Anthony Swofford


Things that Virginia, a character in
Anthony Swofford’s novel Exit A, represents to him:
The highly charged female sexuality on the verge of adulthood
Women he’s loved and failed to love correctly

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.

—Stephen Elliott


THE BELIEVER: When you were in the Marines you didn’t think you’d be a writer?

ANTHONY SWOFFORD: 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.

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Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, most recently My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.

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