Saturday, July 16, 2011
READ Dave Eggers!
by Dave Eggers
"We try not to be hit and run. We give micro-loans and I have no problem helping people out financially. Three-dimensional results are important to me. I did once spend some time just writing, and floating around, and I lost my mind a little bit. I wasn't so good at that. I guess I'm very practical. My mom taught me that. That's why I get along with Zeitoun so well, and with Valentino. They build things. They make things happen." (Eggers on his multi-dimensional writing and work combo)
New Orleans American Hero
From 'staggering genius' to America's conscience
Author, publisher and literary trendsetter: Dave Eggers is all those, and he's fast becoming the conscience of liberal America too. Here he tells how he went from 'staggering genius' to the man who gives a voice to the downtrodden and dispossessed
(This long interview - or just a bit - is well-worth your time)
Rachel Cooke The Observer, Sunday 7 March 2010
I'm a little nervous of meeting Dave Eggers. On the way to San Francisco, where he lives and runs his groovy and influential publishing empire, McSweeney's, I consider his reputation. When Eggers published his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he mostly refused to do interviews except by email, and then his answers were spiky and oblique, and occasionally just a joke. He once railed against a journalist who he said had quoted him off the record with a fury that seems to me to have been just a touch disproportionate. Sure enough, before I leave London, I get an email from an assistant warning me that he will only talk about his new book, Zeitoun, and that it will drive him nuts if I ask him "what he had for dinner the night before last" (I reply that I have never asked anyone, ever, what they had for dinner the night before last and I certainly would not dream of flying half way round the world to pose such a question). As for his human rights work and many charitable projects, these things are so intimidating. Faced with such abundant goodness, I furtively examine my conscience and find it wanting.
As it turns out, though, I am wrong. Entirely wrong. Granted, he is not big on self-revelation. But he is neither difficult nor mean. McSweeney's is in the Mission district of the city: it's like Camden only with wider roads and more second-hand bookshops. When I arrive, I'm led past the desks of half-a-dozen bright young things and into his office, which is small and gloomy and womb-like. Time to break the ice. You hate doing interviews, don't you? I ask, sitting down (there is no desk; he works on an old sofa). "No, not at all," he says. There is a look of mild amazement on his face as he tells me this and it's not disingenuous; as he will explain later, he feels a certain sense of distance from his old self. Perhaps he prefers not to remember exactly how he used to be.
Eggers at the 2007 Brooklyn Book Festival
Anyway, he could not be more warm if he tried or more modest (given his prodigious talent, his energy and his general morality, he is so modest it's almost embarrassing). He talks softly, in long paragraphs that trail off, like the puff of smoke that follows the snuffing of a candle, and his answers, all of them, are tinged with anxiety, lest he make something that is white seem black or vice versa.
His preferred form of full stop is to hop up and scrabble for books he thinks I should take home with me. By the time I leave I'm practically a mini-satellite of City Lights, San Francisco's most famous independent bookstore. All I need is a black T-shirt and a goatee and I could set up stall right outside.
Zeitoun is a work of narrative non-fiction; it tells a true story but with a novelist's eye, paying attention to such things as character and suspense. Along the way, it revisits two of the indelible stains on the character of the Bush administration: the relief operation following hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the conduct of the war on terror. Eggers was, and is, furious about both these things but, from his measured tone in Zeitoun, you would hardly know it. He leaves it to the reader to get angry and it's a trick that works, because I can guarantee you will.
"It is showing, not telling," he says. "I just went back to all the things I learned in journalism school. There have been so many polemics about the war on terror, but [individual] stories illustrate these things much better. I'm interested in the human impact of the giant foot of misplaced government. After all, we encounter it every day. Every day. Right now, for instance, I'm trying to help a friend get his deportation delayed."
Zeitoun describes what happened to a middle-aged and exceedingly upright Arab-American, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, in the days following hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy, who comes from southern Baptist stock but is a hijab-wearing convert to Islam, are residents of New Orleans, where they run a successful decorating company and own several rental properties. They have four children.
Eggers takes up the story on Friday 26 August 2005, three days before the hurricane makes landfall in Louisiana. At this point, the couple are unruffled by the storm warnings; they've heard this stuff before. But then it becomes clear that this could be the real thing. Kathy decides to take the children out of town. The phlegmatic Zeitoun, however, is determined to remain behind, the better to safeguard their home, their castle. If a window smashes, he can board it up. He can also check his tenants are OK.
