I first came across Anthony Swofford’s work when I read Jarhead, his spare and powerful memoir based on his time as a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War. Later I became entranced with his fiction, editing some of his shorter work for an anthology. When Swofford lived in the Bay Area we would sometimes play poker together. I would wait until he got drunk and then I would take his money. For the record, I needed it more than he did. Now Swofford lives in New York. I’ve been waiting years to read his novel. The wait for me and the other fans of his work has finally come to an end with the publication of his first novel, Exit A. We spoke while sharing beers and tacos in many different bars over a long night on the Lower East Side.
ANTHONY SWOFFORD: Anything can be rejected. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people would have said, “Oh yeah, Swofford got lucky with Jarhead because not everybody goes to the Marine Corps and there’s a war, but let’s see if he can write a novel.” I was happy about the novel being accepted. I needed this novel to be my next book. In many ways that has more to do with not wanting to be identified as a military writer as much as not wanting to be identified as a memoirist. And yeah, I think you have to write novels to be a writer in America, or anywhere in the Western world.
BLVR: A few years ago we were at a party, or maybe it was a poker game, and I remember I introduced you to someone. Probably that dope fiend Andy Miller. Anyway, I introduced you as a memoirist. You corrected me. You said, “Novelist.” So now, with the publication of Exit A, people will most likely do that, classify you as a novelist.
AS: I don’t know that I necessarily want to be categorized as a novelist, either.
BLVR: You can’t keep changing your mind.
AS: You know, I intend to publish a book of poems. How I write something depends on the what of it. The memoir was the right form for writing about my time in the Marine Corps, for the first Gulf War. It was the best way for me to write it. In this case, with Exit A, I was excited about these different characters inhabiting all these new places. In the end, the novel is much more expansive than the memoir. The memoir form is limited by one’s lived life, rendered with language and tone and pacing and all of the artful stuff of prose-making. But I felt as the writer of a novel that I was using more tools, and in many ways that more was being asked of me. With a memoir you have the lucky thing of knowing the beginning and the end. In the midst of writing a novel the jungle is darker and deeper and there are bigger snakes and uglier bugs and more decisions to be made on each page.
BLVR: I’ve always felt that novels were the hardest thing because novels were held to the highest standard. That you could cheat a nonfiction book just by having an interesting subject or information that nobody else has. Of course the best memoirs transcend that. But nobody reads a novel unless it’s really well written. It has higher standards, fewer readers, and less pay.
AS: I think so. Just because you happen to have an interesting story doesn’t mean you can write or tell it in a compelling fashion. You don’t even have to care about the art of the memoir. Memoir writers would stab me in the forehead with a fork for saying this, but I think writing a novel is a lot harder to do. And for me, as satisfying as it was to write Jarhead, writing Exit A took up much more of my life. It took more time. And finishing the book was much more satisfying as a project.
BLVR: Are you nervous about how the novel will be perceived?
AS: No more nervous than I would ever be about any book. I worked hard on it and I wrote the best book that I could, just as I did with Jarhead. And now it’s out in the world.
BLVR: What was the genesis of Exit A? The first third of the book is set in Japan. Did you do a tour there?
AS: I didn’t do a tour in Japan but I lived in Japan as a kid. I lived in Tokyo on a military base, not dissimilar to the one that I write about in Exit A, though I was much younger, four to eight years old. I lived in Okinawa for a while when I was in the Marine Corps. I didn’t want to write a novel that took place in America. I was thinking about American power, American global influence. Then what that means on the micro level of the family. That’s when I came up with the idea of setting the book on a military base in Japan.
BLVR: The novel feels very political. There are so many points of connection within this world you’ve constructed and the world right now. You have the grandson of the pilot of the Enola Gay working as an MP on the air base. North Koreans kidnapping Japanese. There’s a lot of politics going on. It’s also interesting with the whole North Korean subplot. I mean North Korea is a pretty popular subject these days. How much do you feel the outside world coming into your work?
AS: I think that’s something this book has extratextually in common with Jarhead. I started writing Jarhead in May of 2001, when no one could have cared less about the first Gulf War. It was considered a nonevent. When in all actuality the war sort of never ended. [Jarhead was published at the beginning of the second Gulf War, in March 2003.] Events in this book: the Korean Peninsula being an agitating state, the Japanese being in fear of what North Korea might do, that’s been going on since ’46, basically. It’s not so much the outside world intruding on my book but maybe just people who don’t pay attention to world events taking notice as those events catch up to the fictional world I’ve made.
BLVR: When I met the character Severin Boxx, your main character in Exit A, I thought, that’s Anthony. This broad-shouldered, athletic kid, kind of smart. But he’s not actually as smart as you. He might be smarter than he’s living up to, but he’s not that smart.
AS: In the first part of the book he’s a jock kid and he’s good at being a linebacker. At the same time he’s kind of a shy kid and he doesn’t know how to get the girl. The book is his education; thank God it’s his education. We see him grow from a knuckleheaded seventeen-year-old kid into a man that makes amends to people whom he loved in the past and were important to him in the past. He’s realizing the importance of these people.
