Northfield Writer: An Interview with Tom Swift

Tom Swift is an award-winning journalist, a freelance writer, and a graduate of St. Olaf College. He and his wife, Carrie, are longtime residents of Northfield, where they live with their dog, Barry. Last weekend, Swift received the Seymour Medal for his first book, Chief Bender’s Burden, at the Seymour Medal Conference in Cleveland. The Seymour Medal is awarded by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and recognizes the best work of baseball history published during the previous calendar year. Recently, we discussed writing generally and the book award specifically.

Let’s talk about your background. How did you come to writing?

Like an advertisement for produce, I came by way of the newspaper.

There aren’t many jobs recent college graduates with unremarkable transcripts can land that will allow them to both support themselves and write (actually, if you know much about small-time newspapers, you know the word “support” is a relative term) and so that’s what I did. I received my first assignment with the student newspaper during my freshman year in college. I didn’t know what I was doing — as I recall, I wrote a piece about the baseball team that had something like eight introductory paragraphs and included sprinkles of fiction — but I knew I enjoyed putting words together and over time I took additional assignments, acquired a semblance of a clue, and by my senior year I had worked my way to the top of the masthead. Along the way I had completed summer internships with some papers in the Twin Cities metro area and so after graduation I took the first newspaper job I could find. This was the start of a glamorous career as a writer and editor; I have worked for numerous newspapers and magazines and almost certainly you haven’t read any of them. No, I didn’t find fame and for many years I didn’t know what it was like to have a savings account. But the upside is that I was constantly learning, meeting different people, writing every day, and always writing about new things. I covered everything from a kiddie parade to a parade of racial supremacists, interviewed everyone from a state champion pickle grower to the sitting U.S. Senate majority leader, wrote about an American League batting champion and rode in a presidential motorcade. In a way, it was a continuation of my liberal arts education — with almost as much debt.

Actually, I need to correct myself. You may have read some of my newspaper work; in a former life I edited the Northfield News. But it is often the case that people from that time don’t recognize me when we pass along Division Street — even though it takes little work to find a gray hair on my head, I look younger today than I did back then — and that’s probably good for all involved.

You just got back from Cleveland. What was it like to receive the medal?

I learned in a hurry why so many people who win awards struggle to adequately and authentically articulate how much it means. I got far more out of writing the book than anyone will ever get from reading it. And I couldn’t have done it on my own. In fact, that the book even exists is because I worked with an editor of rare patience, because I share my life with a woman of incomparable understanding, and because I had access to SABR’s deep well of intellectual capital. So the best part of going to Cleveland was the chance to stand in a room and publicly thank some of the people to whom I owe so much.

Two other highlights were giving a public reading at The Lit, Cleveland’s literary center, and meeting Dorothy Seymour Mills. Dorothy — she let me call her Dorothy — said many kind things about the book during the awards ceremony and it’s hard to describe what her words mean to me. People who don’t read baseball books may not recognize the name, but Ms. Seymour Mills and the late Dr. Harold Seymour wrote a seminal three-volume history of the game. It was no small honor to receive something with their name attached to it.

Anything memorable happen while writing and researching the book?

One day my hard drive fried. You know those people who live with equanimity, the ones who are mindful of acceptance, those gentle souls who calmly adjust to unfortunate life circumstances? I was decidedly not one of them! In addition to wanting to throw my computer against a wall, I also wanted to throw in the towel. Honestly. But, fortunately, I married a well-trained psychologist.

How has Northfield provided a context and support and community for writing?

There are a lot of fine writers in Northfield and I haven’t met a single one who wasn’t positive and encouraging. But the word that first jumps to mind is resources. Especially in the case of my book, which was so research intensive, I gained fresh appreciation for the people who serve at public libraries, archives and historical societies all over the country — and that includes the men and women who work at Northfield’s three fantastic libraries. I relied on all three for various things, including to retrieve and read reams of microfilm; to find information about the American Indian boarding school experience; and to obtain published dissertations and out-of-print books that I otherwise couldn’t read without spending a lot of money.

In a more general sense, I think the nature of life in Northfield is conducive to writing. When my laptop and I need a break from each other I can, in a matter of minutes, go deep into the Arb to walk my dog and clear my head. Writing wears me out and I can’t do it unless I eat pretty well and move around quite a bit. It helps to live in a place with a downtown I can get to and around on foot and with quality food options — at Just Food or, in the summer, the farmer’s market — close by. Maybe I would feel differently if I lived in Apple Valley, but I don’t think so. In fact, I am frequently reminded how grateful I am that I don’t have to spend twelve hours a week in my car.

What are you working on now and where would you like to go with your writing?

It was a happy surprise that Chief Bender’s Burden received flattering praise in unexpected quarters. But the best part was not the response others had to the book but rather all I learned in the process of writing it. Even a short summary would be difficult, but two especially important things happened: I gained a greater understanding of the total tonnage of what I still want to learn about writing; and I found renewed motivation to pick through the heap.

I appreciate the interest behind the “what’s next” question, but — and my wife will confirm this — I’d rather talk about the last good book you read or the chance of rain tomorrow or just about anything else than about current projects. So please forgive this lame and vague answer. I am trying to take my writing in a different direction. College newspaper assignments not withstanding, everything I’ve published is nonfiction. But as I explore other true stories, I’m also trying to figure out whether I have it in me to tell one I could only write as fiction.

In the photograph: Dorothy Seymour Mills (mentioned in the interview), Tom Swift, and John Zajc, executive director of the Society for American Baseball Research. Photo taken by and courtesy of Peter Garver.