So they part. Zeitoun hunkers down in his adopted city. The levees break. He wakes up and finds that the water is rising, fast. He moves what he can of the family's possessions upstairs; he releases the fish in his aquarium into the flood waters, thinking this their best chance of survival. All this is awful but, for Zeitoun, this is also, at least at first, a time of strange contentment. In his metal canoe, he heads out into the empty, soupy street and is soon making himself useful. There are old ladies to be rescued, abandoned dogs to be fed. "Help me!" comes the voice of an old woman. "Her patterned dress was spread out on the surface of the water like a great floating flower. Her legs dangled below. She was holding on to a bookshelf." On his first day in his canoe, Zeitoun helps to rescue five individuals. "He had never felt such energy and purpose," writes Eggers. "He was needed."
Quickly, though, the situation grows darker, desperate and sinister. The water is filthy and polluted – "a wretched melange of fish and mud and chemicals" – and it is clear, now, that there must be bodies floating in it. For Zeitoun, it is also becoming apparent that the forces massed to help the people of the city are not necessarily working on their behalf. On 1 September, he comes upon his neighbours, the Williamses, a couple in their 70s. They have run out of food. Realising that he cannot evacuate them in his canoe, he paddles off to get help. Zeitoun approaches a group of soldiers. "Not our problem," says one of them. They tell him to go elsewhere. "Why not call somebody?" says Zeitoun. They have walkie-talkies. "We can't call nobody," says another soldier. Zeitoun turns his canoe around.
Eggers has asked me not to spoil the "reveal" in his book by describing what happens next. I'll do my best. The date is now Tuesday 6 September. Zeitoun is at the house of one of his tenants when five men and a woman arrive. They are wearing fatigues and bulletproof vests. All of them carry M-16s and pistols. They push Zeitoun on to a huge military fan boat. After this, Kathy does not hear from her husband again until…
Well, you need to read Zeitoun. All I can tell you is that it is like something out of Kafka. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) should have been there only to help. But its absorption by the Department of Homeland Security, itself a creation of George Bush following 9/11, seemed somehow to have muddled priorities. As hundreds of Americans drowned, the people at the Department of Homeland Security were still worrying obsessively about the many and various ways in which a terrorist might seek to "exploit" a hurricane.
Eggers found Zeitoun via his Voice of Witness project, a non-profit venture which produces books in which ordinary people tell their stories (the first book in the series told the stories of victims of miscarriages of justice in America; Zeitoun first appeared in a volume devoted to Katrina; the next will be about Zimbabwe). "A few weeks after the storm, we started working with local interviewers, sending them into Atlanta and Houston, and all the places people had fled. I was struck by Zeitoun's story, so the next time I was in New Orleans I met the family. I was angry about the war on terror and the suspension of all sense of decency. This seemed like the absolute nadir of all the Bush policies and here was this family squeezed between all these distorted priorities. We talked, and in the first hour it was clear that there was so much to say." Eggers the novelist found a pleasing watery symmetry in Zeitoun's story; his brother, Mohammed, had been a world-class swimmer, a famous man back home in Syria. The family came from originally from Arwad, an island. An island, off Syria? Eggers had never heard of such a place. He was hooked.
Given all that had happened, wasn't Zeitoun nervous about the project? "We find that once people decide to tell their story they're always quite determined to do so. We've only ever had one narrator who's recanted; we had to pulp a full press run of a book about Sudan. Usually, when people decide it's time, that someone has to be held accountable, they become incredibly determined. I was nervous for the Zeitouns. I said: I think we should change your names and disguise as many facts as possible, so no one can find you. I was nervous about crazies with anti-Muslim feelings.
"But Zeitoun was not mad about that idea. His face just fell. So we went back to treating it as non-fiction and, in fact, none of the things I worried about has happened. Every day, someone comes up to him, shakes his hand, and says: I'm sorry on behalf of all Americans for what happened to you. The Zeitouns stand for everything that we consider all-American values: hard work, community, family, personal responsibility and that's what he hears: that he's an example to us all."