BLVR: You’re talking about General Kindwall. To me, the general is perhaps the most interesting character in the book.
AS: The general is a powerful man who wreaks havoc on himself and his family and others. He’s also the head of this American military base in Japan that is controversial, that has been since the occupation officially ended, but some argue has been in effect since 1950. He is the power in the first part of the book and he’s the most powerful person in the U.S. military in Japan. He’s responsible for fifteen to twenty thousand troops and a lot of weaponry.
BLVR: He’s very unstable. And of course there’s a history of itchy-fingered generals in this part of the world.
AS: There’s a lot of ego going on. Early in the book he walks the base and he thinks, I own this. I own the whole motherfucker. And he’ll be the one who decides if they can go drop bombs on North Korea. And that’s intoxicating. But Kindwall is constantly feeling threatened by the world.
BLVR: Severin has a very complicated relationship with women. There’s Virginia, the love of his life, daughter of General Kindwall. Later, he marries a psychiatrist who he can’t be faithful to.
AS: You know, Severin’s a guy who’s failed at love and is very kind of… he’s a smart guy and he’s aware of his failures. He’s also kind of paranoid and he allows that paranoia to take over. He allows himself to be manipulated by this young, smart, sexy, and somewhat crazy girl [Virginia]. He also does that stupid male thing where he allows himself to believe the worst about someone who loves him.
BLVR: Virginia is so erotic. What does Virginia represent for you?
AS: Virginia represents the highly charged female sexuality on the verge of adulthood, yet still naïve. Totally smart and sexy and erotic but naïve and unaware of the power of the male world, and she ends up being crushed by it. When I started writing this book, in the first hundred pages I wrote, Virginia was a minor character. But I became excited by her as a character and I wanted to understand her. Her world came alive on the page. She represents women I’ve loved and failed to love correctly. Also, Jarhead is so male, for obvious reasons. I was excited about writing from the female point of view, the female world, and trying to understand it and critique male power through that female perspective. Severin’s mother is also doing that.
BLVR: When I’m writing fiction, I feel like I can go further than nonfiction. You can do more than tell the truth, you can also say, “And here is one way that truth might play out.” Is there some insight into the military that you could get at in this novel that maybe you couldn’t get at in Jarhead?
AS: Well, in Jarhead the point of view was mine, which was limited in scope. I was a sniper on the ground, that’s it. General Kindwall is the kind of global example of the military and American military power. Writing General Kindwall, I can pull the lens back farther. You know, show the civilians protesting the base after his son has been killed accidentally by Marines behaving irresponsibly. In the novel I can get at both the emotional and philosophical moments that were not available to me in nonfiction.
BLVR: Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book?
AS: It took me much longer to write Exit A. I wrote Jarhead in a year, from writing the first paragraph to the final draft being accepted by my publisher. Exit A took me three and a half years and I wrote 750 pages to come up with a 340-page manuscript. The journey of the novel is a little more complex. It took more out of me. I think the author loses something, gives something of him or herself to every book. The novel took much more from me. The psychic cost was higher.
BLVR: I had written a couple of books already but when I wrote my novel Happy Baby I felt like I was in a cave. Like I started in my twenties and finished in my thirties and the world was an entirely different place. Did you have that kind of feeling with Exit A?
AS: I was pretty deep into the book. Especially in the last year of writing it. I had a pretty tumultuous three and a half years. I moved three times, got divorced. And in the last year I was here in New York and I cut out most travel and I was really lost in the book. Which is that lovely thing that can happen when you’re a writer. When someone can tell you it’s March 2006 and you can say, “Really? It’s 2006?” And that’s because you’ve been giving yourself to the work and the book is more important than you, the writer.
BLVR: You can really see the attention paid to sentences in your book. It’s a very carefully constructed book. One with very few adjectives.
AS: It’s naturally a style but it’s also something that only appears through revision. I revise a lot. And that’s those 740 pages that were cut back. Some of that was taking a turn in the plot for a hundred pages that turned out to be wrong. You’re twenty-five pages into a story and it’s coming and you keep writing and then you junk it. At the sentence level I read everything out loud. I’m careful about sound and meaning. How sound influences meaning. The poetics of the sentence. But also my spoken language is pretty… I won’t say clipped, but I try not to waste words. So it’s kind of a natural mode for me in terms of how I think, and for me the writing process is also the thinking process.
BLVR: How much of your writing comes from conflict? You grew up in a military family and you were a Marine, but you’re also very well-read and you have a desire for greater things. I know you like to go out and have a beer but you’re not a grunt, which is part of what gives Jarhead its edge.
