Swallow Savannah

By Ken Burger

Evening Post Publishing Co., 224 Pages, $27

Charleston readers know him as a former sports columnist for The Post and Courier. He’s now the newspaper’s metro columnist, but recently Ken Burger, often cited among the best writers in the country, has ventured into the world of fiction.

His new novel, Swallow Savannah, is set at the Savannah River Site. It becomes a catalyst for racial tensions and political intrigue in a small fictional town in rural South Carolina that’s not all that dissimiliar to Allendale, where he grew up.

City Paper sat down with Burger recently to talk about the novel, the Citadel, newspapers, and why he’s not really a sports fan.

City Paper: Why write a novel?

Ken Burger: Every first novel they tell you to write what you know. This story’s been running in my head a long time. This is the story of the South Carolina I grew up in. I grew up in the segregated South; all that stuff you read about, I experienced it.

CP: How long did it take you to write Swallow Savannah?

KB: About two years. I’ve got a place out at Seabrook Island where I’d go hide and just write as much as I could. Four, five days at a time. It’s a different style of writing than in newspapers, so it was a challenge as a writer.

CP: Did you start with a plot in mind?

KB: I find it better to let the characters take me wherever the story’s going; it’s more fun that way.

CP: How much of it is taken from real life versus how much is fictitious?

KB: I don’t know if I can break it down. The backdrop, the place, and conditions are all real. But individuals and circumstances are fictitious. What I want people to ask is: “Did this really happen?” And the answer is: “Coulda.”

CP: Most readers know you as a sports writer. Yet your first novel has little to do with sports. Was that a conscious decision?

KB: Yeah, I’m actually not a big sports fan. Sports are fun and passionate, but I doubt I’ll ever write a sports book. There are other things I want to write about. I did mention USC football. People from here will recognize that, because they watched it during those years. Lots of politicians at the Statehouse had their fingers in the program back then.

CP: I’ve gotta ask this: You take some potshots at the Citadel, don’t you?

KB: Yeah, (laughs). I have great respect for the Citadel, I really do. But it makes a great target. It’s a chuckle.

CP: I’ve also noticed among the heroes are an intrepid newspaperman, exposing truth and saving the day. How much is a reflection of you?

KB: Well, it’s the way the world ought to be (laughs). I think they’re the newspapermen we hope to grow up to be. I’ve been in the business 35 years and I love it; the power of the press, and that’s what’s reflected here. They’re my favorite people.

CP: Since your book is partially about race relations and social struggles, what’s your take on Barack Obama’s election?

KB: Best thing that ever happened to us, I really believe that. I think the most important thing is the way the rest of the world sees us. My oldest daughter lives in Sweden, so I’m very aware of foreign perspective, and I think being willing to elect a black man says a lot of good things about America.

CP: Has The Post and Courier been supportive of your efforts?

KB: They have. They’re very supportive. In today’s world, working for a family newspaper is wonderful. I know y’all take shots at us, and well, that’s what we’re for. That’s the way it ought to be. But it’s a good newspaper. It’s been around 200 years. I hope it’ll stay around a little longer. I need another 10 to make it to retirement (laughs).