Zeitoun's civil case against the state, Fema and all sorts of other people and institutions is ongoing, but it is unlikely ever to reach any kind of conclusion. "There are thousands of cases like his, and if a precedent was set it would cripple the entire judicial system of Louisiana and bankrupt the state," says Eggers. Nevertheless, the reaction to his story has been gratifying: even the weariest of commentators have professed themselves horrified by the events it describes. And no wonder. "It's like science fiction. Within 24 hours of Katrina there were bus loads of maximum security prisoners from Angola, which is known as the toughest prison in America, heading down into New Orleans. When people were still stuck in their attics, these prisoners were headed there to build a prison. People are trying desperately to leave the city, and the authorities are setting up a gleaming outdoor prison that's exactly like Guantánamo in the back of a bus station in New Orleans! It was probably one of the most efficient government actions after Katrina. They can't save people, they can't feed people, or get water into the convention centre [where desperate residents were told to gather], but they can just build a prison. If you could see how close this prison, Camp Greyhound, was to the convention centre and the Superdome – you could throw a stone between them.
Camp Greyhound is now closed; barely a sign of it remains. Does Eggers think the new administration has put a stop to the abuses of which it was a symbol? "I don't expect anybody to turn this Titanic of a country round in a year. But Obama has changed the tenor; the clouds have parted a little bit. There is attention to reason and science and the rule of law. The mood matters a lot. What I set out to imply, if not prove, in Zeitoun is that there's a trickle-down from the White House. Due process, habeas corpus – Alberto Gonzales [the former US attorney general] and Dick Cheney and all the rest of the administration believed all that stuff was great, but not for everybody and not in all circumstances. This was the biggest suspension of habeas corpus since the civil war. In New Orleans, it was partly just systemic dysfunction. The judges had fled. There were no public defenders: the public defence office is funded by parking tickets and, after Katrina, there were no parking tickets and no one paid anything for months. "But part of it was also: so, if a guy does a few months [in prison], so what? That is still a problem in this country. We're willing to put people away for months, years, and if we get it wrong it's just: oh, sorry." He believes Zeitoun provokes two responses. "First of all, you get to know an American Muslim family, and you grow to care about them. Then you realise that what happened to them must have happened many times since 9/11 and that we need to wake up."
The story of the Zeitouns and their war on terror via nature and gov't "overkill" via Eggers' storytelling genius won this peace award in 2010
What about Eggers? Does it get him down, this work? Grasping the full weight of the state, witnessing the suffering of those caught in its mechanisms, can make a man sick at heart. "If you feel like you can't have an effect… I would find that totally paralysing. Knowing the family is fine, and that some good will come out of it, that makes it easier." All profits from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, established in 2009 by Eggers, McSweeney's and the Zeitoun family. Its purpose is to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans and to promote respect for human rights in the United States. "Quite a lot of money is already starting to flow through it," says Eggers, with a smile. Besides, not to be too serious: as his heroine Joan Didion has noted, sometimes research is the most fun a writer can have. He went to Syria, where he stayed with Zeitoun's extended family in Jableh. It was a beautiful place. Eggers has two small children now and plenty of other responsibilities besides. But this isn't to say that he doesn't permit himself the occasional adventure.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was published in 2000 and it made Eggers a literary star. Wild and angry, tender and ironic, it is a memoir with made-up bits and postmodern bits, and it tells the story of how, at 21, Eggers was left to bring up his eight-year-old brother, Christopher ("Toph"), following the death of both of their parents from cancer within the space of weeks. In the book, Eggers leaves college in Illinois and takes Toph west to California, where they do a lot of sock-sliding and where Eggers goes half-mad with the responsibility of sudden parenthood – which seems to have been pretty much what happened in real life. But Eggers was, and is, a private kind of a person. So were his family (his father was an attorney, his mother a teacher). Writing the book was, he has said, an act of rebellion in some ways, and once it was out there, selling so crazily, and winning itself a Pulitzer prize nomination, its success was kind of alarming, though he is at pains to emphasise that he always welcomed the responses of individual readers.
"I thought it would be read by 29 year olds in Brooklyn, treating it as an experimental text. But the first few hundred people who came up to me said, 'I lost my parents, too.' I know authors who hate that kind of thing. It drives them crazy. But I feel like any point of intersection is valid."
Anyway, he seems to have been rowing away from it ever since. After A Heartbreaking Work… he wrote a novel, and then, in 2006, What Is the What, which he called fiction but which was based closely on the true story of a Sudanese Lost Boy called Valentino Achak Deng. The book was widely acclaimed – it won the Prix Médicis in France – and has since become a much-loved totem for liberal America.
President Obama read it and urged his White House aides to do the same; Duke University's Class of 2012 was sent a special edition of the novel and told to read it before arriving on campus. Eggers is still close to Valentino. The desk that runs the foundation that was established by McSweeney's in his name is right next door, beside those of the bright young things.
