Open up any newspaper or switch on any television news program and you will no doubt be confronted with the withered face of the war in Iraq that simply will not abate. Unfortunately, war continues to be a dismal reality that every living being has to cope with on a daily basis, but it is, indeed, a rare thing for anyone to have actually experienced lugging a 100-pound backpack while fighting in chaotic front-line combat in the Middle East. With his shattering memoir Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, Anthony Swofford gives the average civilian a pull-no-punches perspective of what it is really like to be a Marine during wartime.
Swofford's tale is not a happy one, but one that is necessary for gleaning a complete concept of not only what war means but what it does to those in the thick of it. Swofford is the product of a military lineage. His grandfather fought in World War II, his father in Vietnam. Anthony himself grew up on a military base, and while his peers were dreaming of what college they might attend, he determined to follow his familial path -- not that his parents encouraged a military career for their son. In fact, on one occasion, his father escorted a Marine recruiter from the Swofford household. However, Anthony, terrified of failure in a "normal" life, was focused on a destiny that was out of his father's hands. As he confesses in his book, "I needed the Marine Corps to save me from the other life I'd fail at -- the life of a college boy hoping to find a girlfriend and later a job."
The life Swofford sought out ultimately entailed nearly getting killed in an Iraqi booby trap, being shot by both Americans and Iraqis, physical abuse by a sadistic drill instructor, suicidal thoughts, and nagging murderous impulses. Trained to kill, and sent to the Middle East to do just that, Swofford found himself aching to perform his function, nearly shooting a comrade in the process. According to Swofford, such violent behavior simply went hand in hand with life on the frontlines. "It's an extremely violent place," he explained in an interview with Powells.com. "You're a young man who's trained to kill. It's in your head every day. You live in a very strict environment, and part of the reason you extend that violence beyond running around the jungle with your M16, say, you extend it out into the town because it's safe. You end up getting into a fight with some college kids or whatever."
Fortunately, Swofford made it out of the Marines alive, and has decided to use his horrifying experiences to enlighten the public about the reality of war without filtering it through the soft gauze of media spin. The Gulf War was portrayed as a brief skirmish that left few U.S. casualties, but Jarhead tells a different tale, addressing the psychological casualties of war. The resulting memoir has received much praise from Esquire, The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher's Weekly, to name a few. Jarhead has also been the subject of a major motion picture directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty; Road to Perdition) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as "Swoff."
As for the real Swoff, he remains devoted to a personal crusade of educating others about military life, that very same life from which his father tried so hard to protect him. Swofford recently taught a class at Lewis and Clark College in the school's "Inventing America" program. Asking his students such thorny questions as "What is war worth and how much does it cost?" and "Is America worth fighting for?" has likely sparked the kind of debate one rarely encounters on the evening news.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Swofford:
"My first job after leaving the Marine Corps was as a bank teller, and a few months into it I was robbed at gunpoint. Then I quit. Down with guns."
"Some people in my family believe we are related to Francis Scott Key, and thus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but this is not true."
"I prefer fish to steak."
"After a hard day of writing I love to cook. I am currently cooking regularly out of Batali, Boulud, and Pepin cookbooks. I still need recipes. I can walk to the market at four, shop, cook, and feed someone at nine o'clock. Then I've spent five hours away from the book, and this separation is good, and I've made something that is complete, perhaps, even, with lunch for the next day. And after eating I can revise the day's earlier work, while someone else washes the dishes."
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In the winter of 2006, Anthony Swofford took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar; this book dazzled me when I first read it in college and still does, any day of the week. I will read it again and again until I die. Its inventiveness and cunning taught me that anything is possible with prose, and its intellectual and aesthetic fierceness taught me that a writer should always have lofty goals for her work. Also, it's highly entertaining and deeply sexy.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar -- See above.
Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass -- Gass's acuity never falters, no matter what he writes about, and in this book a small Ohio town comes to life, from the muddy, bloated river to the life-loving Brackett Omensetter, to the preacher burning with Passion and God. A wreck occurs on these waters, but it's beautiful.
The Essential Akutagawa by Ryunosuki Akutagawa -- This is a wonderful compendium of the great Japanese modernist's works, including, at the end, his famous suicide note. One of the most prestigious Japanese writing awards is named after Akutagawa, and after reading this you'll know why. The stories "Hell Screen" and "Cogwheels" are especially dark and wonderful. Akutagawa is much more than Rashomon.
