Tag Archives: nonfiction

Writing Craft, Vol. IV: Author and journalist Earl Swift


There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette

Back when Norfolk, Va., journalist and author Earl Swift was kind enough to participate in a mighty fun Belligerent Q&A here at the blog, I promised a more serious craft talk with him would follow.

This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.

Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.

His The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, had its latest strong review in The New York Times this weekend.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …   

Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?

Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.

I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.

It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.

Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’

Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?

Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.

I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.

Q: This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?

In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.

Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.

I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.

I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.

Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?

Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.

But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.

I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.

Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?

I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.

This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.

At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.

Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.

I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’

Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways.  Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?

Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.

Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?

The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.

Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.

Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?

I’d never heard of the guy.

Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?

As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.

Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.

Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.

Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.

Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?

I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.

Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.

After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.

You can find out a bit more about Swift here at this link to his site.

And I urge you to pick up The Big Roads. It’s a great read.

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Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, reads Thursday at Prince Books


Norfolk, Va., author Earl Swift on Thursday will read, take questions, and sign copies of his new book,
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

The event is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 30, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk.

Also, on Wednesday, June 29, Swift is scheduled to do an hour with Hampton Roads radio personality Tony Macrini on Newsradio 790 AM WNIS. Swift expects to be on at 9 a.m.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is a journalist and author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.

The Big Roads has received favorable reviews from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, Patrick Cooke in The Wall Street Journal, and in The Pilot. It also is among the summer reading “treats” listed by the Charlotte Observer. Some other reviews are forthcoming this summer.

Said Swift:

This has been an unusual experience for me. I’ve never had a book get this much attention.

For what it’s worth, that may be because it’s freaking terrific. Finished it last week. Highly recommended.

For those interested in inspired silliness, Swift recently participated in a Belligerent Q&A that can be found at this link, the most popular Q&A to date here. I hope to have more with Swift at the blog in the near future.

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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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Earl Swift shall rock you Thursday at the TCC lit fest in Norfolk, though in this headline ‘rock’ = ‘read to’


Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift now has a more active name. His old-country handle? Earl Lentissimo. Photo by Saylor Denney.

Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot, will read on Thursday as part of Tidewater Community College’s 10th Annual Literary Festival.

The festival’s theme is “How words can help consume delicious natural resources.”

Wait, I have that all wrong. TCC’s lit fest theme is really “Words of hope for our fragile planet.” Maybe next year.

But back to Swift.

He’s an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Parade and Best Newspaper Writing. In 2007, some of his best stories were collected in The Tangierman’s Lament. He’s also the author of the riveting Where they Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, and Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia, which began as a newspaper collaboration with photographer Ian Martin.

Swift’s latest book is due to be published in June. It’s called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. If I’d had a subtitle that long back in high school, I would have been more popular.

This past weekend, Swift said he was still choosing the selections he will read Thursday, but was leaning toward something from The Tangierman’s Lament, something from The Big Roads, and a project that is in the works. The latter piece is one he hasn’t read in public before. He hasn’t read anything from The Big Roads, either.

He’s looking forward to Thursday:

The festival has a theme: ‘Words of hope for our fragile planet.’ I’m kind of bound to make selections that are connected to the theme. That’s something that has made me come up with stuff that I normally wouldn’t do.

You can read more about Swift at this link to his website.

The Big Roads is a history of how the U.S. interstate highway system came to be, and how it “changed the face of a continent.” To me, that fits in well with TCC’s theme. Nothing bucks up a wimpy planet like a thorough paving.

Should be a great lit fest. By the end of the week, pretend experts say, the Earth will be 5 percent sturdier. And, forever more, space children will taunt Earthlings thusly:

Your planet’s so fragile TCC called it out in a literary festival theme.

The reading is at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, April 14, at the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, 340 Granby St., Norfolk. Free admission. Info at (757) 822-1450. There is some metered street parking but the best bet at lunchtime downtown is one of the garages, either at Freemason and Boush streets, or at MacArthur Center.

Some of Swift’s books will be available for sale, too.

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