with Other Writers, with your host, award-winning travel
writer and novelist, C.M.
C.M. Mayo: Edward
Swift is one of my very favorite writers. I didn't come across
his work until fairly recently, however. We met in Mexico City
I think it was in 2009 at an exhibition of our mutual friend,
the Mexican painter Mariló
Carral. Because Mariló went on about it, I got myself
a copy of Edward's memoir, My
Grandfather's Finger. And I have to say, it was such
a good read that every time the subject comes up I get ridiculously
effusive, and I've recommended it to almost every writer I know,
and lots of other people, too, and well we'll be talking
quite a bit about this very unusual memoir in the interview.
Edward is also the
author of several novels: Splendora, Principia Martindale,
A Place With Promise, The Christopher Park Regulars, Mother of
Pearl, Miss Spellbinder's Point of View, and most recently,
The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint. I'm going to
read to you a little bit from his website, edwardswiftartist.com.
"Edward Swift made his debut as a novelist in 1978 with
Splendora, which the Houston Chronicle praised
as one of the year's best comic novels. He has since written
five other acclaimed novels, as well as a memoir, My Grandfather's
The Washington Post says, "Splendora reads like an
exuberant fairy tale about a young man's search for himself."
And writing in The New York Times book review, Anne Tyler
wrote, "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."
And of A Place With
Promise which received glowing reviews from Publishers
Weekly, Library Journal, The Boston Globe, and many others
in the Los Angeles Times Carolyn See (no easy customer,
by the way), writes, "A Place With Promise is a dignified,
stately, intelligent book, everything a novel should be."
the morning of February 22, 2012, and I'm in San Miguel de Allende
with Edward Swift, and you might hear some chickens crowing,
and children playing, and I don't know what. We have a lot of
sounds going on here, and that's just the way it is.
We're in his workshop by his house and I'm going to ask a lot of questions
about the house, because it has a great story. So Edward, I am
so happy to see you! I am so happy to be here to talk to you!
This is really a thrill and an honor.
Edward Swift: Well, it's a thrill for me
too. What in the world do you want to talk about?
What in the world do I want to talk about? You have so many books.
You have so many books! The one I love the most is My Grandfather's
Finger, because it's the first one that I read by you. And
you have a new novel, The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint.
You have several other novels, Splendora, A Place With Promise,
and other books. And you have such an interesting life. But let's
talk starting with page three of the essay that you wrote for
Edward Swift: What's on page three? I have
[Laughs] "Come In, Mr. Proust: Remembering Marguerite Young."
This is one of the most beautiful essays by a writer about his
mentor, about learning to be a writer, that I have ever read.
Edward Swift: Thank you. Marguerite Young
was very special to me. I sought her out. I read her book and
it spoke to me, and I knew immediately that I had to not only
know her, but study with her.
you studied with her for a long time.
Edward Swift: Four years in class at the
New School for Social Research, and outside of the classroom
we remained very close for about six years. And I met her for
coffee almost every week, sometimes twice a week, down in the
Village in New York in a little place called Reichert's, and
then later on in a coffee shop called Pennyfeathers. And I was
one of Marguerite's children until I was about 35 years old.
So this was in the '70s.
Edward Swift: Yes, the early '70s.
Greenwich Village, New York City.
Edward Swift: Yes.
A very exciting time to be in New York.
Edward Swift: Well, it was the very last
of the bohemian period in New York. Bohemian life was still alive
in the Village. Now it is not. It is far too expensive now for
artists to be able to move into the Village, so it's become very
gentrified and full of families, and Wall Streeters, and people
with a great deal of money who can afford those old brownstones
and old apartment houses that we used to live in that cost nothing.
now they're several million dollars.
Edward Swift: Now they're several million
You wrote in this essay that the image of the whale was of supreme
importance to her. Quote, "To be swallowed up by the world
and regurgitated, reborn with enlightenment, that," she
said, "is the way of the artist. Some of you go into the
whale but never come out again. Some of you go in and come out,
but haven't the slightest idea you've entered another room. You
walk through the door without seeing the portal."
been an artist for many, many years. You have written book after
book after book. Your know, most people want to write a book,
and never write it. Or they write it, and then it's such a searing
experience they give up. But you have kept at it, and kept at
it, and kept at it, and you also make art. You really are an
artist, decade after decade. Do you think it's being swallowed
up by the whale?
Edward Swift: I think it's the Orphic journey.
And I think that that is the same basic process and road for
all of the artists. And my other mentor, Henry Sauerwein in Taos,
always talked to us about the journey of Orpheus, that we go
down into the underworld or the unconscious, and we stir up everything,
and it is very important to come up again.
But not only is it
important to come up again to surface it's very important
to know where you have been and to be able to interpret it. And
many people make the Orphic journey, or many people go into the
whale, and they come back out again, and they haven't the faintest
idea where they've been.
But the artist must know, and usually does, the true artist
pretty different. I'm reading this story about Marguerite, and
it seems very mystical. Marguerite Young, your teachervery
mystical that she would literally invite Joyce and Proust to
come into the room!
Edward Swift: She wanted at the first day
of the class to set the standards, and she did. So she would
say, "Come in, Mr. Proust. Come in, Mr. Joyce. And where
is Nora tonight?" She would say, "Come in, Mr. Henry
James. You write fiction as if you were a psychologist. And your
brother, William, come in please, we have a place of honor for
you. You write psychology as if you were a fiction writer."
And then she would
invite Virginia Woolf into the room, and Gertrude Stein into
the room, and give everybody a special place. And then she would
say, "Now class, these are our role models."
And then half the class would leave, and the regulars would stay
on, and the few new people who stayed on wanted to be there,
and so the class gradually grew, but it did not grow fast.
she was a very unusual person, and people really loved her, or
they didn't know what to do with her.
Edward Swift: Well, she had standards, and
she imposed all of her standards on the class. And the standards
were so high that none of us could live up to them, but
I think those of us who stayed with her became better writers
than we would have been.
Speaking of good writing, your book, My Grandfather's Finger,
is one of the most poetic and moving memoirs I have ever read.
Edward Swift: Why, thank you.
is absolutely extraordinary. And I think to give the listeners
a sense of what this book is... it has such a funny title, My
Grandfather's Finger. And when you got to the part about
the grandfather's finger I was laughing so hard that I had to
put the book down [Laughs] because it was just so funny.
here's the description from the book jacket.