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan -- Here of course you'll find the haunting "Deathfugue," but the entire collection reeks of the Holocaust and butchery and the main problem of the 20th century: the escalation of warfare, the widespread killing of civilians, the constant question, "When will I die?" Celan, like Akutagawa, chose his own time and method.
Experience> by Martin Amis -- I love Amis's novels, but for some reason the book I reach for in my bookshelves when I want a dose of Amis is usually this. Its prose is as dynamic as in any other book, but something about the memoir form, the story of his father and his own youth, his own failures, softens the acerbic wit, and more heart is on display. I am a sucker for heart.
The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams -- Williams is a writer Gass called the best of her generation, and of course, he was right. (She was one of my teachers at Iowa, but not before I'd read all of her work years prior, based on Gass's recommendation. Which brings me back to Gass: his essays are invaluable for building an epic reading list.) This book follows three teenage girls, Corvus, Alice, and Annabel, through the Arizona desert on a series of adventures and into sobering adult situations. Annabel's mother, Ginger, now a ghost, occasionally appears. Williams writes with mad passion and her ear is as tuned as Beethoven's. Every sentence, even the darkest of them, sings life and love.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner -- Faulkner thought he was writing a potboiler with this one, a mystery. The mystery he constructed was of race and bloodlines and the entire history of the American south. A masterpiece.
The Stranger by Albert Camus -- One of the books I read early and often as a teenager that made me want to become a writer. This book had it all: existential angst, an exotic foreign location, a bitter moral tale, sexuality, violence, punishment, politics, exhausted acquiescence to the larger forces that control and alter one's life. Among other books, I carried this with me into war. That 1989 Vintage edition is in my bookshelf today.
Quarrel and Quandary by Cynthia Ozick -- Ozick's mind is a great pleasure to spend twenty or thirty pages with while she considers Anne Frank, poetry, or Dostoyevsky. Her essay "A Drug Store Eden," is a heartbreaking and transcendental tale of family and business and a lost generation of European Jews. This entire collection is as sturdy and trustworthy as an old pharmacist, doling out the right meds at the right times, the proper dosages of metaphor and lightning-bright intellect.
The Stupefaction by Diane Williams -- Williams works in tight, compressed prose corridors that she constructs for herself. Often the women in those spaces are drowning or suffocating from sexual pressures or the ton-of-bricks pressure of being a modern woman who is forced to choose: family, work, or play? No answers here, only staggering and beautiful renderings of off-kilter lives.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Ikiru (Kurosawa) -- Redemption and savoring life are possible even at the end.
High and Low -- A great Kurosawa adaptation of an Ed McBain 87th precinct novel, set in an elite enclave of Tokyo. Beautifully shot in a modernist backdrop, and Mifune is again as always, superb.
Solyaris (Tarkovsky) -- The imagery and the poetics.
Maria Full of Grace -- A tender and insightful film, suspenseful, simultaneously a dramatic tearjerker and a social justice/human rights film.
Bonnie and Clyde -- Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty circa 1967. Need I say more?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My musical tastes are rather catholic and often influenced by what music I have recently been given. Right now I love a band named Okkervill River, splendid songwriting and great live shows. I'm listening a lot to Iron and Wine's In the Reins w/Calexico. I am also a big fan of the band Songs: Ohia. I love jazz and am lucky enough to be able to walk to the Village Vanguard when I want it live. When writing I will sometimes listen to music and sometimes not. When I wake up in the morning I have no idea whether or not it will be a music day or a silence day. Charles Brown, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, The Bad Plus, Glenn Gould, Minor Threat, Japanese Punk.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Hopscotch, because everyone should read it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like giving and getting art books. I just bought a catalog of the Prado, in Japanese, for a friend who lives in Tokyo, and I can't wait to give it to her next time I'm there. Give me art books and I will be your friend.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no rituals. Well, maybe I do. I like using 5x10 notecards to sketch scenes and write dialogue and re-write paragraphs. My desk is messy and sometimes the mess moves to the floor. On my desk I have a photo of me and my older brother in Tokyo in 1975, after catching trout in a stocked pool. I write for and from that photo.
What are you working on now?
In a few weeks I'm turning in the final draft of a novel, Exit A, which will be published by Scribner in January of 2007. It's a love story and a quest story that takes place over about fifteen years in Tokyo and San Francisco.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I seriously committed myself to writing in 1995, and it was eight years before my first book was published. Hard work is the only inspiration I know.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Mary Lowry. Great inventive stories about strong and vulnerable women and men in the American West.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Hard work and talent will be rewarded. Attend to your writing, and it will be found.
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