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Writing What Haunts Us


June 15, 2012

Anthony Swofford on bad habits, good writing, and coming back from the brink

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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sitting in his beautiful apartment with a view of the Empire state building, Anthony Swofford still fantasized about combat. After writing Jarhead, a memoir about his time as a Marine fighting in the first Gulf War, Swofford found other ways to test himself as a man. He risked death in a sports car, collected girlfriends like baseball cards and flew them halfway around the world (sometimes bunking them in the same hotel, just a floor away from each other), dosed himself with drugs. “I thought about killing myself” he writes, but in some ways he already was dead.

But one skill he learned in combat never left him: “being a marine and going to war helped me become a great liar.” He had also inherited a talent for lying from his father, who had suffered in combat. Swofford’s father, a Vietnam veteran, was also a master of deceit, and in some ways lying becomes a way to continue his father’s legacy—the ultimate proof of manhood.

Swofford’s relationship with his father was always touch-and-go. In Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails Swofford’s new memoir out this month, he writes about a last-ditch effort to come to terms with the aging veteran. He plans a cross-country RV trip with his father to attend Swofford’s nieces’s graduation. The RV races down the highway with the same urgency that Swofford and his father attempt to reconnect. John Howard Swofford had contracted lung disease, possibly from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Still, over not one but three road trips Swofford discovers his father’s biggest lie of all: “he deceived himself about how that little war in Southeast Asia had changed him.”

Years after Jarhead’s 2003 debut, Swofford is in the middle of writing a new memoir (his first since the fallout after Jarhead’s success). In a cabin in upstate New York with his girlfriend (now wife), Swofford discovers he is about to become a father himself. This sudden swerve in his life will change everything he’s learned and been taught about what fatherhood and manhood means.

In Hotels, the question of whether Swofford can pull himself back from the brink of self-destruction to become a father and man he wants to be becomes, surprisingly, the most compelling thread in the book.

Swofford describes his shifting emotional and psychological landscape in a warm, conversational tone, one that is reminiscent of another masterful book on fathers and lying—Geofferey Wolff’s Duke of Deception. Even when Swofford reveals objectionable moments from his past: doing cheap drugs with a girl from a club in Las Vegas, fantasizing about unplugging his father’s oxygen, contemplating an affair with a druggy comedienne from his past, his willingness to be hardest on himself makes him an extremely likeable narrator. So likeable, in fact, that this reviewer was moved to ask him for relationship advice.

Liza Monroy for Guernica

Guernica: There seem to be two intersecting “life-afters” in the book: life after war, and life after fame. I was struck by the exploration of how you seemed to turn on yourself after the success of Jarhead, and the end of your first marriage before that. I’m thinking especially of the points in the book when you overtly address “that old good life I ruined.” Why does success have this dark side of cracking things open, letting loose these self-destructive tendencies? In your case was it, as the prologue implies, partially the psychological fallout of war?

Anthony Swofford: The fact of having gone to war is never far from any self-destructive behavior I undertake. My war, my father’s war, they are both a part of the darker sides of me. And I did believe, as I state in the prologue, that going to war was the very best, and only true test of manhood. So I wrote a book about a war, I had some success, I moved to Manhattan, I wasted many nights on women and drinking and sometimes drugs. It meant nothing. It was a practice meant to kill the boredom of this simple urban life. A meditation, if you will. I had walked away from a fairly good marriage. I’d just given up. That failure was a dark stain. And what did “success” even mean? I was a working-class kid from Sacramento. Some mornings I sat in my apartment with its view of the Empire State Building and I wished I still lived in my 400-dollar-a-month apartment in downtown Sacramento, and that I still worked in a grocery warehouse humping hundred-pound bags of dog food onto shipping pallets. I wanted to obliterate myself because this thing some people called success meant nothing.

The trip was a mess, a total mess–my wacky doctor girlfriend at the graduation party with my sister and her meth-head girlfriend, my divorced parents hanging out like old buddies. I ended up in a gay honkytonk-slash-goth bar making out with a cowboy’s girlfriend.

Guernica: When did you know you would be writing your second memoir about this? Tell me a little about how the book “happened”–how did you connect the mental and emotional state you were in to your strained relationship with your father?