"Not long ago the Big Thicket of East Texas was still one
of those places singular in its Southern-ness like the Mississippi
Delta or the Carolina Low Country. Now it's old-timers, and their
ways are nearly gone. They will not be forgotten though, for
in My Grandfather's Finger Edward Swift recalls a Big
Thicket populated by family and friends, as gloriously vibrant
and enigmatic as the land itself."
What happened when you published this book?
Edward Swift: Well, it was very well-received,
and it became very popular. And I really don't remember what
happened, to tell you the truth.
people in the book, they read about themselves. There are also
Edward Swift: Nobody in my family read this
book except my aunt Eva Gay. She's the only one. And my beloved
cousin Sissie never read a book in her life, and she never even
went to the library. No, she was afraid that she would become
so smart that she would lose the ability to believe in the Lord
Jesus Christ, just like Eddie Swift. She's say, "Just like
Eddie, Junior. He's done got so smart he can't believe in Jesus
any more. I sure hope that doesn't ever happen to me." And
I said to her, "Don't worry, it never will."
Now listen, the thing
about Sissie, who never read a book, I asked her for 35 years,
"Sissie, have you read Splendora?" and she said,
"No, I ain't had time." Well, of course she had time,
but she just didn't want to, and she was not a reader. And she
was afraid of books, and she would not even darken the door of
the library with me. But I tell you what was wonderful about
her. She had the Southerner's instinct with a story, and she
could hold an entire room mesmerized with a tale.
And she said to me
once, "Now, Eddie Junior, you didn't tell that right. You
started it over here, you should have started it over there.
If you had started it over here it would've come out right."
And I said, "Sissie, how do you know that?" She was
always right about the story, instinctively. "How do you
know that?!" And she would say, "Well, you just listen
to people, and then you just figure it out." That's all
she ever said. But she knew the story. She had the Southerner's
instinct for storytelling, and she was fascinating.
And you have that. But you have several books of fiction, and
this is your only memoir.
Edward Swift: Yes. Well, I think I'm going
to write another one that includes Mexico and Texas. Because
this little colonia I live in, in Mexico, reminds me so much
of Camp Ruby.
Camp Ruby in the Big Thicket in East Texas, which is where My
Grandfather's Finger is set. Well, let me interrupt a minute
and explain here, or rather invite more explanation. You came
from the Big Thicket, you went to Greenwich Village in New York,
you were in New York many years. Then you came to Austin, right,
Edward Swift: I never lived in Austin, no.
I went from the Big Thicket to Abilene, Texas, to school. And
then from Abilene I went to New York City for 40 years. And then
I came to Mexico in 2005 permanently. But I have been in and
out of Mexico all of my life, I have had a long association with
this country. And the Mexicans appreciate my visual art, more
so than the North Americans. The North Americans say, "Oh,
it's so strange," and the Mexicans say, "Oh, it's so
original." There's a huge difference there. [Laughs]
Well, you've had a really amazing career here as an artist. You
had a gallery at the Fábrica Aurora, which is a big gallery
space here in San Miguel de Allende. But you've also had several
museum shows, and you've most recently been going into the Sierra
Gorda, where you are Don Maestro Eduardo, or Maestro Don Eduardo,
¿verdad?. And you've found a really, well, tell
about your experience in the Sierra Gorda.
Edward Swift: Well, I love the Sierra Gorda.
I have a great affinity for it. I had an exhibition in the museum
of the city of Querétaro, and the directors of the Museo
Histórico de la Sierra Gorda saw the exposition and invited
me to have an exposition there in the Sierra Gorda, and I've
had two in the Sierra Gorda. And when I go they just roll out
the red carpet for me. It's as though I'm a great celebrity there,
and so I keep returning. I've been back six times. And whenever
I need to retreat I go to the Sierra Gorda. It's a good place
to hide. It is mystical, it's beautiful, it's tranquil, and it
has the five great Franciscan missions.
Ruta de la Sierra Gorda is a very important mission route. But
I know the Sierra Gorda because of Xilitla,
Sir Edward James' surrealist garden.
Edward Swift: Yes. Now technically they
call that the Huasteca Potosina. It is of course part of the
Sierra Gorda, because it's only 70 kilometers from Jalpan, which
is the center of the Sierra Gorda. And I know that garden too,
I have been there. Edward James created a surrealist garden that
people from all over the world visit. Now unfortunately, many
of the people who go there visit his garden, but they pass up
the five missions. And the five missions are astonishing. For
instance, the mission at Tilaco had on the façade a whole
line of mermaids.
Edward Swift: And what?
In the middle of the mountains!
Edward Swift: In the middle of the mountains!
And this would've been 15- or 1600s, something
Edward Swift: Seventeen-fifty, -sixty, -seventy.
Okay. A little later than I thought.
Edward Swift: A little later.
But that's still pretty ancient. What are the mermaids doing
there, do you know?
Edward Swift: Well, who knows? But the façades
of those missions are a collaboration between the indigenous
people and the Franciscan monks. And the indigenous people were
given quite a lot of freedom to incorporate their own symbols
into the Christian world.
So it's very unique.
Edward Swift: It's very unique. Sometimes
they call it Primitive Baroque.
Primitive Baroque, yes, I've seen a bit of that in Mexico City.
So how long have you been going into the Sierra Gorda, and where
do you go? Can you tell?
Edward Swift: Yes. I've been going for about
three or four years, three, three and a half years. And I go
to Jalpan de Serra, where I have a lot of friends. And I have
a connection there with Señor Francisco and Señora
Inés, they're 80 years old, and I rent a room from them
for 200 pesos a week. And then I have breakfast and lunch with
them for another 200 pesos a week.
Okay, for those who are listening, we should translate that to
dollars. That is
Edward Swift: Nineteen or 18 dollars.
That's pretty inexpensive.
Edward Swift: It's really inexpensive. And
I can go there and hide.
Indeed. Do you even get an Internet connection?
Edward Swift: I have to go into the town
of Jalpan to get an Internet connection.
So they have an Internet café.
Edward Swift: There's an Internet café
even in the Sierra Gorda.
