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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Author Earl Swift to Serve as Writer in Residence at ODU

By Joe Garvey

Four days after the release of "Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island," Earl Swift returned the island for the first reading of his latest book.

Swift, who will be the English Department's MFA Creative Writing Program Writer in Residence at Old Dominion University in April, had spent 14 months on the island chronicling the existential threat sea-level rise poses to the residents and how they're dealing with it. He wasn't sure what kind of reaction he would receive.

"It's not an entirely flattering portrait of the folks there," he said. "I'd like to think it's a pretty clear-eyed view of what life on the island is like. They've got foibles, as people do. They can be somewhat thin-skinned about them."

But after the reading, "instead of asking questions, islander after islander stood up and pretty much offered testimony about me, and about Amy (Walton, Swift's fiancée who had also spent time on the island), and about the book," Swift said. "There were tears. It was like testimony at a church service on Tangier.

"It was incredibly moving," Swift said of the experience. "It was wildly surprising. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life."

Swift will share his experiences and offer insights drawn from his long writing career with students in Old Dominion's nonfiction creative writing program April 13 to 19.

Swift will work with about a dozen Master of Fine Arts students and offer a craft talk and a reading at ODU. He said wants the students to bring lots of questions. He'll focus on the basics, like story engineering.

"If you've got the elements that drive that narrative engine," he said, "I imagine most of the students will be looking for ways to fine-tune that engine."

"Chesapeake Requiem" was named a best book of 2018 by The Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, The Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, Smithsonian, Outside, Public Radio's "Science Friday" and Mental Floss. Bloomberg's Stephen L. Carter listed it among his top 15 nonfiction books of 2018, writing: "I can't remember a book in recent years that taught me quite so much."

Swift has written six other books and hundreds of long-form features for magazines and newspapers. His editors have nominated his work twice for the National Book Award, twice for the National Magazine Award and seven times for a Pulitzer Prize. He was a Fulbright fellow in New Zealand in 1994 and since 2012 has been a fellow of Virginia Humanities at the University of Virginia.

"Earl tackles subjects that illuminate the American experience," Donald Luzzatto, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation's vice president for civic engagement and former editorial page editor at The Virginian-Pilot, said during introductory remarks at Swift's appearance at the Slover Library in December.

Swift, who along with photographer Ian Martin had produced a series about Tangier Island for The Virginian-Pilot in 2000, went back 15 years later to investigate whether "there was a book there."

"The difference I found when I got off the boat was so profound, and so obvious, that I realized right away that not only was there a story to be told about what was happening on Tangier, but that it had to be told pretty damn quickly," he said. Climate scientists believe the island might be uninhabitable in as little as 25 years.

The amount of time he spent as "part of the fabric of the town" was crucial in helping him discover nuances he hadn't noticed in 2000 - among them the way the community deals with people who have issues like substance abuse or mental illness.

"There are a lot of sources of heartache on Tangier that, instead of being dealt with punitively, they're dealt with kind of a community love that I don't think you see in a lot of places," he said.

He also learned something else, based on the reaction to the book.

"What it told me was the folks on Tangier, like people everywhere maybe now, just have a hunger for the truth," he said. "The fact that there is stuff in the book that is not entirely flattering was far less important to them than that I accurately captured those foibles. As they read the book, they were able to say, 'Yeah, he got it right.' Grudgingly in places, but still."

Like many authors, Swift honed his skills at newspapers, including 22 years at The Virginian-Pilot. He feels their demise presents a challenge for aspiring writers.

"For a young person wanting to write, and learn how to write, it's tough because you don't have a newspaper in every town anymore that can let you experiment and take chances," he said. "I don't know what replaces that."

Which is all the more reason for ODU students to glean what they can from Swift.

"Earl is a critically acclaimed writer with a national reputation as well as deep ties to our community," said English professor and award-winning author Janet Peery, who had reached out to him about coming to ODU. "He's a master of vivid prose, a quality in ever shorter supply. I envy the students fortunate enough to work with him. He'll have a tremendous impact on their writing lives."

Swift is looking forward to returning to ODU. He served in a similar role in 2007 and did much of the research for his first four books at Perry Library.

"I just came to really love the campus," he said. "The faculty I know there are totally committed to their students. There are very few pretensions at ODU. It makes it a very convivial and welcoming place."

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