Press Releases

Swindle and Gifford Hold Forth at Moe’s on Monday By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday June 24, 2005

“It’s total serendipity—the way my whole life goes.” Michael Swindle sums up the chain of circumstances that have led up to his forthcoming reading from his new book, Slouching Towards Birmingham (Frog Press/North Atlantic, Berkeley), a collection of pieces on “off-beat sports, like alligator wrestling, cockfighting, wild boar hunting—told with great savoir-faire,” as described by his “running buddy,” local (and international) favorite Barry Gifford, who will introduce Swindle and read from his own work “a little something compatible” at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 27, at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. 

“There’s sure to be protest signs in front of Moe’s,” kids Gifford. But Swindle’s prose, much of it originally published in the Village Voice and the New York Times, isn’t so much a descriptive compendium of blood sports as a triumph of storytelling.  

The friendship between the two writers was struck when Swindle was called in to interview Gifford for Details magazine when an earlier interviewer’s effort “imploded,” proving unusable. “The editor needed a one week turnaround. I met Barry in New Orleans. Writers are not always so eager to meet other writers ... but we’re about the same age, like the same music, have other tastes in common ... we made a very quick bond. Barry was going to see his Uncle Buck in Tampa; he jumped in my car and we made a trip that’s become an annual event. He’d never been in the Mississippi Delta before. We’ve done a lot of crazy adventures together since, but never had the opportunity before to appear together like this.” 

Born in Birmingham, Swindle spent his childhood in the North Central hill country of Mississippi before his family moved back to Birmingham. “All the Swindles are in Mississippi; I always claim it as my home. My childhood, out in the woods, was so idyllic that, even a half century later, it seems almost imaginary.” His career kicked off when the Village Voice sent him to cover the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1985 in Las Vegas. “The Voice had a sports section in those days; I did a lot of fight stories—Atlantic City, Vegas ... I was the weird Southern guy for them for a long time.” In 1994, “when the junta was still in charge in Haiti, I was pictured in the first color photo printed inside the paper with my arm around a one-armed (from a birth defect) voodoo priest, Ti-Bout, “Little Arm”—who died shortly afterwards, but he saw the picture.” After working on Slouching Toward Birmingham, “a young editor called in my first assignment in quite awhile: to cover the shooting of Hunter Thompson’s ashes out of a 50-foot cannon on his farm in Colorado, the last weekend of August.” 

The Moe’s reading with Gifford is a new wrinkle in his career. “In Birmingham a few weeks ago was the first time I read out loud.” But his sometimes tart style of talking, with long raconteurish Southern rhythms to his speech he occasionally—and quite genteely—apologizes for, as if long-winded, promise an evening of real tale-telling. As if an afterthought, he related another joint adventure: “In March 2001, Barry and I were both in Mexico City; he’d been invited to read at a big arts festival at the Palacio. The Zapatistas were putting on their Zapa-Tour march from Chiapas to the capital, and were due to arrive on our last day in the Zocalo.. I’m not leaving the same day this happens! But Barry was booked to go to Cuba. So I moved into his suite on the fifth floor of the Majestic, overlooking the Zocalo. At midnight I was trying to read myself asleep, when I heard drums and went down to see what turned out to be the last part of an Indian New Years ceremony: a circle dance, with a guy carrying a big crockery kind of thing filled with some kind of beverage. A woman stepped out of the circle and handed me a goblet. I drank from it and went to hand it back, but she shook her head no, and motioned for me to make the circle and have another drink. The title of my piece, ‘Observador Por Casualidad’ says it, what I always seem to be—‘The Accidental Observer.’” 

Swindle’s reading gig with his “star pal” is an increasingly rare appearance for Gifford, famed for his novels, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays. “Some love engaging their public with 20-30 city blowouts. After Night People, strange people started coming out. Now I prefer crossover audiences, in cinemas or bars, venues like my British publisher sends me to. Young people today aren’t trying to write the Great American Novel—but maybe the Great American Screenplay. 

I started out as a musician, got into poetry through lyrics, then novels. Screenplays came later. If the history of the novel starts in the Heian period with Murasaki and Sei Shonagon a thousand years ago, or in the West about 400 years back, we may be near the end of it now—and I’m glad to be a part of it.” 

“But I’m glad too to be introducing Michael in person in Berkeley, just like writing the foreword to his book. When we met, we became friends on the spot—and took it on the road. This is just another chapter.”