It must be so beautiful there. I would love to go see that. I'm
inspired that you've been going there.
Edward Swift: Well, first of all, Jalpan
is in a valley, and it's surrounded by beautiful mountains. And
in the morning there is cloud cover around the mountains, and
then it gradually lifts. But you have the feeling that Brigadoon
is going to float down. [Laughs]
I remember when I flew through that area I saw the mist over
Edward Swift: It sounds beautiful. And especially
in the little town of Pinal de Amoles.
C.M. Mayo: Pinal de Amoles. I've been
in Mexico 25 years, I've never heard of that.
Edward Swift: Well, it's in the high, high
Sierra. They have lots of ice and snow up there in the wintertime.
"Pinal" refers to the pine forest. Amoles is a kind
of camote, a wild
A sweet potato.
Edward Swift: And there's a lady there,
a Luisa, and she makes fruit wines, and I always stop there and
buy wine made from membrillo, which is quince.
It sounds divine.
Edward Swift: It is divine. Divine!
So what do you do when you go? Are you making your art, or are
you writing, or are you doing both when you go there?
Edward Swift: Usually when I go there I
am writing, because it's just too much work to transport all
of my materials and my tools to that part of Mexico. So I just
take a few clothes and my computer.
And this is, you're working on a memoir about Mexico now, or
another novel, or both?
Edward Swift: I am trying to finish another
novel right now. I have notes for another memoir, but I haven't
really plunged into it. I will this year. Right now I'm trying
to finish a book called Walking on Glory, and it is a
book about suicide, the suicide of a friend of mine. And in spite
of the fact that it is very dark, it is also, I think, very,
You are here in San Miguel, this is an extraordinary town. It
has a very interesting, vibrant artistic community. How did you
end up coming here?
Edward Swift: I came here in 1979 in order
to hide, to escape all of my friends, but particularly to escape
my cousin Dana, because she was always trying to distract me.
She was a world traveler and an adventurer, and she was fantastically
beautiful. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 54, but she
had a remarkable, remarkable life. So I came here to work on
and hopefully finish Principia Martindale. And I was sitting
in the Plaza one day writing, and I heard this voice, "Cousin
Edward, you know you can't hide from me," and there went
She must've been a lot of fun.
Edward Swift: She was great fun. And because
she was so beautiful men would follow us down the street, and
she would say, "Oh cousin, you know they're following you."
And I would say, "Oh no, cousin, they're following you."
Well, and then you came back to actually live here in 2005.
Edward Swift: I always knew that I would
retire to Mexico, because I had an emotional affinity with the
country, and the people here have always embraced me. And I also
love so much the food, and the ancient world, and the landscape.
I always knew that I would end up in Mexico, always.
From when you were very young?
Edward Swift: From when I was very young.
When I was in college we would come down here on the train. We
had a magnificent train from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City, an
overnight train. Sometimes they called it the Resurrection, and
sometimes they called it the Aztec Eagle, but it was a train
that left Nuevo Laredo about six o'clock in the evening, and
the next afternoon around two or three o'clock it would arrive
in San Miguel.
So you had seen San Miguel when you were younger.
Edward Swift: When I was in my early 20s.
It seems to me like it might have some similarities to the Village
in New York City in the '70s.
Edward Swift: Well, yes it does, because
artists can still live here fairly economically, and there are
many artists who support themselves with their sales here and
with their teaching. It's a kind of bohemian community of artists
in spite of the fact that there are many very wealthy expatriates
here as well. But we're very happy to have them here, because
they buy art. And we have artists here from all over Mexico,
all over the United States, Canada, Europe, all over the world.
If there is some technique you want to learn, there's somebody
here who knows how to teach it. And the artists here are very,
That's the impression I've had. I don't live here, I just come
once, twice a year at most for teaching writing workshops. And
of course we have a mutual friend in common which is how
we met Mariló Carral, who's a wonderful Mexican
painter from Mexico City. So she's one of the... I don't know
if it's small or large or what, but one of what I think is a
small community of Mexico City artists who've come to either
work and live or retire and continue working in San Miguel.
Edward Swift: There are quite a few Mexico
City artists here. They have come here seeking a more tranquil
life, and a life in which they can move around freely and rapidly
in their cars.
I can relate to that! I live in Mexico City, in Coyoacán
not far from the Casa Azul de Frida Kahlo and I feel like
a pea in aspic. You just cannot move.
Edward Swift: You cannot move.
You literally cannot move. And to have just a coffee,
or what we're doing right now, an interview, in Mexico City the
logistics are just hair-pulling. Literally, instead of saying
it would take an hour and a half, 40 minutes, whatever, it would
take the entire afternoon. Because you have to calculate
the traffic, and you don't know what you're going to encounter.
It's absolutely exasperating! And every time I come here I think,
oh, I wish I lived here. [Laughs]
you I want to talk to a little about your house, because you
told me the story of your house last time I talked to you. Well
no, maybe it wasn't the last time I talked to you, but... you
told me the story of your house a couple of years ago, I think
it was. And what really... I loved about the story was how you
are an artist, and you approached your architect as a fellow
artist, and he did this beautiful house for you. It's gorgeous.
Edward Swift: Thank you. The architect is
Jesús Zárate, and he lives here in San Miguel.
He and his father work together. The father is an engineer, Jesús
is a great designer. I met him in the gym. And he came highly
recommended. He designed this small house for me, which I think
looks like me. It's very tall and very thin. The house is small,
it's five meters by six meters, and I have two five-meter windows
for lots of air and light.
And I paid him upfront
for the whole thing and said, "Please, now go do it."
And everybody said, "Oh, that's not how you work with an
architect." And I said, "Just do it." And he said,
"Do you want changes?" and I said, "No. I like
it. I hope you can build it as fast as possible." And he
built it in five months.
That is amazing.
Edward Swift: Amazing!
I built my house in Coyoacán in 1987, 1988, and one of
the things that kind of resonated with me about your story about
your house is, we also my husband and I had a very
good experience with working with our architect. We had, as you
do, a very small piece of land where we wanted to make the house
as spacious as possible given some constraints, and we were just
thrilled with our architect. We really had a swimmingly easy time
with the whole thing. But friend after friend after friend has
had this nightmarish experience, and they all just roll their
eyes about how horrible it is to work with an architect. And
the truth is, we didn't have that problem. You didn't have that
Edward Swift: I didn't have that problem.
