When poor health forced Wallace Swenson to abandon the world of computer programming, he created another one — filled with saloon fights, bloodshed and brothels.
Since 2001, the 73-year old Shelley man has written 13 books, many in the rough-and-tumble style of western writer Louis L’Amour.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that Swenson would turn his full attention to the craft. He had no choice. That’s when his heart problems put an end to his 47-year career as a computer programmer. Doctors told him he would need to find something else to occupy his time — something less stressful.
Little did Swenson realize at the time that he was destined to become a published author, as well as president of the Idaho Falls chapter of the Idaho Writer’s League.
“I never had any interest in writing professionally,” he said. “I was told by a psychologist in 2007 that I had better not abruptly quit working. He said it’s a road to madness. He said to do something I was interested in, and writing struck my fancy.”
One of Swenson’s books, “Morgan’s Pasture,” was published in 2010 by Three Muses Press. Another, “Buell,” recently was picked up by Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Cengage Learning.
Stories rooted in childhood
Swenson’s love of stories and storytelling are rooted in his childhood.
“I grew up sitting around a campfire, listening to my father’s stories about fishing and hunting,” he said.
Those stories, which often dealt with adventure found in simpler times, appealed to Swenson. Soon, he was spinning his own yarns.
Swenson’s 58-year-old brother, Bill, said he’s been listening to his brother’s tales for years. The stories often dealt with the same kind of adventure that Swenson writes about today. His brother couldn’t resist a little good-natured ribbing: “He’s always been so full of crap it doesn’t surprise me that he writes like he does.”
Past lessons explored
Many of Swenson’s stories are rooted in experiences drawn from his own childhood. He’s one of eight children, the son of Swedish immigrants.
“We didn’t have much when we were growing up, in the material sense,” Swenson said. “But my parents taught me some valuable life lessons that I instill in my characters. They taught me that when we are born we’re given two gifts: free will and integrity. They said if you sacrifice one you lose them both.”
After graduating Shelley High School in 1960, Swenson joined the Air Force. Eventually, he became a computer programmer, specializing in meteorology. He traveled the globe until he retired in 1980.
During his career, Swenson, his wife, Jacquelyn, and their six children, Linda, Frank, Jeanette, Erik, Leslie and Jodi, were stationed in Spain, England, Japan and the Philippines.
Upon the family’s return to Shelley, Swenson found federal contract work with Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier Inc., programming emergency response systems for Idaho National Laboratory.
Although he was glad to return to civilian life, the readjustment wasn’t easy for Swenson or his family.
“I was still running at military speed, which is always full-throttle,” Swenson said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a huge emotional strain.”
A ‘huge wake-up call’
In the military, Swenson was a supervisor accustomed to giving orders. But he also constantly felt on edge due to his heavy workload. The stress finally caught caught up with him in 1981, the year he experienced his first heart attack.
“That day, they diagnosed me with congestive heart failure,” Swenson said. “The following day, I went to Salt Lake City and had a quadruple-bypass surgery … It was a huge wake-up call. Jacquelyn said if I continued at that pace, I would get where I was going fast, but not be where I wanted to be.”
Although Swenson kept working as a programmer until 2007, he actually turned to writing — just for fun — in 1997. His decision to write came after a discussion with friends in an Internet chat room.
“We were talking about the stories that our fathers told us,” Swenson said. “We lamented the fact that when we died, those wonderful stories would go with us. So, we challenged each other to put our stories on paper.”
Swenson called his first piece, “Shades of Black,” a 3,500-word short story set in 1850s Nebraska.
Three years later, Swenson’s first book, “Morgan’s Pasture,” was published. It’s a story about a child psychologist who examines his own childhood. A few hundred copies of the book were sold.
A budding Louis L’Amour?
In March, Five Star Publishing picked up Swenson’s “Buell” on the recommendation of western writer Johnny D. Boggs. Swenson’s book is about an outcast, running from the law and into trouble in 1870s Idaho.
“They (Swenson and Boggs) had met at the 2013 Idaho Writers League Annual Conference,” Five Star senior editor Tiffany Schofield said. “Boggs liked his work and told him to send us a manuscript.”
The manuscript received a favorable review from the publisher’s developmental evaluation team. The company decided to take a chance.
“The decision was based on the strong writing in ‘Buell,’” Schofield said. “The evaluating director said it would appeal to fans of Louis L’Amour.”
The book is expected to be released for sale in summer 2015.
An editor with a point
Today, when Swenson isn’t busy with his own writing, he edits the work of others. He also leads a weekly writing workshop.
“The group is open to anyone who’s willing to learn … and share their writing,” Swenson said.
Workshop participant Dan Weinrich said Swenson’s advice always gets straight to the point.
“He’s tough and that’s what I appreciate,” Weinrich said. “He’s a great writer who helps everyone out a lot.”
As for Swenson, he plans to continue writing and editing as long as he can. But he’s not looking to become the next Louis L’Amour.
“When I write, I don’t need to worry about going to work, taking orders from anyone or increasing my earning power,” Swenson said. “Writing for me is something that is purely for fun.”