It’s a treat to publish today’s profile of author, Rob Swigart because I rarely get to feature non-fiction authors on this blog. However, you’ll quickly discover that there’s almost no form of the written word that Rob hasn’t seen to publication in his storied career. In addition to writing, his background includes a 35-year teaching career (university-level), Akido, SCUBA, cello, archaeology, he’s a commercial instrument-rated pilot and speaks 5+ languages.
Rob earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from State University of New York at Buffalo and a BA in English from Princeton. He has taught English at San Jose State University and was a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford University Archaeology Center, he worked as a technology journalist and technical writer, and he has scripted computer games, feature film scripts, and a television episode.
In addition to his latest book, Mixed Harvest, Rob’s previous books and collections have been published by Houghton Mifflin, St. Martin’s, AltaMira, Left Coast Press, BooksBNimble, and others. Rob’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Atlantic Monthly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Epoch, Fiction, Foothill Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, New England Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest. His latest novels include the Lisa Emmer series: The Delphi Agenda and Tablet of Destinies, and he is under contract for the third book in that series.
Is writing a discipline for you or is it more of an escape?
Probably both. Once I figured out that being a writer meant actually writing (duh), I simply started working at it, first as a poet an then as a novelist. I was lucky with my first novel, though. I got an agent and once the second draft was finished she sold it in a couple of weeks. I haven’t stopped since, though no book since then has been so easy either to write or to sell, and I have many that are unsold.
You’ve written nonfiction, short fiction, novels, video gaming scripting, television, poetry, prose. What form did you write first, and how did those different paths evolve? Which of them do you consider your most authentic writing voice?
I wrote poetry when I was six, and stories in high school and college. Then I gave up. In graduate school I returned to poetry and gradually acquired a small reputation and steady publication. I started writing short fictional pieces for fun (and because I was assigned a class that required I teach fiction writing) which became my first novel and sold. The income was quite different from poetry and became a profession, though with a spotty income record. But writing to me was always fun because it was always a challenge. I had studied genre some in graduate school and found it an interesting grounding for fiction. I also blended genres. This is of course a career killer. A career is Sue Grafton. Start at A and write your way through the alphabet, build your fan base, steady as she goes. I didn’t do that.
When did you know you were a serious writer? Was there a sort of demarcation or cadence?
John Logan’s poetry writing workshops. He was a fine poet and the first person who took me seriously as a writer and nurtured my career.
Why were you called to write Mixed Harvest and how did the idea of the completed book develop?
This is a longish story. I had made a career out of writing archaeology novels published as textbooks, a small but really interesting market. After Stone Mirror I was invited to sit in a series of seminars at Çatalhöyük near Konya (where I was novelist in residence in 2005). The first version of Mixed Harvest was 135000 words, a hybrid blend of fiction and nonfiction no one would publish. Eventually Berghahn gave me a contract, but after a few years a reviewer said the research was out of date. After considering the options I suggested cutting the nonfiction and making it a collection of stories. A reviewer of the final version did a fantastic job editing the book, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It only took 10 years.
How do ideas come to you?
Often when starting a book like the Lisa Emmer series I have only a vague idea, so I start with a scene. There is no shortage of ideas, topics and conflicts to explore. I’m starting one now and have the previous two to reread for background, and a few books to read about corporate malfeasance and Vatican scandals…
For a specific example of ideas, I had finished writing Mixed Harvest and while discussing the themes a friend asked, but what would the world be like if we had not adopted agriculture? To me this was a wonderful question for a thought experiment, so I began a science fiction, or more correctly, a climate fiction novel called Ladybug, now finished. It began with creating a society (a planet really) that backed away from farming and kept a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The consequences were perhaps over idealized but really fun. Science became more philosophical and mental and far less technological. While it may take longer to reach a deep understanding of how the universe seems to work, it is done far less violently and with far fewer catastrophic unintended consequences. When our social development meets theirs, interesting things happen.
What’s your writing practice?
I’ve developed the habit of writing on my living room couch. Computer is always there are ready with a lap desk. I find I can’t play music or have noise in the background. No crowded coffee shops. Any time of day, though I seldom write at night.
What presence do your experiences with teaching, music, flying, diving, and archaeology have in your novels? And do you think it’s better to ‘write what you know’, or to write about unfamiliar subjects because you get to research and learn new things?
I love doing research so I often write about unfamiliar things – history or science especially. So yes learning new things. There are always echos of autobiography, but often they are the result of research. For instance, I had an apartment in Paris for several years and use my knowledge of the city in the Lisa Emmer books. Other times I use Google Earth, a great tool for writers. Archaeology has always been an interest (I nearly went to graduate school in classics). One interest always leads to another. In graduate school in English and comparative literature because I like languages, I got interested in city planning and ended up writing my dissertation about the ways urban geography influenced poets who wrote about their city. I have used flying, diving, music etc. as well.
Who has been your greatest inspiration for your fiction writing, and who was your greatest teacher?
I had an English teacher in high school who mentioned at the beginning of a class that if you give people enough detail they will believe anything. At the end of the class he began to enthrall us with talk of a new car engine, quite magical, really, filled with detail. Thereby proving his point. I think that was key. One of my favorite novelists in college was Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate. He used that technique over and over, sometimes to such a ridiculous degree it made for great satire. I was also initially influenced greatly by Charles Dickens, especially in the depiction of character. Other contemporary writers would include Terry Southern, Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler (especially for exaggerated metaphor), Pynchon’s V, and lots of others.
What aspect of the writing path/profession do you know now and wish you knew earlier on the writing path?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure I have something though. I’ve followed opportunities and interests wherever they led and enjoyed my life enormously. I doubt I would have stuck to one genre (started with satire, then new age sci fi, then thrillers, then science fiction, then archaeology, then I would say Mixed Harvest is a book of ideas, and now science fiction again. As I said, career killers, but worth it.
About his latest book, Mixed Harvest: Stories from the Human Past (Berghahn Books, 2019): “In unforgettable stories of the human journey, a combination of storytelling and dialogue underscore an excavation into the deep past of human development and its consequences. Through a first encounter between a Neanderthal woman and the Modern Human she called Traveler, to the emergence and destruction of the world’s first cities, Mixed Harvest tells the tale of the Sedentary Divide, the most significant event since modern humans emerged. Rob Swigart’s latest work humanizes the rapid transition to agriculture and pastoralism with a grounding in the archaeological record.”
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