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Travel writer and editor Thomas Swick answers all of our questions

Travel writer and editor Thomas Swick. “It does annoy me that wherever I go, wherever I travel, people have this image of Florida that doesn’t gel with my Florida or the Florida of most of the people I know.”
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Travel writer and editor Thomas Swick. “It does annoy me that wherever I go, wherever I travel, people have this image of Florida that doesn’t gel with my Florida or the Florida of most of the people I know.”
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Thomas Swick is a travel writer and author graced with a cosmopolitan elan to match his far-flung itineraries. A career-long man of the world, Swick has now become quite unabashedly a Florida man.

No, not an outrageous Florida Man from the unending internet memes. Surely not. But — in a change of heart sure to astound anyone (full-disclosure, like myself) who’s known him since he arrived 34 years ago — Thomas Swick has become a Florida man of a rare species: a Florida apologist.

“The more Florida is derided, the more devoted I become to it, in every realm except the political,” he writes in “Florida Man,” an essay in the Winter issue of the prestigious journal, “The American Scholar.” Swick takes the side of a Florida, particularly a South Florida, that the rest of the country only thinks it knows. The essay is a cultured, inside-out appreciation that stares down the out-of-state gawkers who regard Floridians as some bizarro-world punchline.

“It does annoy me that wherever I go, wherever I travel, people have this image of Florida that doesn’t gel with my Florida or the Florida of most of the people I know,” says Swick, 71, over a recent lunch in Fort Lauderdale, his adopted hometown. “If they do read books or articles about Florida, they tend to be sensational. There’s very little about the everyday life of normal people in Florida, and I tried to get a little of that in the essay.”

There, he writes: “Unlike most Floridians, I’m happy that people are moving here. Their presence feels like a confirmation of the validity of the place … and a justification of my long tenure in it. So, except when stuck in traffic, I welcome them.”

Swick has recently been out in that traffic, traveling around the state touting his fourth book, “Falling Into Place: A Story of Love, Poland, and the Making of a Travel Writer.” Published in November, the memoir was named among The Washington Post’s best holiday-gift books. It culminates with his 1989 arrival in South Florida to begin his “dream newspaper job” as the ֱ’s travel editor, a 19-year-long tenure distinguished by the selection of his work in six editions of the anthology, “The Best American Travel Writing.”

“It’s a memoir with a strong sense of place that comprises three stories,” Swick says. “A coming of age story, a geopolitical story and a love story. And it captures three heydays: Journalism’s in the wake of Watergate in the late ’70s; Poland’s heyday, the period of Lech Walesa, Solidarity, and Pope John Paul II; and then travel writing’s heyday.”

Beyond the themes, what elevates the book is Swick’s “virtuoso wordsmanship,” his phrase for the finesse that attracts him to the esteemed authors he reads. Likewise, the architecture of Swick’s own sentences is designed with a precision and elegance of language that possesses as much of a payoff for the reader as it does for the writer: the successful pursuit of the ever-elusive perfect word.

At its dramatic heart, “Falling Into Place” is the story of a young man who traveled behind the Iron Curtain twice for the love of a woman, and ended up having an affair with her country. His love story with Hania, the Polish barmaid he met by happenstance, weaves an intriguing narrative arc across a backdrop of revolution, martial law and the transformation of Eastern Europe.

“I knew when I arrived in Poland that second time, I was witness to history,” Swick says. “It was a golden opportunity. That’s why I wanted to learn the language, learn about the culture, read the writers and really immerse myself in Poland. It all fell into place.”

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The book’s title applies to Swick’s relationship with Hania as well — they’ve been married for 43 years — but it didn’t come easily. Neither did the budding writer’s attempts at getting published, analogized in this excerpt:

“The difficulty of baseball is often illustrated by the fact that the best hitters fail two-thirds of the time. Freelancers have far worse percentages. We go months without a hit, enduring slumps that would end the career of any major leaguer. But we don’t keep averages for the simple reason that one acceptance negates every rejection. It is the great beauty, the saving grace of writing: that all you need is one editor, or one publisher, to say yes, and then everything that came before is rendered immaterial. An acceptance is not just a grand slam, it is a grand slam that, miraculously, erases every strikeout and ground out and pop-up that preceded it.”

Such publishing travails detailed in “Falling Into Place,” Swick admits, were probably less agonizing than finding a publisher for it. After a five-year search, he connected with Rowman and Littlefield, a leading independent publisher.

“The trend in memoirs over the last five years is for what they call misery memoirs — tales of woe, dysfunction, abuse, grief, illness,” Swick explains. “As I was looking for a publisher, I kept thinking, there’s got to be an audience for a book that’s not like those. First of all, a book that engages with the world. Those misery memoirs are introspective. They have a universal quality, but they don’t engage the world outside the United States like my book does. And despite all the hardship, the book is pretty optimistic. So it’s very different from most contemporary memoirs.”