But you see, I chose a very extraordinary architect, as well.
He's a great designer, and I approached him as an artist, and
I gave him freedom to do whatever he wanted to do. And I liked
very much his design. Now, people who come to San Miguel
perhaps it's the same everywhere else they all want to
sit down and have a creative experience with their architect.
And I say to them, "Why don't you just leave him alone?"
[Laughs] That's my attitude also! Well, I mean, in a sense they're
an architect because they know something you don't know, and
that's really what you're paying for, that they understand design,
but it's difficult sometimes when people don't appreciate that
there's a skill they don't have. Well, that's also true for writers
as well. [Laughs]
Edward Swift: I was going to say, yes, everybody
seems to want to write a book. And I would say, "If you
don't have to do it, if you're not obsessed with it, if it isn't
a life or death situation with you, don't do it."
It is painful. I speak as someone with several books under my
belt, too. I'm like, well, I guess I'm just doing this because
I don't know what else to do. Or I feel compelled. I get an idea
to do a book, and I feel like I cannot rest until I do this book.
It's like an obsession.
Edward Swift: Well, that's the gift of the
artist, you see. And if you don't have it, I don't think you
should write a book. Because I think if you don't have that quality
you're talking about, then it is painful. Now, I don't think
it's particularly painful, but it does take over your entire
Have you taught here in San Miguel?
Edward Swift: I haven't taught in San Miguel,
but I have taught in New York City at the 92nd Street Y, and
at New York University. And the 92nd Street Y is a wonderful
place to teach, because the students interview the teachers.
How is that?
Edward Swift: Well, there is a night where
all of the students who want to take a writing class come and
they meet the teachers, and they say, "How do you teach?
How do you do it? What is your approach?" And then they
make an application to study with you, and they send in work.
And you look it over, and you choose the students you think you
So you choose your students.
Edward Swift: You choose your students there,
That is really nice.
Edward Swift: It's very, very nice. And
therefore the classes are very special.
You see, I think it is wrong for all of these writers or would-be
writers to go from this creative writing class to that creative
writing class to some other creative writing class, and then
they bring their manuscript to me. And chapter one sounds like
this teacher, and chapter two sounds like that teacher, and chapter
three sounds like somebody else. And
I think it's much better if you choose someone you respect, a
writer you respect, and go to that writer and say, "Do you
teach? And if you don't teach, will you?" And just stay
with one person. Because everybody is going to say something
different about your manuscript.
Edward Swift: [Laughs] Everybody. And it's
best that you develop confidence, and a love for what you're
doing, and the ability to continue without much encouragement
from other people. And then when you need another eye, when you
need another ear, you go then. For instance, my friend
Phillip is visiting with me right now from New York City. He's
very literary. We are going through every line of Walking
On Glory. It's very intense.
But there is a time
when you need that, and there is a time when you do not
need that. And most writers do not know how to protect themselves,
so they will show a rough draft to a friend or a loved one. And
the friend or the loved one will bring it back and say, "Oh,
I wanted so much to be able to like this, but I just can't."
Because very few people can read a rough draft.
That is so true. I'm nodding vigorously when you said, "most
writers don't know how to protect themselves." That
is very true.
Edward Swift: But listen, we learn the hard
way, don't we?
Yeah. [Laughs] And then you get really tough. I feel really
Edward Swift: I do too sometimes. [Laughs]
Well, you don't come across as tough at all, but I know that
there is a toughness, because you wouldn't keep writing books
and bringing them out. I mean, bringing a book out is a very
public act. And no matter what you do, no matter who you are,
somebody somewhere is not going to like it, or say something
stupid about it. And most people give up at that point. They're
wounded when somebody doesn't like something. I think the real
artists may get wounded but then they heal, or put a Band-Aid
on, or something, and then they just keep going!
Edward Swift: Somehow I think it goes back
to your passion for doing what you do. For instance, I was in
the gallery one day and a man came in and said, "Let me
ask you something. Do you sell this stuff?" And I said,
"Yes," and he said, "How long have you been doing
it?" And I said, "I guess all of my life. I cannot
remember not doing it." And
he said, "Great little hobby you have here." And I
said, "Sir, I don't have hobbies, I have passions."
And he said, "What is the difference?" I said, "There
is a great deal of difference, but I can't explain it to you.
Why don't you walk down the hall and ask Mary Rabb?" Well,
Mary Rabb is 87 years old, and she has never suffered a fool
gladly. And she set him straight.
Edward Swift: I figured she would be able
to speak better than I on the subject. [Laughs]
It just occurred to me that this sounds like the main character
in a novel: someone who doesn't know the difference between a
hobby and a passion. Oh, my goodness!
Edward Swift: But if you have passion for
what you're doing, you will continue doing it no matter who says
what. You will continue.
I mean, the
passion keeps you working and keeps you loving what you're doing.
And the passion is part of the creative process. And it is like
Now, you know what irks me?
Edward Swift: Well, I go to these writers
conferences sometimes and to places like the Festival of Books
in Texas or the Southern Festival of Books, and invariably someone
will come up to me and say, "Oh, I read Miss Spellbinder's
Point of View," or oh, I read this, or I read that,
"and you must have been on something heavy when you wrote
that. Now, what were you taking when you wrote that?"
People think that because
I write poetically, and imagistically, and with a certain rhythm
and cadence, that they think I'm on drugs to do that. But I am
not, the creative process is a drug.
Now let me quote Anaïs Nin, please. She said over and over,
and often in our class, Marguerite Young, and in her diaries,
and everywhere else, "My diary is my opium pipe, my hashish."
I actually noted, she says here
quoting from your essay about Marguerite Young "I have never taken drugs,"
she said. "I do not need them to enter the realm of the
dream." And this was in a scene where she had the top model
for Freak magazine, someone who'd been in the films of
Andy Warhol, coming into the room, tyou know, that would have
gotten anyone else's attention. And she just flicked off this
person like a gnat. [Laughs]
Edward Swift: Like a gnat.
She says, "'Oh, shut up,' Marguerite replied, hardly breaking
her discourse on the opium lady and her daily visitors."
Edward Swift: [Laughs] That was Holly Woodlawn,
was it not?