Anthony Swofford: I needed to write a new book. After EXIT A came out in 2007 I’d been dropping in and out of a novel, but after two years I hadn’t crested the 150 page mark. The book fizzled, or I fizzled, I don’t know what happened. But I proclaimed that I’d take the spring off, whatever that meant. My niece Dez was about to graduate college and my father, who has COPD, a nasty lung disease, is understandably afraid of flying. He said he’d only make it to Montana with some help. So I agreed to fly to California and drive to Billings with him in his new RV. I realized later this was my father’s ploy to get me in the passenger seat for a talk. He’d missed my brother’s daughter’s high school graduation and I didn’t want him to miss Dez’s college graduation, so I agreed. At the time I was seeing this kind of wacky ER doc and she was pretty free and easy with her prescription pad, with reciprocity assumed. My dad and I hit the road, and by the time we were in Nevada he wanted to start with the deep talk about our relationship. Hell, I was looking forward to the beauty of the road and silence and meeting my doctor girlfriend in Billings, where she would be all loaded up with fresh pills. The trip was a mess, a total mess–my wacky doctor girlfriend at the graduation party with my sister and her meth-head girlfriend, my divorced parents hanging out like old buddies. I ended up in a gay honkytonk-slash-goth bar making out with a cowboy’s girlfriend. I got home to Manhattan, and I realized I needed to take another few trips with my father to try to figure him out, because I’d failed on that trip. I decided to write into my novel an old man driving around the country in his RV mourning his dead war vet son, and then I thought, “Fuck it, just write another memoir. Write about John Howard Swofford.”

Guernica: Right, it doesn’t need any fictionalizing. The graduation trip is one of those stories you just can’t make up—

Anthony Swofford: I had in front of me, every single day, the major themes that make literature sing: war and family and death and mortality and love and failure.

Guernica: Reminds me of the adage. Bad for life, good for writing.

Anthony Swofford: Though often what is bad for life is also bad for writing—

Guernica: Seems like it can also be what keeps the writer from working.

Anthony Swofford: I’ll just say that I don’t work very well with turbulence.

Guernica: Best left to the page, right? Where do you work and what kind of writing routine do you keep?

Anthony Swofford: Right now I work in an antechamber in this rustic converted barn in Woodstock that my family lives in. A neighbor grew up in this house and she looked shocked when I told her it was my office. She said they’d stored brooms and luggage there. But it works for me. And I like brooms and luggage. I need a door that closes, and air conditioning, a wall unit is fine, and loud speakers. My routine is whatever fits my life at the time. I wrote half of this book after my daughter was born, so that meant late-night hours. During the day my wife and I were both running around with our hair on fire. I swear that for the next book I will find a routine. Like Graham Greene: 800 words before breakfast everyday, and then golf or bocce ball or sunbathing. But that seems unlikely. I like a two-mile sprint and then a very long rest.

Guernica: The former broom and luggage storage—sounds like literally locking yourself in a closet to write. As with Jarhead, you take a self-critical stance in Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails. Even in the prologue, you say that going to war made you a great liar. Other writers might save the ugly until they’ve established a “likeable protagonist,” but the honesty about lying does a lot of the work of creating a sympathetic narrator for you.The prologue has a big-picture effect, and I wondered how, and why, you decided on it as the way into the book. What challenges do you face in conducting this kind of intense, personal self-examination on the page? Does it come naturally or do you work through reflection over the course of drafts?

Anthony Swofford: I hide for a few drafts and am fairly happy with the persona that I’ve rendered for the reader. But who wants to be happy with the way a memoirist has lived his life? That would just be boring. I was reading Blue Nights before going into some final edits, and with the righteousness and smugness of a new parent I thought, “For god’s sake, Joan Didion was an awful parent, exposing her daughter to the vacuous life of Hollywood and literary New York.” And then I realized that I admired Didion for telling on herself and not being shy about living high on expenses and exposing her daughter to this world. And hell, her daughter probably had fun at all of those five star hotels and meeting all of those fucked-up people, and this book is raw and honest and I’ll follow Didion anywhere. I’ll judge her, but I’ll always trust her. As far as self-examination goes, and opening the book up with a visceral examination of my behavior and proclivities of the prior few years: I spend a lot of time in the chapters working this same material, but I figured why not open up with it, tell the reader who you are, be totally honest about the man, the authority, on the trip they are about to embark on. There is no reason to be tricky about what kind of ride you’re about to take a reader on. Not in a memoir. I had, for a number of drafts, basically all of them, totally avoided my literary biography. I didn’t want to write about Jarhead, but the three readers I have said, rightly, that I wouldn’t have been all messed up living in Manhattan, living excessively and dangerously, without Jarhead in the world. And my fight with my father would have been at a different volume without that success. So I decided to get it out of the way: I wrote this book. It sold some copies. A movie was made. I cashed some checks. And then I went kind of crazy and you are about to read about it. Let’s have some fun.

Any mission to figure out the father is probably a false mission, or at least a mission with a questionable outcome.

Guernica: You mentioned you’d previously thought war was what would ultimately prove manhood, and it turns out to be fatherhood instead. Did you intend this as the arc from the outset or did the realization happen during the writing?

