Novelist Edward Swift is still battling 'the disease of the literal minded'
The novelist who stands before us, 6-feet-4 and fabulous, is that most American of self-made men. Edward Swift grew up in the mean swampland of the Big Thicket, and here he is at the corner of 18th and Eighth, the heady intersection of gay America in New York's Chelsea district. He is pointing dramatically, with spindly fingers, both north and south from this corner; there is a good restaurant in one direction and a nicer one in the other, and he would be happy for the interview to take place in either one. He is not oozing gobs of cash, and people here do not slap him on the back with a hearty "How ya doin'?" -- but he is a self-made man nonetheless.
It is apparent in the way he magisterially surveys the setting -- "I know everybody who crosses 18th and Eighth, just about," he says -- and in his almost brash insistence that the characters who populate his fantastical novels are with us, right now, on this corner; they go everywhere with him. Like titans of commerce, Swift does not leave his work at home. Just ask his friends: In the late Sixties, when Swift first moved to Manhattan from Texas, they had to call a secret meeting to discuss his habit of talking to himself on the street. They considered intervening until he dressed them down with his explanation that he was sounding out his self-described "oceanic" sentences, and he didn't care how embarrassed he was making them.
In autocratic moments like that, it is clear that at least one of his characters, Clarissa Spellbinder, is not only with Swift but is speaking through him. She is the protagonist of Swift's recently published novel, Miss Spellbinder's Point of View (Hawk Publishing, $16.95), who fights "the disease of the literal minded" wherever she senses an outbreak. She says that people who have a point of view are "possessed as well as self-possessed, and if you haven't one, you have no pinnacle on which to stand and express yourself."
Swift has a vibrant and magical point of view that revels in flights of fancy. He has a raffish, comic wit, but far fewer readers than he deserves. Although they feature expertly observed detail and brisk narratives, his novels are not soberly grounded in realism. They are indelibly real, though. Any novelist who grew up like Swift did would feel an appreciable urge to rebel against reality. He was born in 1943 in Camp Ruby, a little hamlet deep in the woods of East Texas where residents lived without electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, or money. The Swifts lived in a rickety house perched on shifting sand. But according to his memoir of childhood, My Grandfather's Finger (1999), poverty was not the reason his schoolmates routinely ran away when he tried to talk to them, nor was it his insistence on dancing ballet in his front yard in a green wool skirt and, for toe shoes, moccasins jammed tight with nylon stockings. No, it was his family's fault: "I had nothing to talk about except Aunt Coleta's diatribes on gypsies, the grave of the Mexican baby, and Grandfather urinating on the Christmas tree. I had nothing to talk about except uncles boiled in oil, atomic bombs, bloody bones, the Mark of the Beasts, and wildcats that screamed like headless women." But don't feel sorry for Edward Swift because he was too poor, effeminate, or tainted by gothic elders. He remembers his childhood with unbridled affection. In fact, he seems to feel sorry for us, for we are not Edward Swift.
When Swift's first novel, Splendora, was published in 1978, it was immediately apparent that Viking, his publisher, had unearthed a new talent who, like Flannery O'Connor or John Steinbeck, had transformed his own little patch of hardscrabble earth into something large and memorable. It's about the strange life of Timothy John Coldridge, who returns to Splendora dressed as Miss Jessie Gatewood, the new town librarian, who tries to instill some verve into her dreary hometown. (Splendora fits squarely in the highly selective category of Texas literature that features men who return to their small hometowns as women after years of self-imposed exile. In fact, there are only two works of art meeting the requirements, and Ed Graczyk's play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is the other.) Anne Tyler wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Edward Swift has a particular gift for capturing the continuous low musical murmur of small-town gossip. ... He knows how stories seem to grow on their own, drifting almost unnoticeably toward the mythical." Like Swift's later novels, Splendora is full of characters who like to hear themselves talk, but you wish there were more than six novels that feature their voices.
The idea that he is creating art has always had salvific import for Swift, so it would seem to be a devastating blow that now, despite his early success and his disciplined ambition, a mainstream publishing career has still eluded him. Doubleday published his second novel, Principia Martindale, in 1982, but all his other books have been published by small or university presses, with small print runs. His former editor at Doubleday, Shaye Areheart, who now has her own publishing imprint at Random House, says "at first Edward was trying to please himself but also work within the conventions of the New York literary world, and then I think he stopped being concerned about that."
"For a while it filled me with a great deal of anger," Swift says about not being published by one of the major houses, but he takes so much pride in penning uncompromisingly imaginative books that he takes refuge in the idea that he is fulfilling an artistic vision unsullied by the demands of the marketplace. He caved in once before and regrets it. He made "egregious compromises," he says, with the editors of Splendora. "There was a child in Splendora out of wedlock; there was a gay marriage in Splendora; there was a lesbian who had a child in the house," he recalls. Miss Jessie had an imagined pregnancy. "And, oh, it was just very wild and involved and the editors told me that it could not be published that way because the child would be a victim," he recalls. "The victim of a gay marriage. That was in 1977. ... I should have held my own, but I wanted to get published. I didn't ask anyone what they thought I should do."
Writers who approach the marketplace with reluctance or outright rancor are usually not invested in pleasing the reader. They are in it for art's sake, and if their style is impenetrably postmodern, well, maybe the reader will actually learn something in the bargain. But in the strange case of Edward Swift, we have a novelist who won't compromise his imagination but who also couldn't possibly be more engaged in crafting a pleasurable read.