Yeah, Holly Woodlawn, the transvestite star of Andy Warhol's
Edward Swift: Yes, she was always coming
into Reichert's and creating a scene. She would come in and say,
"I am the leading model for Freak magazine."
And Marguerite would say, "Oh, shut up, Holly, we're talking
about something else now."
Edward Swift: James Joyce, Proust, Virginia
Well, people have very naïve ideas about writing. I mean,
I'm always getting people who, they read something and they think
it must be autobiographical. And I just want to say, "Hello?
Edward Swift: It is fiction. And at the
same time, Marguerite always said to me, "There must be
a seed of truth in there somewhere, a seed from your own experience
that you develop and allow to grow. And it grows into something
beyond what the experience actually was."
Indeed. Well, we're all kind of a thousand people folded into
one. I think if we stretch ourselves we can all
it was Flannery O'Connor who said something like, "You've
really had all the experience you need by the time you're in
Edward Swift: I think Flannery O'Connor
was correct about that. And I think my interest and my ability
with the language developed very early, it developed in Camp
Ruby. I left Camp Ruby when I was about eight years old, and
we moved to Woodville. But my aunt married into a very old Big
Thicket family. They were Black Dutch, and they spoke English
in a very poetic way and with a cadence.
let me see if I can give you an example of that old Black Dutch
lingo, which I don't think you'll find in the Big Thicket today.
They would say things like, "Oh, Eddie Junior, I'm going
to tell you, Eddie Junior, I'm going to tell you straight. I'm
going to tell you straight as a martin to its gourd. And after
I tell you, you'll know you've been told."
That's kind of scary.
Edward Swift: It's kind of scary, but it's
also beautiful, and it is music. And I would sit as a child forever
and listen to those old-timers talk. And they talked in repetitions,
and they talked in cadences. And their repetitions were very,
very important to them, because that created a music that is
not unlike Baroque music.
is in your book My Grandfather's Finger, the way they
Edward Swift: I tried to capture it.
You did, I think.
Edward Swift: And I tried especially to
capture it with Maynard Davis and Hardy Cain, because they spoke
in repetitions. And the chapter on Maynard Davis, that was actually
recorded, and then I transcribed a lot of it, and I fixed a little
bit of it so it would be easier for the reader. I mean, I repunctuated
it and broke the sentences down a little bit so that you
would get the flavor of the speech on the page. That was
not easy to do.
It's really a extraordinary book I've said this about five
times, haven't I? because it's a world that is so different
from New York City. It's a world that's so different from
the world I think most readers will be familiar with. It's a
really unique world. And to render it so vividly and compellingly,
and not sentimentally, but always with
It's very moving.
It's very, very moving.
Did you have any influence literary influences when
you were thinking of writing My Grandfather's Finger?
Were there any other books that were an influence or a model
for you in structuring it or thinking about how to do it?
Edward Swift: I worked on it for many, many
years before I actually saw it coming together. I started it
on Ossabaw Island, Georgia, at the Ossabaw Island Project. In
1978 I was working on it, and could not for the life of me figure
out how to put all of these stories together. And then the Houston
Chronicle contacted me and said, "Will you do some short
essays about the Big Thicket for us, you know, four or five pages?"
And so I started writing
four or five pages about my mother, about my aunts, about my
grandmother, about my grandfather, about my Uncle Frank. And
pretty soon I just sort of put them together or they came
together on their own at that point. That's how I did it, for
better or for worse.
Now what about your novels? Who are your influences apart
from Marguerite Young your teacher for many years? But who are
the writers who have influenced you the most?
Edward Swift: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O'Connor, Marcel Proust who caught my fancy right away.
These are all writers of style. They each have an individual
and unique voice. Marguerite always said, "A writer has
to have a special world." She would say, "Joyce had
Dublin, Proust had Paris, Faulkner had his county, and Flannery
O'Connor had Milledgeville."
from Proust, those are Southern writers.
Edward Swift: Those are Southern writers.
And I grew up in a Southern part of Texas, the Big Thicket, along
the Louisiana border. And I cannot say that my family was exactly
literary, but it was a family of storytellers. And my great-aunt
Ettie had a teaching degree from Southeastern State College.
She was the first lady in our family to be educated formally,
and she never let us forget it. And when I visited her
I practically had to have a dictionary. She had memorized great
quantities of poetry, particularly Longfellow, and she would
work lines of poetry into her everyday speech.
And some of it was
Shakespearean. You would say, "Oh, how are you today, Great-Aunt
Ettie?" and she would say, "How foul and fair a day
I have not seen."
Or we would be walking through her scrubby little garden and
she would say, from Evangeline, "This is the forest
primeval, the whispering pines and hemlocks."
So many times the ladies in my family spoke in tones of irony,
and irony as we know, is the highest form of wit. And therefore
they were extremely entertaining to be around.
My grandmother read
everything, and you did not interrupt her if she was reading.
Oh, she would throw the book at you, or she would slap you on
the shoulder, because reading is very serious. So I grew up believing
in the seriousness of reading and the book. I would see my grandmother
reading and I would think, I wonder what that's about?
So I grew up with a love of books and a respect for books.
when you went to New York you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Edward Swift: No, I was terribly confused.
I did not know what I wanted to be.
Why did you choose to go to New York?
Edward Swift: I felt compelled to go to
New York because I loved the theater, I loved the opera, I loved
classical music. My mother always bought me classical albums
to listen to. And I knew I had to go someplace that had theaters,
opera houses... I mean, I was a culture freak even when I was
little, and for that reason I was absolutely out of step with
any of the kids in my elementary school. But by the time
I got to high school, you see, I was in the high school band,
and we were all music nerds.
was in Abilene.
Edward Swift: No, this was in Woodville,
Edward Swift: In Woodville, Texas, in the
Big Thicket. And I had lots of friends in junior high and high
school, and we were all music people. And we practiced, practiced,
Then I left Woodville and went to Abilene, and I majored in art
and drama, and got a teaching certificate. And I went straight
from there to New York City. Had to go to New York City.
What a change that must have been, just like diving into the
Edward Swift: Well, people said, "How
did you adapt to that?" Well... I wanted to be there! It
was exciting! So therefore it was quite easy, really, to adapt
to it. If you're excited about something, if it stimulates you,
well then, every day is an excitement, an adventure.