Anthony Swofford: I knew that war would be a central element of the book: having gone to war, having not killed, writing a book about war. My father’s war, the way Vietnam marked and marred my childhood. It’s completely irrational, but still, when I hung out with vets from Iraq or Afghanistan and heard their stories of war, I wanted it. I wanted some war, I wanted some madness, I wanted to be a ripped up 20-year-old kid throwing fire downrange. I didn’t intend to end the book with a shift from war to fatherhood. It just so happened that when I had about a third of the book left to write my wife became pregnant. We had a baby daughter and I still hadn’t finished the book. I was a few months past my deadline. My life needed to catch up to the book I had on my hands. This was hard to explain to my patient editor. I looked at my daughter in the days after her birth, when we were getting to know her, and one night it dawned on me that nothing I ever do will be more important than the kind of father I am to that beautiful baby.

Guernica: In your case it all seemed very fated: meeting your wife, things coming together, the incredible arc that life handed you. What do you say to readers who want all that? Who are saying, as you were, “I need to build a nest and I need a lover who won’t drive me crazy?” Can they do something about it, or is it more a matter of yielding to fate?

Anthony Swofford: I’m the worst at relationship advice. Ask any of my still single friends. Get out early from messy relationships and don’t compromise. That’s the best I can do!

Guernica: I will quote you on that. Love is hard to find even when it’s what you want. Or maybe that’s living in New York City.

Anthony Swofford: Actually, I was living in a cabin on the side of a mountain in the Catskills. We drove through the town today and I said to [my wife] Christa, “This place is a fucking dump. What did you think when you pulled through town?” And she said, “I thought you were having a nervous breakdown and I wanted to see how it turned out.”

New York City is a war zone for anyone looking for love. It’s a city constructed for the ease of bad behavior and outright deceit. I loved it for that reason for many years.

I don’t believe in fate as something to trust or rely on. I believe in living, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, but always being open to some kind of good in the world. This once, the good that walked into my life was a brilliant and loving woman who had her own demons and debauchery, so she didn’t really care about mine. I’d thought that I’d seen this good before, but it had always been my imagination, or an outright lie, my own or someone else’s.

Christa and I wonder about this aloud. How did it happen that two people so perfectly suited for one another met at exactly the right moment? We could have met any number of times over the prior four or five years. We have numerous friends and acquaintances in common, and we would have fallen into a precarious and totally destructive relationship that would have been a blast for six months and then total hell for a few years. And we could have done this still, but I for one said to myself: STOP. This is good. This is right. Do not email the 25-year-old hedge funder and have sex with her. Do not call the BoHo artist and have sex with her and build another house of lies. Start new and see it through, free of all that bullshit noise.

And, yes, New York City is a war zone for anyone looking for love. It’s a city constructed for the ease of bad behavior and outright deceit. I loved it for that reason for many years.

Guernica: As in many classic memoirs, the father is a powerful figure in Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails. You say that if you cracked the code on John Howard Swofford you would also crack the code on yourself. I’m wondering if you’d say that this worked, or was it a false mission? Were there other things along the way, while you were trying to crack the father-code, which led you to the psychological place at the end of the book?

Anthony Swofford: Any mission to figure out the father is probably a false mission, or at least a mission with a questionable outcome. One of my father’s central mistakes, well, he made many mistakes as a father, but in my teen years and mid-twenties my father wanted to be my pal and he wanted to tell me about what a Lothario he’d been. And that history a man should always, at least for his children, keep a mystery. So my father gave me too much of himself, the wrong part of himself. And then, cursed with this knowledge, I went after him, I wanted to slay him, destroy him for his sins against my family. My life would have been simpler if he hadn’t shared his loverboy past with me. And I became him, the liar, the Lothario, the man wasting away, debasing himself and running away from love. Eventually I saw this older version of me, on the road, in the RV, outside Houston, and it was him, my old pop, playing his Clint Eastwood role, though really he was just a lonely old man who had been very handsome and had had some fun with the ladies. And this vision of my father scared me to death, very nearly to death, and I vowed to change how I lived. I would outsmart the old man after all. I was still young, at forty, and rather than fuck my life all up, I would straighten it out. I’d already crashed a sports car, I’d done all of that ridiculous stuff, and I’d done it better than him, and now I could start a family and be a real man.

Guernica: The reverse midlife crisis, as you write in the book. Seems like there is something important in that time-reversal—get all the mid-life crisis stuff out of the way, out of the system, then settle down and nest, rather than vice versa.

