AnthonyÂ SwoffordÂ hit the scribe's lottery with his 2003 memoir "Jarhead."Â TheÂ bestselling memoirÂ of his time serving in the Marines and fighting in the Gulf War became a Sam Mendes movie starring Jake GyllenhaalÂ and made the author a literary celebrity and a rich man. Flush with cash,Â SwoffordÂ moved to Manhattan.
It wasn't all fun and fast-paced glory in the years following his huge success, though; that period also brought a ton of heartbreak. Swofford got divorced, lost his brother Jeff to cancer, and pissed away more or less everything he had. Hovering over it all was the troubled relationship he had with his father, John. A hard-drinking ever-womanizing Vietnam vet, John acted likeÂ TheÂ Great SantiniÂ when his son was young, and like the Adam Sandler character inÂ That's My BoyÂ when he grew up.
Aiming at some sort of reconciliation,Â SwoffordÂ and his now-ailing father embarked on a series of three long RV trips which serve as the backbone for his latest memoirÂ â€śHotels, Hospitals, and Jails.â€ť The book is a pull-no-punches tale of what it means to be a tough guy: from war to women, from battlefields to bourbon, from fast cars to slow burns, from road trips to power trips, and most importantly, from fathers to sonsâ€¦and how it all melts away when holding a new baby daughter.
Patrick Sauer:Â How would you describeÂ â€śHotels, Hospitals, and Jails,â€ť and why did you want to write it?Â
AnthonyÂ Swofford:Â â€śJarheadâ€ťÂ was about my time in the Marines and going to war. This book is about what happens after war. I hadnâ€™t planned on writing another memoir, but in April 2009, my father asked me to tag along in the massive Winnebago he purchased. We have a really complicated relationship, and I realized after the first trip that I needed to figure him out. Hopefully, by figuring dad out, I could figure myself out.
PS:Â When did you start to see it as a book? After all three RV trips, or earlier?
AS:Â I started to think about it during the first trip. Not necessarily as a full-blown memoir, but I was taking some notes and writing in a journal. I knew that someday I would write a book about my father, but I wasnâ€™t sure when. The RV trips set up a structure, so back home in Manhattan, I started conceptualizing it. Being a mercenary writer, I pounced.
PS: What about writing about other characters in the book, like Ava, the girlfriend with whom you had a stormy relationship, or your brotherâ€™s wife, Melody?
AS:Â Ava was my girlfriend, lover, confidant, partner for a long time, and our relationship was elemental to my early years in New York. I didnâ€™t have a problem writing about her, or anyone I was with, really. They were all aware Iâ€™m a writer and a memoirist. Writing about my brotherâ€™s family was harder. The semi-erotic coming-onto-me incident that occurred with Melodyâ€¦I talked to my parents about it right after it happened, how it weirded me out so deeply. I needed someone to bear witness, but they didnâ€™t know what to do with it. At first, it seemed like an assault on my own grieving over my brother, which I couldnâ€™t deal with. Over the years my thinking has changed. I told a friend that story and he said, â€śIt makes perfect sense to me. If she didnâ€™t hit on you, I would think that was totally bizarre.â€ť He has wide-lens wisdom about life, and that perspective shifted my thinking about the incident. Nobody knows how people will react to the death of a spouseâ€¦ It troubled me for many years, but it doesnâ€™t anymore.
PS: You have a lot of amazing scenes that pop up, like when you took a pimp and two prostitutes to a Nashville Waffle House. It has an ethereal dream-like quality, similar in style to â€śJarhead.â€ť Do you prefer to write in a non-linear way?
AS:Â That's not just "how it flows" when I'm working. Itâ€™s definitely a device and a declared way of writing, of crafting a narrative. The memoir is always being bashed, but I think itâ€™s fertile ground to riff and jazz around with structure. Itâ€™s a relatively new form, and yet we already have these expectations of what an American memoir looks like. It should be wide open. In the midst of the â€śticking clock,â€ť which you need in any prose narrative, thereâ€™s room for thematic explosions and expansions. In this book, you can spend time in Nashville, in Vegas, in Bethesda, with the drug dealer in New York, none of which are germane to the road trips with dad, but I donâ€™t think you lose readers.
PS: In the Bethesda interlude, you go to the Naval Hospital and spend time with soldiers who have suffered life-altering injuries. It comes in the middle of the book and makes your drinking and womanizing problems seem small. Soldiers with missing limbs, mothers facing fifty years caring for themâ€¦did you anticipate that their stories could trump your own?
AS:Â The Bethesda section brings up ideas of service and sacrifice, which Iâ€™m conflicted about. My troubles with my cheating girlfriend are trivial and not that potent when stacked up against what those soldiers face. Part of my recognition in Bethesda was exactly that. I think readers will recognize that as well. Maybe itâ€™s a risk and some readers might say, â€śWhat is this guy complaining about? Heâ€™s in a room with a woman whose son who took bullets in his head.â€ť ThatÂ wasÂ my experience. I think readers want authentic experiences and the commentary that goes along with it. If Iâ€™ve done it right, itâ€™s firing on many cylinders.
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