Author Earl Swift’s improbable true stories reveal themselves

THE WORKS

Current Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Fellow Earl Swift's latest novel follows the life of a classic automobile and its owners. Photo credit: Stephanie Glass Current Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Fellow Earl Swift’s latest novel follows the life of a classic automobile and its owners. Photo credit: Stephanie Glass

On any given day, you’ll find author Earl Swift writing in one of three places: the third floor of the VFH offices, Alderman Library, or Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on the Downtown Mall. As he types in the company of academics and baristas, you’d never guess that he once lived in a canoe for 22 days, crisscrossed the country exploring America’s highway system, and traveled alongside an army archaeological unit in Laos and Vietnam, searching Indiana Jones-style, for the remains of fallen soldiers.

Swift’s larger-than-life experiences are the reason he began writing in the first place. “I tend to be attracted to stories of people dealing with intense emotional junctures,” he said. “The Vietnam book is called Where They Lay, and being able to go to the Arlington burial of the four guys we were digging for in this jungle setting, having that bookend the experience was pretty amazing. I realized as I was sitting around the campfire with tigers roaring in the dark around us that this was a great newspaper story, but it was also a much bigger story.” 

Swift is a thirty-year newspaper veteran whose work has appeared in PARADE, Popular Mechanics, America’s Best Newspaper Writing, and many others. After stints as an intern, a metro columnist, and a military editor, he joined The Virginian Pilot’s newly formed narrative team. “Long-form journalism was coming into its own in 1998,” Swift said, and over time he expanded several serial stories into books.

The writer held what he called “the best job in journalism” for a decade, but after the market collapsed, he took the Pilot’s proffered buyout and approached writing books as a full-time job.

“Writing a 2,500 word story for the Sunday feature is like making an assent of a Matternhorn, requiring brief use of a complicated skill set,” he said. “Writing a book is like climbing Everest and building base camps along the way.”

Those base camps must include characters who can carry the weight of a narrative. Lack of a strong leading character stymied the creation of Swift’s latest book, Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream, for nearly a decade. In 2004, he had the idea “to find an old car that had passed through a lot of hands and track down everybody who had owned it,” he said. “I figured if I picked the right car, over time you’d see the socioeconomic status and success of owners shift downward, so you’d wind up with a pretty accurate mosaic of modern America.”

After a long search, he found a ’57 Chevy that fit the bill. Squinting between the lines of redacted DMV documents and examining forgotten insurance cards, he pieced together a history of ownership. But it wasn’t until several years later, when Swift substituted at Old Dominion University, that he learned his story was complete. During his lecture, Swift referenced the Chevy, and afterward a student said his father, a go-go bar owner/felon whom the reporter knew from past articles, now owned the car.

This combination of luck and reportage peppers not just Auto Biography but the majority of Swift’s work. “In nonfiction, the truth defies belief with much greater regularity than even the most imaginative fiction does,” he said. “So many of my stories, I’ve thought to myself while writing, ‘There is no way anyone would believe this if I were writing a novel. It doesn’t pass the smell test.’ And yet it happened, and I can prove it.”

Earl Swift will read from Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream at New Dominion Bookshop on May 22.

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