Well, New York! There's an endless number of things to see and
do, that you can just walk to.
Edward Swift: Yes, it's a very convenient
city. And when I moved to New York I rented an apartment for
$40 a month, and I had four rooms. You see, you cannot
do that today in New York, and that is terrible, because artists
don't go there today. But you have these art centers developing
all over the United States, other places where artists can go
and get started.
Well, so that would be here, San Miguel de Allende, and you're
leading the way. You're in the vanguard for the Sierra Gorda.
Seriously, I think more artists will follow you in there over
And what are some other places that you see today are the equivalent
or the mini-equivalent of Greenwich Village in New York in the
Edward Swift: Well, Marfa, Texas seems to
I love Marfa. I'm writing a book about Marfa. You know that.
Edward Swift: Yes, I know that.
I wanted to ask you some Texas questions, Marfa!
Edward Swift: Oh, ask them. I've never been
to Marfa, but I understand that it is a great city for artists.
I wouldn't call it a city. [Laughs]
Edward Swift: A little town.
It's a little old town.
Edward Swift: And I think New Harmony, Indiana
New Harmony, Indiana which is what Marguerite Young wrote
Edward Swift: The scene of two diverse American
utopias. It's a small town, and you can still go there and live
inexpensively, and there are many artists there.
And where else? I don't know.
Edward Swift: Well, Taos, we used to go
to Taos all the time. Taos is very expensive now, and so is Santa
Fe. But there are other communities in New Mexico, the Land of
Enchantment, that are not as expensive to live in, and they are
scattered about all over the state. It's a state of artists.
Yeah. Yeah. I had that impression. We've got a helicopter going
overhead outside, I think. I had that impression, that people
were just kind of squirreled away in the mountains and the desert
there, and then they would come out for art fairs or something.
Edward Swift: Yes. For instance, the little
town of Truchas in the Sangre de Cristos is a very important
little town these days. When I first went to Taos in the early
'70s I was warned, "You don't linger in Truchas, because
the people do not like outsiders." Now there are art galleries
there and many outsiders living there, many people from other
parts, many artists, writers, people who just want to escape
and drop out. And other cities like Las Trampas... cities, towns,
communities, hamlets like Las Trampas and Chimayó, even
Española. Not very beautiful, Española, but you
can live there and work there.
And this area too seems to me that it's sprouting a lot of little
satellites, because San Miguel itself... because people have
a lot of money, and this big hotel just opened, the Rosewood,
which is over the top, very expensive. I had some guacamole and
Edward Swift: It costs you a small fortune.
Yeah, it was like Manhattan. [Laughs] It was the same level of
décor, service, food, it was like being in New York City.
So I see a lot of artists here moving out to Guanajuato.
Edward Swift: Yes. And I think we should
say, here we are in my little house and garden and studio, we
are outside the Centro Histórico.
the Centro Histórico is kind of turning into antros
Edward Swift: Well, it's very expensive there.
It is extremely expensive. I know a lot of upward mobile executives
from Mexico City are now buying up lots of land in the Centro
and around the Centro. But I am about two kilometers from the
Centro, practically in the campo [the country]. So to
live out here is not the same as living in the Centro.
The farmers from Celaya come to my door and sell vegetables.
I can walk down the street and there are various meat markets.
The milkman comes to my door. I can live out here without ever
going to the Mega store.
Mega! Okay, for those who don't know it... [Laughs] The Mega,
it's a supermarket where you really wish you had a Segway, or
at least some rollerblades?
Edward Swift: Have to get around fast.
Yeah. There are Megas all over Mexico. I kind of gave up on Cabo
San Lucas when it got a Mega. I was actually visiting my mother
and she sent me, and it was December, and they had a big pile
of Christmas trees imported from Canada in the parking lot of
the Mega. And I thought, this is not the Cabo San Lucas I came
to see in the '80s! [Laughs]
Well anyway, I have a Texas question for you. You are a Texan,
and you are from Eastern Texas. I am a Texan from El Paso but I really grew up in California,
so culturally, I'm not really Texan. But I think what's so interesting
at this point for me in beginning to think about Texas, it seems
to me there's two Texases. That there's the Southern Texas
and I don't mean necessarily geographically southern, I mean
culturally Southern and there's a Western Texas, which
I haven't really gotten my mind around yet. Do you find that
to be true?
Edward Swift: Oh, that's absolutely true.
And this is very difficult to explain to people, because most
people do not recognize the Southern part of Texas. And it is
that strip of piney woods, swamp, and bayou along the Sabine
River. The Sabine River divides Louisiana from Texas. So the
part of Texas I grew up in is the Cajun part of Texas. Now out
West, when you get to El Paso, when you enter Abilene, you are
in the West, you are no longer in the South.
What happened to you when you went from the Big Thicket to Abilene?
Edward Swift: I could not wait to
leave the Big Thicket, because in the Big Thicket you are covered
with trees, you cannot see the sky, you cannot see the horizon
line. I wanted wide open spaces! I could not wait to get there
so I could breathe. And in Abilene, you know, it's flat, flat,
on the plains.
Edward Swift: It's on the plains. And I
loved it. I have great affection for that little city. The accent
is different. I think the people in West Texas are more resilient,
I think they are tougher than we are in East Texas. The climate
is dry. You have dust storms, and sometimes during the dust storms
it rains, so the sky rains mud. The people are tougher.
Now in East Texas, particularly the Big Thicket, that's where
everyone went to hide, all of the pacifists, all of the renegades,
and they got into those swamps and woods and bayous, and they
You mean during the Civil War, that's where they
Edward Swift: During the Civil War.
They hid out.
Edward Swift: So there is a great deal of
inbreeding in the Big Thicket, and a lot of people have knots
on their heads.
Knots on their heads?!
Edward Swift: Well, that's what my mother
always said. And my mother was always suspicious of the people
who lived down deep, deep, deep on the river bottom. She said,
"Oh honey, don't go around those people," she would
say, "because ignorance is contagious." My mother always
believed that I should not associate with those river bottom
people. Now this is very prejudiced. I
had lots of friends on the river bottom, but my mother believed
that they were all inbred down there, and they were not fit for
friendship because, "Ignorance is contagious, honey,"
she would say.