His most recent novel is a good example. Miss Spellbinder's Point of View is a dual, fictional biography of two women: Miss Clarissa Spellbinder, the daughter of the great (but fictional) explorer Lord Andrew Spellbinder III and his wife, Amelita de la Luna, and one Fat Satsuma Johnson, the Black Queen of the Atchafalaya, also known as the pie-eating queen of southern Louisiana. They live next door to each other on the magical island of Moly where Miss Spellbinder tells stories about her parents to the patrons of the Back Door Bar That Once Faced the Sea. They get bored with her stories because they'd rather hear about the sexual exploits of Fat Satsuma, who insists it is necessary to console herself with the Green-Eyed Carpenter, the Opium-Smoking Chinaman, the Barrel-Chested Tattoo Artist, the Turkish Barber, and the Retired Gigolo when her Captain, the man of her dreams, is away at sea. At one point, Satsuma explains to Miss Spellbinder why she ate pies for so long -- to earn enough money to build a magnificent marble tomb that will contain her entire family:
"Which cemetery did you say?" Miss Spellbinder asked eagerly.
"Baudelaire family," Satsuma answered. "Even though my baby sister went to prison with killing on her brain and got released the same way, we were a respectful family and meant no harm."
"And what was your sister's name?" asked Miss Spellbinder.
"Sadie Zaphira Eudoxia Baudelaire Johnson," Satsuma answered.
Sadie Zaphira Eudoxia Baudelaire Johnson. Not many contemporary novelists, soberly grounded in realism, would go anywhere near a name like that. But Miss Spellbinder is convinced that "the imagination creates another reality, one that is often far more real than the boards on the boardwalk."
In fact, Swift says that in devising an adventure like Miss Spellbinder's Point of View, he was catering to editors who kept repeating a mantra that clearly resonated with him. "We're looking for unusual books; we're looking for unusual books," he recalls them saying. "And then I give them something that's very unusual, and they say, 'Oh no, oh no, oh no, we could never get this through the committee! What would the marketing people say about this?' To which I say, 'Well, I thought that you were looking for something unusual.' But you see, one man's unusual may be another man's ordinary."
Fed up with the ordinariness, Swift took matters into his own hands four years ago when he submitted a manuscript, The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint, to four houses under the name Maria de la Luz. It is about an impresario in the Mexican Gulf Coast city of Veracruz who runs one of the nation's most famous bordellos. ("It has been said that more presidents slept in her house than in the official residence," to be exact.) Through his agent, Swift had submitted the very same manuscript to 12 editors two years before he concocted Maria de la Luz and got no response. But when Maria de la Luz wrote it, all four editors wrote back right away, Swift says, and one of them, from Algonquin, was intrigued enough to call Maria de la Luz at home, which is when things got interesting. Swift had put his home phone number on the front page of his manuscript with a photograph of his adored, deceased cousin Dana Pullen as Maria de la Luz. In a brief autobiographical note, Swift laid it on thick: Maria de la Luz had grown up in Mexico in circumstances similar to the daughter of the doctor and the saint, but now she was living in some suburb in Texas.
Swift panicked after he got the first message from Algonquin. "I asked my agent what to do, and he said, 'You got yourself into this, now you have to tell them the truth.'" Swift instead asked his agent to represent Maria de la Luz and still thinks that he should have agreed to do so. "I should have had an impersonator," Swift says, someone who presumably would have toured the nation as Maria de la Luz reading from passages of "her" book. After several phone conversations with the editor in which he stalled, saying that Maria de la Luz was sick, he finally fessed up. There was a long silence on the other end of the line. "Oh, I was afraid I was going to hear this," she said. There were others at Algonquin who had suspected that Maria de la Luz was a ruse. (It didn't help Swift's case to name a minor character in The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint Maria de la Luz, an incongruity that was probably the big tip-off.) The editor asked Swift how he had picked the name Maria de la Luz.
"Well, my friend Mauricio Bustamante took me to his Mexican village and he introduced me to a lady who sells lingerie and school supplies," he said. "Her name is Maria de la Luz, and her mother's name is La Madre de Maria de la Luz because we don't know the mother's name." And how does Swift respond to those who say that impersonating someone else is a little too outrageous? "I suppose I am playing with fire," he says. "But what good is living if you don't get your fingers burned occasionally and burn a few others' on the way?"
"Ed has a real artist's temperament," Bustamante says. "There's a naughty, cheeky part of Edward. He enjoys being mischievous, like putting salt in someone's cake." But his self-discipline is formidable, Bustamante says. "Nothing takes him away from his artistry; the one thing Ed would not tolerate from another human being is giving up on their art."
Which explains why he continues to write. "My first two books were reviewed everywhere," Swift says, "and then people stopped reviewing me." People are always approaching him to find out when he's going to write another Splendora because they say they can't read his later work; it's too fanciful. A small readership is more comforting than the prospect of none at all, but Edward Swift isn't after comfort. Something that Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train comes to mind: "The inability of the vital American artist to be satisfied with a cult audience, no matter how attentive, goes right back to the instinctive perception that whatever else America might be, it is basically big; that unless you are doing something big, you are not doing anything at all."
Edward Swift will moderate the "Fictional Fish Bowls: Writing About Small-Town Texas" panel at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 11am, and he'll be on the "Spoofing Around: Satire in Fiction" panel later that day, at 2pm, as well. Both events are free and take place at the state Capitol building. Check www.texasbookfestival.org for more information.
The Texas Book Festival is November 14-17 at the State Capitol.