Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VIII: Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads

You are a saucy one, Earl Swift, Norfolk, Va., journalist and author of The Big Roads. Even when I crop out your tiny brass-studded leather novelty fez. Photo by John Doucette.

I pulled up to Crumbling Swift Manor in Norfolk, Va., in the warm evening air, my pad in pocket, pen in trembling hand. When I knocked, a petite dog announced my visit. Her master approached.

Earl Swift, former journalist and feature writer at The Virginian-Pilot, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. A book with words, many words, words in a certain order of his own design so as to form a story about a topic that people can read after they buy it when it is released on Thursday.

Swift opened the door slowly, yet assuredly. He wore writerly intensity as plainly as a dancer in the All-Cowboy Revue might wear chaps and a red bandana mask. Briskly, we toured the manor house, a parade of wonders – a library containing what could only be called books, a dining room in which meals are eaten atop a table, a kitchen in which food is stored and prepared prior to the very meals that are eaten by people in the house.

Silkily, as he led me through his spacious home, I imagined an imaginary stable boy imaginarily saddling horses that did not exist in the pretend stables. No. Not horses. War-painted camels. Yes.

Those.

And then we were in his office. Where calls are made, a keyboard fingered, electrons spun into nonfiction gold. Overhead, above this hub of composition and concoction, was a handsome chandelier. No doubt his firmest demand of the landlord, made while the imaginary stable boy, awaiting the landlord’s pretend response, trembled, as had my hand, holding my pen in anticipation of this very moment. I demand, he must have said, this Earl Swift fellow, a chandelier above my writing space.

He signed a copy of The Big Roads, blowing gently upon the fiery ink that bore his cursive mark, this signed book so blessed, a prize to be won in the upcoming 2011 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, which continues until June 15 at this very swanky online foolishness disseminator.

Or you could buy your own copy. Again, it goes on sale Thursday.

I took in his garb. Rugged. Manly. As though the conjoined lovechildren of L.L.Bean and American Eagle conspired to outfit Hemingway for his last great safari to a public park in Key West. Of course. Swift, who ventured along a mighty Virginia river for Journey on the James and tromped through faraway lands to report Where They Lay, deserved no less. His shorts were khaki, his polo cobalt blue. I announced this finding, much as Jonas Salk must have exclaimed, “I think we got this polio deal licked!”

Swift replied:

This is not cobalt blue. Maybe Columbia blue.

Columbia blue it was. I tried to note the rest of his clothes, but as I bent low to read the words on the back of his adventure sneakers, he spun away, as magically as someone pivoting using a combination of their legs and torso in the holy congress of simple movement. Alas, in determining the needed detail of his wardrobe, my welcome had expired like overindulgent rock star upon regurgitated Jack Daniels.

Point being, this Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email later.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

You know, if you added ‘young man’ to the end of that question, you could be my mom just after my eighth-grade science project went bad in the kitchen and those things got loose.

Or Sister Mary Michael, the headmistress of St. James Primary School in Twickenham, a suburb of London, where I attended the third through fifth grades and was regularly beaten on the back of my thighs with metal-edged rulers, and yanked to my tiptoes by my proto-sideburns, and where Sister Mary Michael (who had so lavish a mustache that it would arrest the blade of my 6.5-horse Honda self-propelled mower) once thrashed me with the sneaker of a four-year-old.

Or Dennis Tenney, graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan, self-described “song series poet,” and author of The Song of Eisenhower (New York: Whittier Books, 1956), whom I’m confident used the phrase often—though, it must be said, not to me personally.

Q: Your new book is called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. That’s quite a subtitle. Were there any words left for the rest of the book?

A few. Though I didn’t use them. I’m pretty strict when it comes to the thematic programming of a story. I pick a few notes, and play them over and over. Like in Close Encounters. Only more realistic: I wouldn’t have some French guy running NASA.

Q: You pull the “myth” of Eisenhower as father of the Interstate system apart a bit with your reporting. So didn’t Ike do anything? Like hire a cousin for a paving contract?

I doubt he resorted to cousins. He had an extremely large immediate family, including a number of siblings with interesting nicknames, among which were Bike, and Fike, and Pike, and Wendy.

Ike was busy while president. He made bald sexy as hell; that took time. So did convalescing.

Q: If they make this one into a movie, who would you like to play I-70?

Gene Hackman. He has the reach. I can see him snaking through Glenwood Canyon. Rolling with the Missouri pastureland. And no one else could deliver Wheeling so full-force to the screen.

Q: Since I’ve known you through The Pilot, I’ve admired the way you handle complex subjects and can incorporate a number of sources/characters into such stories in ways that serve the overarching narrative. What does that sentence I just typed mean?

