Getting the Venom Out
Anthony Swofford ’99, best known for his New York Times best-seller Jarhead, never wanted to write a memoir.
Nonetheless, he has courageously struggled through two, with another possibly on its way.
His first, Jarhead, is a chronicle of his time as a marine sniper in the Gulf War. It is a story that is urgent, raw and masculine. It describes what members of the military refer to as “the Suck”— full of drink, infidelity, boredom, threats of suicide and murder, and the sand, heat, oil, and let-down.
It was wildly popular book that sold millions of copies worldwide and was adapted into a 2005 film with the same name starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” Swofford said. “Fiction, nonfiction and scriptwriting is a break from putting one’s own life and one’s own emotions on the page. To write good memoir that matters and resonates with the reader, you have to be really honest about yourself, and that’s not always natural or pretty.”
Then, after publishing a novel titled Exit A, Swofford released a second memoir Hotels, Hospitals and Jails. The book describes Swofford’s amplifying depression following the fame and fortune that spawned from Jarhead. It also details Swofford’s quest for reconciliation with his father who mirrors Swofford in many ways, including veteran status, and who is dying from emphysema.
The memoir includes flashbacks, which take place in Davis and the surrounding region—including his time as a UC Davis student when he worked the night shift at a nearby warehouse. Those flashbacks are interspersed with scenes of father and son racing down the Interstate in a Winnebago, confronting one another about their family’s past and present. In the book, Swofford’s father repeatedly tells him to “get the venom out” –a task the memoir itself seems to undertake.
The makings of a writer
“Yes, I’m sorry the men are dead, for many reasons I am sorry, and chief among my reasons is that the men who go to war and live are spared for the single purpose of spreading bad news when they return, the bad news about the way war is fought and why, and by whom for whom, and the more men who survive the war, the higher the number of men who might speak.”
—Anthony Swofford '99, Jarhead
After receiving encouragement and close mentorship from UC Davis professor Jack Hicks as well as others in the UC Davis English department, Swofford went on to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the highest-regarded creative writing Master of Fine Arts program in the country. He credited the academic rigor of UC Davis, including both the study of theory and creative works, for preparing him for graduate school.
“UC Davis was essential to my becoming a writer, and the most essential thing that I learned there and what I have to remember every day is that revision is key to making art that will sustain,” said the UC Davis English major who has given to support the College of Letters and Science. “You must keep digging deeper and making it better, and that only happens with intense pressure on every sentence.”
Professor Hicks described Swofford during his time at UC Davis as a person who was thirsty for knowledge, incredibly talented and not at all like the aggressive persona portrayed in Jarhead.
"I can't speak for Tony, but I think by the time he came back from war, the experience of the marines and the whole notion of men in war had become a good deal more sophisticated for him," Hicks said. "So I think he changed. He grew up and found himself in some ways."
Hicks was not surprised to hear that Swofford wants to veer away from memoir. As a student, Swofford wrote fiction almost exclusively, with a little bit of poetry mixed in.
"Even though I and a number of other people at the time told Tony that his experience as a marine sniper in the Gulf War had been untold and was really a very important autobiographical narrative, he really had no interest early on in doing that," Hicks said. "He has always wanted to be a serious fiction writer."
Then Hicks adds, "But his main challenge now, and I'm not sure it's a challenge, is that if your first book is a best seller and is made into an enormously popular movie, there are all kinds of pressures from agents and publishers and filmmakers who want you to keep doing that over and over. And I have a sense that he doesn't see himself as a career writer of stories about men in war."
Now, in contrast to the solitude of writing by oneself and about oneself, Swofford spends much of his writing life in film studios, working collaboratively on scripts. He is currently working on a biography about the life of Carlos Tarigonda—an undocumented immigrant who came to America in the late 1970s, lived through a childhood thrown asunder by poverty and eventually saved a young man’s life. Swofford is also working on multiple projects in television and film.
“I like writing TV because, unlike with book writing, I shower every day and show up somewhere for work,” Swofford joked. “It’s very communal—the organism of the room creates the arch of the season, and that’s fascinating.”
He is started writing a new novel—and what may be his third memoir.
"Right now, I'm more interested in exploring ideas through fictional worlds and characters. My next novel will be a noir that takes place in the worlds of female incarceration and Manhattan real estate,” Swofford said. “But I've probably not learned my lesson about memoir yet because I, having always considered myself a reluctant memoirist, also seem to be working on a book-length essay about male weight issues called On Being Fat."
With his famous, self-deprecating and honest humor, he added, "I am fat. I write about being fat. Sounds like memoir to me."