And you know, sometimes I would sit in that gallery here in San
Miguel de Allende and listen to some of the comments, and I would
think, oh, maybe Mother was right. Let me out of here! [Laughs]
That was so funny. A few years ago I interviewed the owner of
a gallery in Baja California, in Todos Santos, and he talked
a lot about gallery etiquette and how most people don't have
it. They just walk in and say whatever they want without realizing,
this is the life work of the person who's done it, so if you
don't like it, at least have some manners!
Edward Swift: Art galleries make some people
They can be very intimidating.
Edward Swift: They can be very intimidating.
And sometimes the owners of the gallery are very arrogant and
superior in their attitude, and sometimes that makes people more
talkative, and sometimes they just flee. But no, some people
are very intimidated and uncomfortable in galleries, so
they just walk in and start saying whatever they think
of right off the top of their heads.
I know. [Laughs] I've seen it.
Edward Swift: And other people are so brilliant.
Now tell me why this is. The people from Vancouver, Portland,
Seattle, and Boston who came into my gallery in San Miguel de
Allende, they were all smart, smart, smart. And I asked everybody
when they came through the door, "Where are you from?"
and if they said that they were from one of those four cities
I knew I had to be on my toes, because I knew they would be smart,
and they always were.
Now some of the dumbest
people I have ever talked to came out of New York City, and we
have wonderful schools in New York City. But you know, New York
City people are a little bit like Texans. They behave with great
entitlement when they walk through the gallery, and they
speak as if they're the authority on everything.
There's a lot of people from New York here in San Miguel de Allende!
Edward Swift: Oh, I know they're not going
to enjoy hearing this. But I tease them about it all the time.
[Laughs] Well, you're from New York in a way yourself since you
spent, how many years did you spend in New York?
Edward Swift: Forty.
That's a lifetime.
Edward Swift: It's a lifetime. And sometimes
people say, "Where are you from?" and I say, "I
was born in Texas, but I am not a Texan, I'm a New Yorker."
Because the Texans who come here are such loudmouths. And the
Mexicans say it, and some of us gringos say it as well. They
are very, very loud. And they go to the bars and they get drunk,
and they have a good time, and they just raise hell. And I think,
oh, I don't want to be associated with them. And the Mexicans
all say to me, "Oh, you're not like the others," and
I say, "Oh, thank you very much."
There's an image that I have of you, Edward, from one of the
recent times we talked, and you told me that you brought the
bouquets to the ballerinas.
Edward Swift: Oh yes. I was a balletomane
from a very early age, thanks to television. And when I went
to New York I went to the opera and ballet religiously. And then
there came a time about 1990 when I decided I didn't want to
buy another ballet ticket. So I called ABT up and I said, "I
can volunteer for something as long as I can see the ballets."
And so I became one of the salespersons for the autographed point
shoes the used autographed point shoes and I sold
them during the intermission. And
then one day the stage manager said to me, "Do you have
a tuxedo?" and I said, "Well, of course I have a tuxedo.
I have two." And she said, "Well, do I have a job for
you." So my job was to work backstage and to make all of
the deliveries of gifts and flowers to the ballerinas' dressing
rooms, and to deliver the flowers to the ballerinas on
So I became for about
10 years one of the three ABT flower men, and I became quite
famous for it. I would walk across the grand plaza of Lincoln
Center, and invariably someone would say to me, "Oh, you're
the ABT flower man," and I said, "Yes, but I'm also
a novelist. Have you read my books?" "Oh no, but you're
the ABT flower man. How did you get your job? And when you leave,
can I have it?"
Do you miss New York?
Edward Swift: I miss ABT, I miss American
Ballet Theater and all of my friends there. But, you know, I
keep up with them via Facebook. Now this year David Hallberg
was invited to join the Bolshoi the first American invited
to join the Bolshoi. And I kept up with all of that through Facebook,
you see. So I can keep up through Facebook with all of my friends
in the performing arts, because they don't have time to write
letters, but we can exchange three or four lines. "Yes,
I'm in Moscow. I'm freezing to death." "Well yes, I'm
in San Miguel, and I'm freezing to death, too."
[Laughs] It does get cold here. Well, this is such a change,
though. When I came to Mexico in the '80s, we had no Internet.
The telephones... it was very difficult to get a telephone. There
were no cell phones. It really was like going to another planet
in some ways. And now it all feels very connected. I can talk
to you as easily from down the block as I can my friends in Mexico
City or my friends in California. It must be nice to be able
to do that.
Edward Swift: Well, I think it's nice to
be able to do that. I have left New York City, but I haven't
really left my connection with all of my friends. You can be
in contact with someone instantaneously these days, and I suppose
there are some drawbacks to that, but right now I don't see many.
How often do you check your e-mail in the Sierra Gorda?
Edward Swift: I check my e-mail every other
day, because in the afternoon I would take a walk into the Centro
Histórico of Jalpan, and I would usually stop at the little
café, have a cup of coffee, check my e-mails, and go back.
Not every day.
Every other day.
Edward Swift: Every other day or so. About
two or three o'clock in the afternoon, I would need a breather,
I would need to get out and move around a little bit. And invariably
Señora Inés would bring me a wonderful cup of atole,
and she made atole with avena, which is oatmeal.
Okay. I'll bet people don't know what atole is. It's divine.
Edward Swift: It's divine.
hot, and it's made of cornmeal.
Edward Swift: Usually.
Usually. It can be made with just, I guess, a bunch of different
Edward Swift: It can be made with rice,
it's kind of bland. And it's usually flavored with Mexican vanilla
or canela, which is cinnamon.
Edward Swift: And chocolate, and also Señora
Inés used pecans, which she would grind up and put into
the oatmeal mixture for atole, and it was divine.
That sounds like something to have on a cold misty morning when
you have to go work out in the potato fields.
Edward Swift: Yes, it's very heavy, it's
very filling, and very delicious.
That's how I think of atole, but I've never heard of it
with ground up nuts in it.
Edward Swift: Nor have I. I think it's something
indigenous to the Sierra Gorda.
now maybe all the people listening are going to want to rush
into the Sierra Gorda to have their artist retreat! Seriously,
I think people are going to start following you. People have
not heard of the Sierra Gorda. It's definitely not on the top
10 or even top 20 list of places most people think of when they
think of Mexico, but I do know it's extraordinarily beautiful.
