There are thirteen people packed between the covers of Earl Swift’s book-in-progress, but the star is a ’57 Chevrolet Townsman wagon. Auto Biography, now under contract with Harper Collins and Swift’s fifth book, tells the true story of the car and its many owners.
A journalist in Norfolk for twenty-two years, a Fulbright fellow, and a PEN finalist, Swift is currently a residential fellow at VFH. He sat down recently to talk about journalism, cars, and the misadventures of Tommy Arney, the Chevy’s current owner.
The ’57 Townsman isn’t your typical nonfiction hero. Why the Townsman, and why this story?
Well, the ’57 Chevy is possibly the most recognizable and beloved car to ever roll off an assembly line. It’s a paean to jet-age optimism, and the wagon, in particular, embodies the new suburban ideal that was just gelling in America’s collective consciousness in the mid-fifties; this was a status symbol, the SUV of its day, because it advertised that its owner enjoyed the good life—a stylish new rambler in a clean, safe neighborhood, picture windows, backyard grill.
The thirteen people who’ve owned this wagon each have a different relationship to the cultural center that the car represented in the showroom—by and large, their orbit from that center grows ever wider as the car ages. So they turn out to be a pretty good cross-section of America in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This is a complex plot, with lots of characters. Who is your favorite character and why?
It was pretty clear from the start that I could not expect the reader to keep track of, let alone care about, thirteen major human characters, so I did not treat them as equals—in fact, I dispensed with a couple in a few paragraphs. I picked one, the current owner, as the story’s main driver; the “biography” of the title refers to his as much as the Chevy’s.
His name is Tommy Arney. In many ways he’s a rough customer—he has a fourth-grade education, used to own a chain of go-go bars, and has pounded the daylights out of a goodly percentage of the Norfolk population over the past forty years. But he’s no dummy, and he’s utterly charming, and he’s the product of a restoration every bit as ambitious as that he’s now attempting on the car—all of which makes for the most lively, surprising main character I could hope for.
Some people say newspaper experience is great for discipline but terrible for prose writing. How would you describe your style? You’re certainly in your story and you‘re not aiming at objectivity. Right?
I think the notion that newspaper writing is bad by definition is long obsolete. I haven’t written a story in straight “inverted pyramid” journalese in twenty-five years, I’d bet, and even when I did, I strove for elegance in my copy. And that’s true of all the journalists I follow. There’s real craft involved in what they do.
The writing I do now is not much of a departure, really. A lot of my stories as a feature writer had a strong first-person element and a point of view. Then, as now, I hewed to the facts, strove for fairness, and tried to treat people decently. The pitch of the story has to be appropriate—it has to serve the mission of getting you as close to the truth as possible—and that’s the case whether you’re writing a newspaper feature or a book-length narrative.
One difference is that when a character cusses, now I can quote him. And another is that I have to sit still for a lot longer these days.
We know you’re especially fond of your one-room cottage on Grounds at the University of Virginia, but looking out on the manicured Lawn and all the upward-bound students must seem over-the-rainbow from the world you’re inhabiting in your writing. How would you describe the world you’re writing about, and how do you move in and out of it?
Let me put it this way: About twenty-five years ago, Tommy Arney got involved in a melee outside a Norfolk sailor bar. He was holding his own against several bouncers when a canine cop released his dog on him. As Arney tells it, he grabbed the animal by the neck, squeezed until it passed out, then beat the cop with his own German shepherd. So, yes—the Academical Village can seem a little more buttoned-down, a little more scrubbed, by comparison.
I enjoy my life on the Lawn. I’m entranced by the beauty and intelligence of Charlottesville. But having been immersed in Arney’s world since late 2009, I have to say that I relish my time with him and his ragtag crew every bit as much. If they’re unpolished, it’s not because they’re not smart. They’re sharp, canny, uproariously funny, good company in general. And there’s a straightforward, apolitical calculus to their relationships: Treat them with respect, and you can expect the same in return. Treat them badly, and it’s going to turn out a really crappy day.
I’ve found that easy to live with. Plus, everyone has a nickname, which is kind of cool.
I have a couple of projects in mind, one of which is a narrative history set in Georgia in the teens and twenties; it’s one of those forgotten tales that’s so dramatic and moving that it shocks me it isn’t common knowledge.
Whatever I tackle next, I’d like to do it here. Charlottesville has put its hooks in me.
Swift is the author of Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2001), the story of a great American river and the largely untold history that has unfolded in and around it; Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), for which he accompanied an Army archaeological team into the jungles of Laos in search of a helicopter crew shot down thirty years before; and a 2007 collection of his stories, The Tangierman’s Lament.
His last book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to widespread critical acclaim in 2011, and was reissued in paperback last year.