AS: But that’s a limited view because there’s James Jones, there’s James Salter, Tobias Wolff. There’s a tradition in American letters that come out of warfare and conflict. I think it’s the scrabblers, the ones willing to occupy two worlds while casting a critical eye on both, that create that work. I don’t think it’s the guy in the military who’s the true believer and really at home doing his thing. People who don’t question authority aren’t going to write great literature. That wasn’t Norman Mailer or Tim O’Brien or those other people. I don’t know these guys but I know their work and I would imagine they had some issues in the military and that they saw the abuses of power. Saw both the horror and the beauty of the machinery. And if you only choose to see the beauty you’re not going to go on and write a book about it. Or you might write a bad book.
BLVR: I always feel like there are two types of writers. There’re the ones who love literature so much they want to be a part of it. And there’s the others who write to communicate. I love to read but that’s not why I started writing.
AS: For me, as a teenager I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have the in. I was a reader but I didn’t have the influences around me that would encourage me to be a writer. And I didn’t have the confidence in my own thoughts or abilities. I was like twenty-five. It was a few years after I’d left the Marine Corps when I really started pursuing writing and thinking seriously about it and committing myself.
BLVR: When you were in the Marines you didn’t think you’d be a writer?
AS: In the Corps I read and I wanted to be a writer and I wrote some really bad existentialist poems but it wasn’t as though I thought I would get out of the Marine Corps and go write the great American novel. I was worried about getting out of the Marine Corps and being twenty-two years old without any skills and no college education and needing to feed myself.
BLVR: So you didn’t have a college education when you got out?
AS: No. I started going to community college in Northern California. I finished my undergrad when I was twenty-eight. Right after that I applied to Iowa. I finished undergrad in June of ’99 and started at Iowa in August.
BLVR: Was that the watershed moment for you? Getting into Iowa, which has this famous writers’ workshop? Did you suddenly think, Yeah, I can hang with these guys?
AS: It certainly helped with confidence. I showed up at Iowa City and I was around these hundred other people who wanted to be writers and it was OK to just work and lock myself in an apartment for a week and just eat eggs and bacon and cookies because I was trying to finish a story. And that hadn’t been OK for me before because I was putting myself through college. At Iowa the only thing I had to do all day was read books and write.
BLVR: So doing the M.F.A. was a positive experience?
AS: The M.F.A. was absolutely a positive experience. It made this desire of mine, this need of mine. I studied with great writers there. I learned a lot from them. There was this thing that Frank Conroy, who for many people was a controversial teacher—he said on the first day of each year that writing was about character and that character was wrapped up in discipline. For Frank character was sitting at the computer or with that yellow pad and staying there until you were totally exhausted or the words came. I learned that kind of discipline at Iowa. I’m in touch with the people I studied with. There are a few people I hear from. I have a real romance for Iowa City. The workshop was great for me. And when I’m in town I’ll stop by. I’ll see Jim McPherson, Chris Offutt, who was my teacher and is now one of my closest friends. I’ll crash on his couch when I come through.
BLVR: Let’s get back to Exit A. One of the most surprising moments of the book is where Jones, the MP, doesn’t beat the hell out of the seventeen-year-old Severin Boxx even though he has permission to do so from General Kindwall and Severin’s own father.
AS: It was surprising for me, too. I was really kind of excited about writing this scene where this MP is going to beat Severin. He had it coming. I really remembered writing that scene and being surprised that Jones refuses this violent moment that’s being allowed him. His grandfather was handed the ultimate violent moment (dropping the bomb on Hiroshima) and took it. At eighteen to twenty-two in the Marine Corps I wouldn’t have refused any violent moment.
BLVR: I wonder about how you’ve changed. I spent a lot of time in group homes as a kid, which can be pretty violent places, and you were in the Marines. But you’re not a violent person now. Is that because of different surroundings? Is it the people you hang out with?
AS: Just spending time alone reading books will change you. Though I think you’re on to something. Growing up in a group home and going to war, those are pretty particular microrealities that some guys never leave. They continue to use the language of that world, the gestures. They continue to think that way. I couldn’t do that in life. I do it in prose for the book, but I couldn’t do it in life.
BLVR: Is there stuff you’ve seen in the current climate, the current political environment, that influenced this book?
AS: I hope that I’m always responding to the current political moment. I mean, writing a book is a political act. Asserting one’s voice is a political act. Here’s an American military base forty-four years after the bombs dropped on Tokyo. What does that mean to the blending of the culture? The loss of Virginia’s Japanese identity. Minor compared to ninety-four Sunnis being butchered north of Baghdad over the weekend. But still part of the cycle and machinery of American political power. There are many victims of that. Virginia’s a victim of that. Severin’s a victim of that. The mothers are victims of it. Yoshida’s son, who was accidentally killed by reckless Marines, was a victim of it. Those victims are often overlooked, I think.
BLVR: You can’t have a war without casualties. You can’t have power without damage, and that comes through a lot in this book. Mistakes will always be made. The book is both critical and generous to those that make mistakes.
AS: Yeah, I don’t think the book is generous or naïve. We can’t have a world without power and people using it and often abusing it. Abuses of power and privilege happen every day. But I care about the Yoshida’s sons of the world.