And it's betteragain the Spanish word, communicado
it's easier to get there than people realize.
Edward Swift: Yes. Highway 120 is the leading
highway from the south, from Mexico City, but many people do
not want to take it because there are 400-plus curves in that
mountain road, and they think it is a little dangerous and a
little treacherous. But I've driven it six times in my vochito
my Volkswagen bug, I have to explain that and as long as
you take it slowly it's very, very beautiful. But it is a road
on which you have to stay alert.
Well, and animals. There are a lot of animals on the road.
Edward Swift: And landslides.
Landslides! Yeah, that too. This sounds a lot like Baja California.
There was a lot of really windy little roads, and they're perfectly
fine, but you can't go 80 miles an hour, and you certainly wouldn't
want to drive at night.
Edward Swift: Never drive at night.
And they tell you not to drive during the rain, but I have driven
it during the rain, and it is so beautiful in the mist.
I can imagine. I can imagine. It's one of the most beautiful
parts of Mexico.
Edward Swift: Well, it's a World Heritage
Biosphere, and the five Franciscan missions are World Heritage
missions. They're all protected.
Have you seen that, como se llama, the Pozo de las Golondrinas?
It's a gigantic sinkhole where these parrots fly out at sunset
Edward Swift: Yes. Now there are two places
where the parrots fly out, and one of them is the Sótano
de las Golondrinas.
That's what I was thinking of.
Edward Swift: And it is in the Huasteca
Potosina. And also that sinkhole is as deep as the Empire State
Building is tall. There is a hive of Africanized honeybees around
the surface of it, which are killer bees. And then there are
bats in there. And then the Military Macaw makes its nest in
little caves in there, and the Military Macaws will fly out every
morning. And then in the evenings the bats fly out.
And sometime during
midmorning the killer bees fly out and go wherever they go to
feed and come back, and only then, only then can the parachuters
jump into that hole. Now why they would want to parachute into
that hole I don't know. They are of course adventurers, and they
say the bottom of the Sótano de las Golondrinas. is filled
with bat guano, centipedes, and scorpions. I am not too eager
to jump into that hole.
[Laughs] Do people jump in every day, or what?
Edward Swift: I don't know if they jump
in every day or not, but adventurers love to go out there. Now
there is another one in the Sierra Gorda not far from Jalpan
de Serra, and it is called Sótano de Barro. And they call
it a sinkhole, it looks like a very narrow canyon. And it is
also home to the Military Macaw, and that macaw is endangered.
And they do not allow you to enter the Sótano de Barro
because the macaw are protected.
Sótano de las Golondrinas only.
Edward Swift: Only. If you are brave enough
to pass through the territory of the Africanized honeybees.
There are two books that I hope you'll write, because I really
want to read them. And one is like My Grandfather's
Finger, your memoir of the Big Thicket a memoir of
New York in the '70s and '80s, and your memoir of Mexico. I really
hope you'll write those.
Edward Swift: As soon as I finish Walking
On Glory, which I have worked on seemingly forever, I'm going
to start on those books. I have already started on the Mexican
book, but I mean, I am going to enter the world of those books.
And the Mexican book, I am going to bring some of the Big Thicket
in it too, because there are certain parallels that I want to
But New York in the
'60s and '70s, oh my, I could write about Scribner Bookstore
alone. I worked there with the most eccentric and erudite and
witty booksellers, and one of them was Anna Duncan. Anna Duncan
was one of the last of the Isadorables. And the Isadorables were
the young girls that Isadora adopted and taught to dance in her
Edward Swift: Isadora Duncan. And Anna worked
at Brentano's, and I moonlighted at Brentano's, and she had a
great audience every day. And the book buyers would come in,
not necessarily to buy books but to talk to her about Isadora,
and she, Anna Duncan, would often demonstrate on the mezzanine
of the bookstore, Brentano's. She would demonstrate Isadora's
remarkable style. And the management allowed her to do this,
of course. Today they would throw her out, I fear.
Well, it's like going to Barnes & Noble, with a Starbucks.
Edward Swift: Yes. [Laughs] And at Scribner's
I worked with Patti Smith the rock star, and Robert Mapplethorpe,
and a whole slew of poets and very elderly booksellers who had
read everything and could talk to you about everything. And we
gave personalized service to all of our customers.
what I miss.
Edward Swift: I miss it!
I miss that.
Edward Swift: I miss it so much!
the booksellers who really loved books and their books, and it's
not like just a job.
Edward Swift: You go into some of the modern
bookstores, and you have the feeling that those booksellers have
never even read a book and don't care anything about a book.
Yeah, I definitely get that feeling oftentimes.
Oh, and I want to ask you all about this, but we've come to the
hour. And furthermore, as a writer myself I know that it's so
important to not ask another writer to talk too much when it's
in process, to save that. Because I really want to read that
book! And I'm really hoping you'll go to the Sierra Gorda
and finish it soon. Edward, for people to find out about your
art, which we didn't even have a chance to talk about, your art,
your amazing art, and all your many other books, they can come
to your website?
Edward Swift: Edwardswiftartist.com,
or they can go to Facebook, Edward Swift. I have photographs
in both places. On the website I have chapters from my books
[See also http://www.fabricalaaurora.com/locales/swift.html]
So they can see the cover, they can see about it, they can see
Edward Swift: They can see the excerpt,
and I think they can see the covers of some of them, not all
This most recent one, The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint,
it's your most recent novel, it's a beautiful macaw on the cover
I'm a big fan of Kelley Vandiver's. This one's on your website,
Edward Swift: Yes, it is on my website.
Now that cover represents two paintings by Kelley Vandiver, the
bird and the jungle. And the great graphic firm Zona Grafica
here put that whole thing together. Ernesto Herrera designed
the cover of that book using two paintings of Kelley Vandiver.
It's really beautiful.
So all you guys listening, go check out edwardswiftartist.com.
And Edward, thank you. It has been a delight, it has been an
honor. I feel privileged to know you, and to get to ask you questions,
and sit here in your studio listening to the roosters next door
and all the wonderful things you've had to say. Thank you so
Edward Swift: Thank you for coming to see
me, Catherine. It was a pleasure to talk to you.