Miles Swarthout, 1946-2016
Editor’s Note: This tribute to Miles Swarthout, son of Department of English donors Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout, was delivered as a speech at the 54th annual Swarthout Awards Ceremony on April 21, 2016. It has been adapted here for print. The presenter, alumna Stacie Anfinson (MFA 1987), was a close friend of Miles Swarthout and these are her remembrances. Anfinson teaches writing and humanities courses at Scottsdale Community College.
Miles Swarthout was born May 1, 1946, into a literary family in Michigan. His father, Glendon, wrote 20 novels, nine of which were made into movies. Most notable were Where the Boys Are, Bless the Beasts and the Children, The Shootist, and The Homesman. Growing up with the likes of Paul Newman and John Wayne around the dinner table, Miles Swarthout felt at ease with aesthetic ideals, artistic differences, and strong-willed debates, and, as recently as a few months ago, acting on behalf of his father and as the original paid writer for The Homesman, was happily disagreeing with Tommy Lee Jones over what should be done with the film next.
Miles loved his mother, Kathryn, very much, and it’s quite a shock to think that nearly exactly a year ago today we were seated here together in this room and Miles was commemorating her. Although he’d gone through some significant medical issues by that time, he just never seemed sick-and-tired of being…sick and tired. His old exuberance had rallied when he reminded last year’s Swarthout Award winners that his mother was well worth “Googling.” Kathryn Swarthout wrote articles for Woman’s Day Magazine for 26 years and co-wrote six novellas for young adults.
Typical of the early years of the Swarthout Awards, the 2015 celebration ended with dinner into-the-wee-hours at Durant’s, one of his favorite “old spots” where he invited everyone, like Hemingway did to Old Havana’s Restaurante Flordita, to gather around, drink a bottle of good champagne and, after a full night of hearing good writing, talk the rest of the night about good writing. Maitre d’s and waiters he called by first name would come over and ask how the ceremony went, and Miles would quietly, faithfully credit his parents for establishing the Swarthout Awards in 1962, which was to become one of the top five creative writing prizes in America for students from undergraduate and graduate programs.
A lifetime supporter of and instructor at ASU before moving to Hollywood, he enjoyed talking about the students’ entries, and it’s important to remember that with 2012 marking the 50th anniversary of this evening, the award series has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to support emerging creative writers at ASU.
During his last hospital stay a nurse asked Miles if she could get him anything. He said, "Yes. A typewriter." And she did.
Always the gentleman, Miles approached these conversations as he did writing, as he did life in general: quietly and sensitively. His realism was tempered with hope, his critiques tempered with consideration. So regardless of placement, he considered all Swarthout competition participants as winners, precisely because each entry shows the sweat and diligence of some emerging writer setting out to paint a story worth seeing, hearing, remembering, revisiting.
From my own year as a judge, I would agree. The competition is fierce and the writing is a testimony to ASU’s best. The most fitting Miles Swarthout advice I can give regarding the craft of fine writing is simply what I gained from seeing how the man approached his job: Miles practiced what he preached. He sat down to sweat-it-out with pen and paper just as Mozart labored at the piano over his daily task of what would become musical compositions. During this last hospital stay a nurse asked Miles if she could get him anything. He said, “Yes. A typewriter.” And she did.
In 2004 Miles wrote his first novel, The Sergeant's Lady based on a true story of the army tracking Geronimo and the Apaches in Arizona and Mexico. The book received the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best First Novel. Miles also wrote the adaptation for John Wayne’s final movie, The Shootist, and in 2014 released a new book, The Last Shootist, named a best western book of 2014 by True West Magazine.
We have lost a dear friend and the literary world has lost a big name, an able artist. Writer, playwright, critic: in a world where critics aren’t always appreciated, he was nonetheless respected. Like that Socratic gadfly, Miles could wield an occasional sting, but friends and associates always knew that he was as interested in our potential, our personal and professional growth, as he was in his own. We could count on his steady, straightforward caring. He was a straight-shooter with steady aim, and we're hoping he's riding-on to peaceful pastures—and correcting his fellow angels' punctuation.
Miles: this one’s for you.
Photo of Miles Swarthout from Wikimedia Commons.