Anthony Swofford: A great teacher of mine, James Alan McPherson, once said to me, “You give your children everything you didn’t have and it is the wrong thing.” My father had a proper old Southern gentleman for a father, who would never have talked about sex or drinking or excess of any kind with his children. My father would go to the strip club and talk about fast cars and banging girls, and it was the wrong thing. But by remaining true to his personal vision of himself, and obstinate in the face of loneliness and oblivion, he taught me to want something different. And I love him for that.

Guernica: In your memoir, the thread of suffering stands out: we struggle and suffer so much, and nearly destroy ourselves at times, to arrive at the most beautiful things, like family.

Anthony Swofford: I had no choice but to settle down. Any other option would have killed me. I was telling people that I was going to finish a book and then move to Phnom Penh. That was longhand for: I’m going to kill myself.

Guernica: You overtly discuss the nature of memoir writing and of writing about others. For instance, “Everyone must understand: when someone writes a memoir people get scorched.” Certain scenes illustrate this, as when your recently widowed sister-in-law gets drunk and sort of hits on you. How do you make decisions about when and what to reveal about others in memoir?

Anthony Swofford: A memoirist must bury her head in the sand and write all of the good stuff. The good stuff is sometimes embarrassing for the memoirist, and for others. If you worry about that, you will kill your book. Any wise and careful reader will know that elements, very important elements of the story, are missing. I did not want to write about my dead brother’s wife hitting on me at a chain restaurant in the Atlanta suburbs three days after his funeral. But I had to. I waited as long as possible to write that. I’d told the story dozens of times. A friend who knew that story and knew the book I was working on was incredulous when I told him I might not put it in. He threatened to write it himself. It is the clearest and most aching portrayal of grief in the book. I do not call it that, I simply narrate it, with command and poise, and her complexity and the tragedy of my brother’s death reverberate. How do you pull it off? Write the terrible pieces.

The writer must be foolish and brave and believe that she has found a way to say something that hasn’t been said before.

Guernica: You also bring in the issue of memory, the places where memory differs between people. As your father writes, “There are other things you wrote that did not happen and others much different than the way you remember.” How do you negotiate the intersection of imagination and memory, and the selective nature of memory, in your process?

Anthony Swofford: I don’t know that I negotiate that intersection; I plow right through it. In drafts I burn up keyboards cogitating on received memory, created memory, actual history, the various versions of the One True Story that every family tells and revises. But in my final drafts, and even well before, I junk most of that. I find it dreadfully boring and a perfect realm for fretting writers to drone in until the entire universe is comatose. I know that what I know and what I tell will never jibe perfectly with, say, my father’s version, or even my wife’s, and we tell each other the same damn stories every night. She thinks that on our first date I ate chicken. I am sure it was pork. Of course memory is selective. And the memoirist makes it even more selective by rendering it on the page, recreating it with prose. The written thing is never the actual thing. There exists something called lived life, and in a book there is a narrative life. Every aspect of the lived life cannot fit into the book. The writer must select what goes in, must make decisions. Every book is thousands of decisions, made by the authority, the author. Memoir is not documentary. But I do know for certain that the restaurant where Christa and I met was in Tivoli, and that it was in September, and that the night was chilly, but not so much that I needed a jacket. And I know that I began to fall in love that night. Some day she might convince me that I ate chicken that night. Memoir is story, narrative. Who cares if memory is selective? I don’t. I care how it is rendered and that the events are real.

Guernica: And what about staying the course when it seems like writing is not a viable way to make a living? You write, “A professor is, well, a professional. A writer is a bum.” That seems to be the way writers’ parents see it, but does it help for writers to see themselves that way?

Anthony Swofford: The writer must be foolish and brave and believe that she has found a way to say something that hasn’t been said before. This usually takes years. It is a lonely pursuit. But in a time of much noise and nonsense, to sit alone in a room for many hours, if not years, of one’s life seems to me a radical undertaking. And the very best things in the world were made by people doing radical things. That said, if I had it to do again I’d probably go to med school and try to invent a drug that made writing easier. Then I’d go write my books, under the influence of that drug I’d created. They tried with coffee but it doesn’t do the trick. But really, I’d get a doctorate in mathematics. I still might do that.

Guernica: The chapter in which you visit Bethesda Naval Hospital is vivid and intense, and widens the scope of the narrative. How do you see this larger narrative as connected to your personal and family stories?

Anthony Swofford: I’ve spent a lot of time over the last ten years hanging out with veterans, often injured veterans, in different settings. Of the many powerful and emotional experiences I’ve had with vets, the Bethesda trip was the most intense, the most distilled, and the one that reverberated with me and my personal history. Some of these young men were literally hours off of the battlefield. They haunted me, their mothers pacing the halls haunted me, and I had to write about them.

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