In “Falling Into Place,” as in all of Swick’s travel writing, what informs its sense of place is a sense of its people.

“I think that’s the travel writer’s privilege — to have those personal experiences and share them with those who don’t. I think it’s based on the way I traveled when I was younger. I lived in Poland, Greece and France. And when you live in a place, inevitably you get to know the people.

“And so when I started working as a travel writer, going to places for just a short period of time, I always wanted to try and reenact that by getting to know at least one person. And ideally having an experience with that person.

“It’s not just showing a place through my eyes, but through the eyes of the people who live there.”

Assuming the role of Florida Man — his version — Swick graciously answers our standard set of Quote Unquote questions.

A self portrait of the author, also a cartoonist.
Courtesy
A self portrait of the author, also a cartoonist.

Aside from the weather, what do you enjoy most about South Florida?

The mix of people from all over the country, all over the world. The weather is fairly predictable, but it’s made up for by the inhabitants who are, literally, all over the map.

Aside from the weather, what do you dislike most about South Florida?

The bling — and everything that comes with it.

Are you a beach person or a pool person?

Pool. Nothing against the beach, but I live in a condo so the pool’s more convenient — and less attractive to sharks.

When in your life are you or have you been the happiest?

It’s a tie between 1977 — when, working at my first newspaper job, I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife — and 1989, when we moved to Fort Lauderdale and I began my dream newspaper job.

What do you do when you’re stuck in a traffic jam on I-95?

Listen to SiriusXM: Symphony Hall, Siriously Sinatra, The Beatles Channel, The Coffee House, Willie’s Roadhouse, Bluegrass Junction. Unlike personal playlists, radio is educational — introducing you to the unfamiliar — and capable of producing moments of serendipity.

What music are you listening to now?

‘Millennium of Music.’ It’s a program on Symphony Hall that features music from the thousand years before the birth of Bach. Their website offers old programs that you can listen to for free, so if you want to hear medieval Norwegian folk songs or monks chanting in monasteries — and who doesn’t? — this is the place.

Are you a fan, and if so, of what?

I like most sports, but my favorites are baseball and tennis. They’re not very similar — one’s a team sport, one’s individual — but they both involve balls moving at high speeds before being struck by implements. I’m not a fan of golf, so the fact that the ball is moving must be significant. Go Marlins!

If you had to choose: Beatles or Stones?

Beatles. A much broader range of musical styles and infinitely more imaginative lyrics. Plus, they had a sense of humor.

What are your social media usernames?

My name on everything except X, where I am roostertie. Rooster is the brand name of the kind of tie I wear when I wear ties.

Apple or Android?

Android.

Who is your real-life hero or heroine?

Jeanne Meinke, my friend who died two years ago in St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition to being a wonderful illustrator, Jeanne was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest person I have ever known. She took a genuine interest in everyone she met and made the most ordinary person feel unique. That is a gift not many people have.

What car are you driving now?

A 2020 Honda Civic. But I also ride a beach cruiser, and occasionally terrify people on the Riverwalk.

If you had to choose: ‘Rocky’ or ‘Raging Bull’?

‘Raging Bull.’ Art over entertainment.

What do you like most about yourself?

I’m a pretty good observer. I tend to notice things, which is important as a travel writer but also helpful as a human being, as it can make you a little less self-absorbed.

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray, (Mike Stocker/South Florida ֱ)
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray, (Mike Stocker/South Florida ֱ)

What places in South Florida do you recommend to guests visiting from out-of-town?

Do they have a month? I have a Tour of Miami I give to friends who visit, and over the years it’s expanded to include more and more neighborhoods. North of us, Palm Beach is a kind of Disney World of American affluence, and the Morikami museum and gardens is a beautiful, and unexpected, pocket of Japan. Here in Broward, I recommend the Yellow Green Farmers Market [in Hollywood]. It’s got all of South Florida’s richness in one place — and most of it’s edible. The last time we were there, my wife spoke Russian to the man who made her mango smoothie and it seemed a kind of emblematic moment.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would be more outgoing. I’ve probably missed out on meeting people, experiencing more, by not having a bigger personality. I tend to let my writing do the talking, which is not the best strategy in an era when fewer and fewer people read.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The fact that I’ve been able to make a living as a writer. Except for some years teaching English abroad, all of my jobs have been as a writer of one sort or another. And along the way I’ve written a few books. To my eternal amazement, the dream I had when I got out of college actually came true.

Thomas Swick will speak about “Falling Into Place” at the Delray Beach Public Library, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7. Follow him at .

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