Is ‘overarching narrative’ the same as ‘narrative arc’? Using one of those phrases will get one’s ass kicked in South Norfolk, though I can’t remember which. In case you wondered, that’s why I’ve been avoiding the Campostella Bridge.

Q: Tell me about this Thomas MacDonald fellow. Is he why I can’t get off I-264 at Independence during rush hour? Or was that Herbert Fairbank? Were they the guys who made I-95 suck, especially in Connecticut?

Those men stayed out of Connecticut. Moreover, they forged a pact, early in their working lives, to avoid Rhode Island, as well one might; to get to Boston, they had to drive around. Did you notice my use of ‘moreover’? That’s how you can tell I’m a journalist.

Q: You contend that “we’ll be pumping more money, a lot more money, into the (interstate) network in the years to come” for maintenance alone. Why not ignore it? That seems to be working out great on Social Security.

You raise an excellent point. And remarkably, you raise it in 13-point Lucida Grande. I know of few others who would be so bold.

Q: What was it like collaborating with Ted Danson?

We spent a lot of time on his boat, The Decimator. It had five or six staterooms and a full disco staffed by snug-shirted eastern Europeans. I’m pretty sure most were Hungarian. Plus, of course, the boat’s rigged to pull a purse seine, so the food was great. Ted’s an excellent actor and a fine influence on young people. And when it comes to Pilates – I mean, he could turn professional.

Q: How do you like being interviewed by people who have not read the book?

What did you think of that one part where Ike eats the lemon meringue with his hands? It continues to surprise me that the incident had such a lasting effect on our infrastructure.

Q: Why should we read your book, which all its facts, research, perspective, and storytelling, when there are other books that won’t challenge my assumptions that everything is totally cool, that the landscape hasn’t been that radically changed by the de-centering of communities into suburban sprawl, and everybody just chill don’t worry about it we got a Chipotle coming in near the Wal-Mart?

Are you sure? Is the Chipotle really coming? I’d heard rumors. Man. You’re positive? Hold on a minute. I have to make some calls.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

It’s always a pleasure to talk craft with you.

I’ll follow up with a real craft talk with Swift in the near future.

Some early reviews are in for The Big Roads, including this one by Jonathan Yardley for The Washington Post and this one by Patrick Cooke for The Wall Street Journal. Locally, the book is in stock at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk and will be available at other fine local bookstores.

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8 thoughts on “Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VIII: Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads

  1. Ian Martin says:

    When I read the word “silkily,” I think of a saluke. Is this the sort of dog that greeted you at the door ahead of Mr. Swift? If Mr. Swift does not own such a dog, I, for one, would like to know the reason why.

  2. Ian Martin says:

    It’s definitely “narrative arc.” And the peril of using “overarching narrative” increases as you approach the Alleghenies.

  3. Ian Martin, we need more of that kind of thinking here in Virginia. Do come back.

    I thought of you a few days ago. I believe you were here when Norfolk started the mermaid statue campaign, a la Chicago’s CowParade, etc. For whatever reason, one of the folks parked in the lot at my office had one of the old mermaid statues in the bed of their pickup truck. It was a bit jarring. Why?

    This, of course, reminded me of the end of the “Private Pickle” assignment we did for The V-P, when the very strange Heinz mascot, having scarred the emotional development of at least two or three children at a Navy family center, was slowly and difficulty loaded into the bed of a pickup truck, complete with that poor lady inside the Private Pickle suit, to drive to the Navy Exchange. (And lay there, in all his gherkin glory, as they drove away down Hampton Boulevard.)

    As I remember it, I began to laugh, rather than help, and you began to snap photos.

    • Ian Martin says:

      @John: In my mind I’m going to Virginia. Can’t you see the sunshine? Can’t you just feel the moonshine? The answer is “yes” to both queries. If only I could have my Tidewater memories sent to cell phone as a ring tone–I would–even if it meant supplanting “Sweet Leaf.” Yes, I too have fond recollections of our fan-cooled foam rubber hero and think of him nearly every day–not as I cross the street as he implored, but only in the morning and after a large and strong cup of coffee.

    • Earl Swift says:

      Private Pickle might have been the single best story to run in the Pilot during my time there. I loved it like daisies caught in a wind blowing wild.

      • I seem to recall a certain author of a history of the U.S. interstate system may have had a hand in editing that story. “When you’re in a pickle, think of Private Pickle.” The daisy line is from some other story, unless I’m mistaken.

  4. Earl Swift says:

    It was in the passage about just how much Private Pickle wanted his audience to eat pickles–the level of abandon that he hoped to inspire. I think of that line every time I crank open a jar of Claussens (which, come to think of it, probably sends a green, briny tear down Private Pickle’s nubby flesh).

  5. Earl, I can’t believe you remember that.

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