Interview With Don Swaim
This week I have the pleasure of sharing my conversation with Don Swaim, author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, Hippocampus Press, New York, 2016.
1) Why a writer?
It beats math. Besides, the creative impulse is a compulsion in people like myself, and I was comfortable with my childhood reclusiveness of reading and writing, at the age of six tapping out my first fledging stories on my mother’s Remington.
2) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
As early as high school I planned to be a writer of some sort, and studied journalism in college because, well, journalists wrote. After a career as a broadcast journalist, working in radio at CBS in New York for more than thirty years, I resigned to write full time. In the process, I fostered the Bucks County Writers Workshop, which initially met at the county’s free library.
3) Why did you choose the genre you write in and how would you describe your writing style?
I never chose a genre, but if I adopt any they choose me. Apologies for the cop-out, but if my writing style can be described, it’s eclectic.
4) Tell us about The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story.
I had written a slim literary thriller about H.L. Mencken, which was published by St. Martin’s Press, and was considering fictionalizing some other literary figure. I was familiar with Ambrose Bierce, having read his Civil War, supernatural stories, and humor, but was intrigued when I learned about his mysterious disappearance into Mexico, where he had gone hoping to reach Pancho Villa in 1913. To this day, Bierce’s whereabouts are unknown.
Carlos Fuentes had published a poetic short novel centered around Bierce, The Old Gringo, but I thought I might write a more extensive book focusing not only on Bierce’s bizarre eclipse in Mexico, but the totality of his life. The first part of the novel occurs in Mexico as Bierce rides with Villa during the revolution, the second part is set in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Bierce falls in love with a young widow; thus, validating the book’s subtitle. Both sections of the novel are filled with ample flashbacks to illuminate Bierce’s dramatic, often turbulent life and career.
In the many-year process of writing the novel, I launched an early Internet site devoted exclusively to Ambrose Bierce (http://donswaim.com), which is now the definitive online Bierce resource.
Researching and writing the novel was both exhilarating and difficult, but publishing it was a different challenge. I went through at least three agents and scores upon scores of rejections. It was the renowned scholar of fantasy and imagination, S. T. Joshi, who read a draft of the novel and championed it, which led to its publication by Hippocampus Press, a feisty, independent publisher in New York focusing on classic horror, poetry, and the scholarly.
5) If you could live in any world from a book or movie which would it be and why?
I’d be reluctant to live in a world without computers and antibiotics, but would relish standing at a bar quaffing cognac with the often misogynistic Ambrose Bierce as he pontificates on literature, politics, and the nature of man. He wasn’t always right but he was colorful and flamboyant.
6) I imagine you’ve been reading all your life (all great writers have). What was your favorite book growing up?
I was in love with the childhood classics, not knowing at the time they were jewels in our literary crown: The Wizard of Oz, Alice, Treasure Island, everything by Jules Verne, and in addition a beautiful little storybook for young children read to me by my mother, Little Buffalo Boy, written and illustrated by H.C. and Lucile Holling (1939).
7) What do you do when you’re not writing?
To most people, my existence would be an incredible bore since writing commands nearly all of my attention. That said, I’m a voracious reader, collect rare books and first editions, build and maintain websites, and fill my ears with enchanted music of all flavors.
8) The infamous question- what advice would you give to any aspiring and new authors out there?
I’d never be so presumptuous as to give anyone writing advice (outside of a workshop context), other than to say that if one doesn’t stick with it it’ll never be written.
9) What can we look forward from you in the future?
I have much to say, assuming I can find a forum for my tales about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, disc jockeys, and tabloid crime reporters.
10) Where can we find you on the internet?
The Ambrose Bierce Site: http://donswaim.com
Wired for Books: http://wiredforbooks.org/swaim/
Book Beat: The Podcast: http://donswaim.com/bookbeatpodcast.html
Bucks County Writers Workshop: http://donswaim.com/buckswriters.html
WCBS Newsradio88: http://donswaim.com/wcbsnewsradio88.html
Thanks for your time, Don. The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it. By the way, love the cover.