Thanks to the proceeds of What Is the What, Valentino has built a school in Sudan. Eggers hopes to visit it this year. "We try not to be hit and run. We give micro-loans and I have no problem helping people out financially. Three-dimensional results are important to me. I did once spend some time just writing, and floating around, and I lost my mind a little bit. I wasn't so good at that. I guess I'm very practical. My mom taught me that. That's why I get along with Zeitoun so well, and with Valentino. They build things. They make things happen."
Does he also find it relaxing to hide behind them on the page? "Yes! It's ideal. Remember that I started as a journalist [he worked on slate.com and founded his own magazine, Might]. Then, when I was 29, I wrote a memoir. I didn't know it would make sense to anybody. I certainly didn't think anyone would read it…" He pauses. "I feel like I scratched that itch, I guess." Does the memoir now feel like some kind of aberration? "Yeah! Aberration is a word I have used a lot. That's exactly how I see it. I don't know how to improve upon aberration. Even using the first person; I've been desperately trying to avoid that."
It is, I tell him, as though Valentino and Zeitoun give him licence to be sincere. He can shake off the irony, the verbal pyrotechnics, of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and not worry that anyone will think any the less of him. "Yes, there can be a little bit of an unhelpful whirlpool of cleverness that eats its own tail and, having spent a little time in that, it wasn't always the best company to keep and it wasn't the people I was used to."
What's more, when it comes to memoir, the line between truth and fiction is, for him, an agonising one and perhaps best avoided. When the James Frey row blew up – it was discovered that Frey's "memoir" about his drugs hell, A Million Little Pieces, was largely fiction – Eggers received at least 100 emails asking him to comment. "I am obsessed with explaining my processes, in my first book, and elsewhere. I didn't weigh in because I hadn't read the book. But I felt for everybody. For him, for his readers, for Oprah – I'm a fan of hers and what she does for books. He stretched things, but you can read the book how you want, and that's how it's read now. With a grain of salt." Sometimes, fiction takes you closer to truth. "Tim O'Brien's book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, has won every award, is studied in college and is considered to be definitive. But it's fiction." He sighs. "Oh, I'm always sad at book controversies!"
He thinks it's possible that his huge appetite for work – for juggling a publishing company with philanthropy and writing – comes from a sense of how short life is. His parents were in their 50s when they died; his older sister, Beth, killed herself when she was 33. "Having lost people when they were young, you feel intimately acquainted with mortality, I guess. Though I procrastinate worse than anybody." Writing is so hard. "I need eight hours to get maybe 20 minutes of work done. I had one of those yesterday: seven hours of self-loathing. I used to write in the middle of the night. I suppose I was surprised by the sedentary nature of writing: like, wow, most of this is sitting down and typing! So I used to add a bit of adventure by starting at midnight and working until five. That was excitement! But now I have two kids [he is married to the novelist Vendela Vida, with whom he wrote the screenplay for the Sam Mendes film, Away We Go; she also edits another of their projects, The Believer, a literary magazine]. So it's bankers hours for me."
At home, where he writes, he no longer has internet access. A four-month stint with wi-fi proved "deadly" for his productivity and having no access at all ensures that he is not tempted to "look at Kajagoogoo videos and old ads for Wrigley's Spearmint Gum" on YouTube. "Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you're called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can't ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn't written anything for a year."
But, in any case, he is a paper man, not a screen man. "I only read on paper. I don't have an e-reader or an iPhone. I have the best time reading newspapers. I don't believe books are dead. I've seen the figures. Sales of adult fiction are up in the worst economy since the Depression." He hops up again. This time he's in search of a recent edition of his quarterly concern, McSweeney's – The San Francisco Panorama, which was a "celebration of the newspaper". It included cartoons by Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman, dispatches from Afghanistan and fiction by George Saunders and Roddy Doyle and it sold out in minutes. In New York and London, the McSweeney's empire – it is named after Timothy McSweeney, a mysterious stranger who used to write to Eggers's mother, claiming to be her long lost brother – often gets characterised as a kind of cabal: a hip, young gang. He and Vida, whose writerly circle includes Nick Hornby, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem and Joyce Carol Oates, tend to be seen as tastemakers. He thinks this is ridiculous.
"We don't have much of a record to support that, unfortunately. There's a lot of stuff that we like that doesn't go anywhere." He waves an arm in the direction of the hip young staff. "These things exist but they're not financially robust. Vendela doesn't get paid. If we were genius tastemakers we wouldn't be running this broke company. I mean, we're not going to fold any time soon but I wish we were what you say."
