On paper, Anthony Swofford seems like an intimidating guy. His searing 2003 memoir, Jarhead, which chronicled his stint in the first Iraq war, depicted an angry, frustrated 20-year-old going crazy in the desert. But when Swofford talks, today from a cafe in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, the steady and intelligent narrator who voiced that book emerges; you can immediately see the kid who was reading Camus in between obsessively assembling and disassembling his rifle.

It's three years since Swofford made his debut, at 33. After winning over the critics (the Times's Michiko Kakutani gushed, calling the book "profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative," comparing it to Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried); finding commercial success (Jarhead has sold 103,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan); and a place in Hollywood (the movie adaptation was released in 2005), Swofford is getting ready for the January release of his sophomore effort, the novel Exit A. As with all second efforts, there's pressure to perform, but for Swofford, who's switched genres, the stakes are raised.

Is he nervous? "I suppose during the same pre-pub period with Jarhead, I was sort of sublimely unaware of anything that could or could not happen, and that's not the case now," he says, then adds wryly: "So it may be a bit more nerve-wracking."

Despite the fact that he bowed with a nonfiction book, Swofford says he always saw himself as a fiction writer. "Content dictates form for me, and also genre, and the story of my time in the Marine Corps and at war needed to be told as nonfiction. I'd been a fiction writer before—I published a number of short stories—and my intention was to write a novel after Jarhead," (which he started in May 2001). As he puts it: "[Jarhead] was simply the book I needed to write at that time."

Certainly fiction is what Swofford always dreamed of doing. Citing 14 as the age he knew he wanted to be a writer—"after reading Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway"—his career was sidetracked by military service. He wound up enlisting at 18 and was in Saudi Arabia at 20. He came out of the military and went to American River College in Sacramento and then the University of California at Davis. He was 29 when he started the prestigious writing program at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Swofford's editor at Scribner, Colin Harrison (who also worked on Jarhead), has his own thoughts on the expectations that come with Exit A. "Anything that Tony wrote after Jarhead—fiction or nonfiction—was sure to receive tremendous scrutiny and attention because of that book's success. We knew that. Some writers might freeze in the headlights of that pressure but the best thing they can do for themselves is just to get back to the work at hand."

The work at hand will return Swofford's fans to familiar territory, but only slightly. Exit A, which he calls "a dark love story," opens in the late '80s at a U.S. Air Force base in Tokyo. It's there that teenagers Severin Boxx, an American football star, and Virginia Kindwall, the rebellious biracial daughter of the base general, get caught in a kidnapping scheme gone awry. Stretching from Japan to California to Vietnam over the course of 16 years, Exit A (which is named after the subway stop the kids take from the base to downtown Tokyo) follows Severin and Virginia's disparate fates: she winds up in a Japanese prison and he becomes a failed academic in a crumbling marriage in San Francisco.

Ultimately, the novel grapples with many of the same themes as Jarhead. Like that book, Exit A is about what it means to be a man. But unlike Swofford's debut, which looked at that scenario head-on, Exit A tackles the issue from a more roundabout angle, examining the effect of war (and military life) on the children of the men who fight.

And Swofford, who spent his early years on a military base like the one he portrays in Exit A, certainly knows as much about being a soldier as he does about being a soldier's son. "You know, with Jarhead I was dealing with autobiography and my time at war and the postwar period, which was incredibly difficult for me. But I grew up the son of a man who'd fought in Vietnam... and Exit A investigates the life of the people who are left at home when someone goes off to war."

While Exit A is not autobiographical, Swofford admits that if Severin has any similarities to someone from his past, it's his older brother, Jeff, to whom he dedicated Jarhead (along with his mother and sister). Swofford implies in Jarhead that the reasons he joined the Marines (against his parents' wishes) were intertwined with his relationship with both his dad and brother. On the one hand, Swofford says, he was "chasing the mystery of his father," who had been to Vietnam and retired as a master sergeant in the Air Force. He was also trying to compete with Jeff, who had served in the army (but not in combat).

In one scene in Jarhead, Swofford writes Jeff an angry letter when he hears news he knows is false: that his brother, who was then serving in Germany, is contemplating taking his place on the front lines. (The move would have sent Swofford home, since the army has a policy about two family members being in combat; only one at a time is allowed.) As he writes in the book: "Growing up on air force bases, my brother had hated the military and in moments of whispered sibling conference, he'd disparage the gypsy lifestyle forced on us by our father's career. Perhaps because my brother was the firstborn son of the firstborn son of a firstborn son, he fell automatically to the role of spoiler, agitator, and rebel, as my father had before him. My father left his family and the South with nothing to prove, but my brother needed to show his worth, his excellence, to those he'd left behind."

So if Jarhead is a book about Swofford coming to terms with his lineage—his grandfather, father, uncle and older brother were all in the military—Exit A is an extension of that, an opportunity to explore the life his brother might have had (Jeff died in 1998 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma). "He was Severin's age when he lived on a military base, and this is something that's extratextual but, in a way, [the novel] is a fantasy life for [him]."

For Swofford, now living in New York City—he was in Portland, Ore., when he finished Jarhead—a lot has happened since he hit the literary scene. He no longer teaches writing (he had at Iowa and a number of other schools) and he's been toying with the idea of screenwriting. (He didn't write the Jarhead screenplay, but is contemplating doing an adaptation of Exit A.) Ultimately, he says, he's letting his instincts dictate his projects... and genre. He's started a second novel and, while the details are fuzzy, it, too, will bring him back to the battlefield. Conceived while his father was on leave from Vietnam, Swofford clearly can't escape the topic of war, for better and worse. He's a child of war and a man of war, haunted and thrilled by the implications of what that means. "War has everything for a writer," he explains. "It has love, death, sacrifice, honor, dishonor, murder, heroism and... love." Said like a true soldier, and author.