friend, a pediatrician who helps at-risk children, and when I hang out with him I feel like such a loser, like I do nothing with my life. He’s literally saving lives. But I don’t think that’s the question. I think the question for the artist is, am I making the best work possible? If you’re doing it, you have to believe that it matters. You have to believe that people read poems, and that poems matter.
SM: Otherwise, you’re not going to do it.
AS: Yeah, my problem, working on a fourth book now, is trying to find a way to have fun again. My wife loves writing, which totally confuses me. I kind of hate it! It’s so hard, and it’s hard to get right. That’s one thing about graduate programs—I had a ton of fun just reading and writing, so that was of extreme value and it made me the kind of writer that I was. I want to learn how to have fun again.
SM: Once it seems like a writer garners the term “unflinching” about his or her work, it seems like they’ve arrived. Your own work has, as well as the labels “painfully” and “brutally” honest. What do you make of these terms? Do you aim for it?
AS: Well, I don’t know that I’m any of those things. If I am, it’s not work, it just comes to me naturally.
SM: Do you think people tend to just say that about compelling memoir?
AS: Maybe. The thing that annoys me is when someone calls something “cinematic.” To me, it’s just good prose. The writer knows what they’re writing. Brutally honest? Who cares. I just care if it’s good storytelling. I’m still hiding behind things, or in front of things. If you call it a memoir, I’d like for those things to have really happened, but I also know there are multiple filters it went through before it gets to me on the page. And the first filter is the individual’s experience. We all experience things in different ways. That’s point of view. Experience is always modified by POV. As long as the storyteller was there at the place and the time, that’s all that really matters to me. Brutally honest doesn’t make me pick up a book and make me want to read it. The quality of the prose, the voice, the story, gets me in. For a memoir you need a story. A great storyteller makes me stay.
SM: In terms of a writer’s “routine” you said once that you like “a two-mile sprint and then a very long rest.” Is that still true?
AS: I think I’m down to a half-mile sprint, which I believe is what I did yesterday in the airport in Philly. So I’m happy about that. But yeah—I still work that way. I wish that I had the life that allowed me to wake up every morning and have a cup of coffee and start writing in the morning and go all day, but I don’t. I’m not just writing books now. And again, that could be to the great detriment of my book writing. But I have other projects going on and other things that pull me. I think there’s a reason why some of those old male writers were such bad fathers. They abandoned their families. They weren’t present fathers.
SM: It’s a matter of time.
AS: I’m about to be on a schedule because of a deadline, and I’m ready to be done with the book I’m working on. I have a really understanding editor who said give me the best book you can when you’re ready. He’s giving me room, which I appreciate.
SM: Mary Karr recently alluded to memoir, and how it has helped her “learn the shape of herself.” Does that resonate at all with you? Is there still some self-discovery in the writing of it?
AS: I don’t know that I want to know the shape of myself. I want to know experience, and understand it through my particular lens. And in the moment, one can’t always understand it. That might just be because I don’t know that I have anything else to write about. Being a young man and going to war were perfect parameters for a first book, and I’m not sure I have those parameters around anything now. But that may just be because I’m shapeless and heartless and I don’t self-reflect.
SM: Yeah, I doubt that! Thank you, Anthony Swofford.
AS: Thank you.
September 25, 2016.
Anthony Swofford is the author of the memoir Jarhead as well as a novel Exit A. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Guardian, Slate, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and others. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Lewis and Clark College. His forthcoming book is a biography of Carlos Arredondo, a Gold Star Father and hero of the 2013 marathon bombing in Boston, and he will write an adaptation of this book for HBO Films.
Sarah McCall is a poet and teacher and native of Norfolk, VA, where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. Recently she organized Writers Resist in Norfolk, part of a national movement to promote social awareness and “re-inaugurate” democracy through art. Her writing has been featured in Fields Magazine, Whurk, HEArt Online, and many other journals. She will complete her MFA at Old Dominion University this year.