He believes passionately in the power of reading and of writing; one evening a week, he and a group high-school students get together to talk about American journalism, though tonight they will be interviewing me, a "real-life British person" (given that their last special guest was Spike Jonze, the film director with whom Eggers wrote the script for Where the Wild Things Are, I fear I could be something of a disappointment). At the end of the year, these students help Eggers compile a volume called The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a showcase for journalism and short fiction. His passion also led him to establish 826 Valencia, a place where children can come after school for help with their homework and to learn to write stories; it's right across the street. It's a screen-free zone, run pretty much entirely by volunteers, and has been so successful that the model has been rolled out across America (there are now branches in six other cities) ."Shall we go over there?" he says.
We scoot across the road. When Eggers and his team signed the lease at 826 Valencia Street in 2002, the landlord told them the building was zoned for retail; they could put their tutoring centre at the back but out front they would have to sell something. Eggers hit on the idea of pirate store. Not a kitschy place about pirates; a store for pirates. Every 826 now has a shop up front: they're welcoming, the children love them and they raise funds (in Brooklyn, it's a superhero supply store; in Boston, it's a Bigfoot research centre). Today, the children are just arriving, which, as Eggers says, "is pretty cute to see" – though perhaps it's more touching to watch the volunteers, who come in all shapes and sizes, and who give their time so willingly.
It's in the pirate store that I fall into a swoon of happiness. When I was small, a favourite book told the story of a bunch of pirates who were not much good at the stuff with planks and cutlasses; they suffered from seasickness and, on one voyage, contracted mumps. As we survey the scene – the staff, young and smiling, invent all the stock themselves – I think how my pirates would be right at home here, shopping for peg-leg oil, emergency treasure burial sand and tins of mermaid repellent/bait ("Sprinkle a small amount of this substance into the sea. Sometimes they come closer, sometimes they swim away. It's complicated").
I glance surreptitiously at Eggers, wondering if he is fed up with taking journalistic visitors like me on tours like this. But his face is a picture of contentment and pride. He picks up a small, flat piece of wood. "This is a kitten plank," he says. He picks up a smaller, flat piece of wood. "This is a hamster plank." Finally, he picks up what looks like a school ruler. "And this is a parrot plank." We don't look at each other but I know we are both smiling.
McSweeney's drive-thru: a short history of the Eggers empire
Founded The McSweeney's empire began in 1998 with Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal edited by Dave Eggers. The first issue, which had a print run of 2,500 copies, many hand-distributed by Eggers himself, featured only work that had been rejected elsewhere. Though this policy was swiftly relaxed to introduce more established writers – among them Jonathan Lethem, AM Homes, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon – the desire to champion emerging and excluded voices persists today.
The McSweeney's generation shares an offbeat, self-consciously po-mo aesthetic that is reflected in the magazine's distinctively whimsical design. Past issues have been packaged as a bundle of mail, printed on playing cards or arrived on subscribers' doormats secreted within a cigar-box. Over the past decade the empire has expanded to include four publishing imprints, a website, a monthly magazine, The Believer, edited by Eggers's wife Vendela Vida, and a quarterly DVD magazine, Wholphin, featuring films by the likes of Spike Jonze and Steven Soderbergh . In 2002 Eggers co-founded a community writing project in San Fancisco, which has since spread to other US cities.
Best of times In 2009 McSweeney's challenged the supposed death of the newspaper by publishing the San Francisco Panorama, a one-off Sunday-sized newspaper featuring sports writing by Stephen King, fiction from Roddy Doyle and George Saunders, dispatches from Afghanistan and a comic-strip by Art Spiegelman. Despite costing $5 on the street and $16 in bookstores, the entire print run of 20,000 copies sold out in 90 minutes.
Worst of times In 2006 the magazine's distributors filed for bankruptcy while $600,000 in debt to McSweeney's. A rescue bid by Perseus Books took care of future distribution but Eggers and co were forced to hold an internet fire sale to make up the $130,000 shortfall. Items listed included signed books, back issues, and a painting by Eggers of George W Bush as a double amputee.
They said "I can't think of another organisation that so successfully combines playfulness with literary excellence and a genuine and effective social conscience."
This article appeared on p10 of the The New Review section of the Observer on Sunday 7 March 2010. It was published on guardian.co.uk at 00.08 GMT on Sunday 7 March 2010. It was last modified at 15.41 GMT on Thursday 16 December 2010. You may want to see the video made upon his acceptance of The Dayton Literary award here
Posted by CN at 11:07 AM