The experimental memoir chronicles the deaths of Eggers’ parents from cancer when he was 21 and describes his efforts to raise his then 8 year old brother Toph. He managed to turn tragedy into a book that is as funny and absurd as it is tender and sad, a book that remarkably lives up to its ostentatious title.
This was the beginning of Dave Eggers the cultural sensation. As well as going on to write many critically acclaimed novels, he is the editor of lauded literary journal McSweeny’s, founder of multiple non-profits, a screenwriter, philanthropist, artist, the list goes on. What Eggers teaches us through his many initiatives is that to start something all you have to do is to pick up a pen, it’s that simple. He is a constant voice for the mute and the strays of the world, and this is what ties all of his life’s work together.
Eggers’ latest novel, Heroes of The Frontier, is another one of those, it tells the story of a women fleeing to Alaska in search of meaning. It’s another critical triumph for Eggers, however when he speaks to us he’s less interested in talking about the book than he is about the theme that so clearly inspired it, that of America in crisis. It’s a novel that is troubled by America, and where the country is headed.
You use humour a lot as a tool not only your work. Is it a natural way for you to look at the world? What does it mean to you?
I wish I had a logical explanation for it, but I think anyone’s sense of humor is like a vestigial organ in the body—you don’t have much choice about it being there, you can’t see it, you can’t easily remove it, and it has dubious utility.
You’re incredibly prolific, writing novels and screenplays, as well as being heavily involved with charities. From a purely practical level, how do you organise your time?
I have a lot of friends who work in construction and manufacturing, and in general they get up at 4am to be at work at 6. As I’m typing this, a friend of mine is out on the San Francisco Bay, on a barge, dismantling the old Bay Bridge. That’s actual work. I get to wake up a few hours later, and then spend the day sitting in my garage, typing, or pretending to type. I don’t know if I answered your question. I think I just demonstrated my level of organization.
You seem fearless in the way that you approach projects. Are you always confident that you can make it past any obstacle?
For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying trying to get better at surfing, and I’ve actually gotten worse. The obstacle in this case is my age and relative lack of coordination; I probably can’t do much about that. Most things I’ve done, I look back and think I could have done them better, but you have to keep doing them, in hopes that through practice or chance, you might improve a little. The Beckett phrase “Fail better” is a guiding mantra in my world. In terms of obstacles, they’re often self-created, and there are always workarounds, right? In the world of film, for example, if you can’t get an idea funded by the studios, now there’s Kickstarter—one of the great creations of the last twenty years. That tool provides a second opinion if the gatekeepers say no, and democratizes a lot of creative fields where power and control had been concentrated among too few for too long. But that’s one of the uses of an obstacle: it gave rise to something like Kickstarter, and every day an obstacle makes another, better route possible.
You have consistently been a loud speaker for the voiceless. You have a lot of empathy for people. How do we create more empathy in our society?
It has to start with listening. We started a non-profit called Voice of Witness that uses oral history to allow victims of human rights crises to tell their stories. These are stories from Burma, Zimbabwe, Haiti, from women in American prisons, from undocumented workers the U.S.. Often society has made assumptions about this or that group of people, informed or not-so-informed, but almost always second-hand and generalized. Without exception, when people read the actual stories of real humans, they come away with a far greater understanding of their plight. They’ve had their assumptions upended, their thinking complicated, their empathy amplified. I had this experience at the Trump rally. I talked to and hung out with Trump supporters all day in Sacramento, and when you listen to people, you find them to be almost invariably more reasonable and likable than the easier, cartoon version we sometimes walk around with. I walked into the Trump rally thinking the attendees might be crypto-fascist caricatures, but of course they were fully complex human beings. People are invariably and confoundingly complex, no matter how much we want them to be easy to understand, categorize, or dismiss.
"It has to start with listening."
Dave Eggers on being a humantarian
What is happening in your hometown seems to be reflected in our neighbourhood as well. A real mood change and a shift to a far more radical knee jerk reaction style of politics. We read your piece on the Trump rally, your opinion on him and why he is popular. What is your mood right now, looking at the situation of Trump as a GOP candidate?
I still think that he’s far and away the most dangerous presidential nominee in modern American history. He’s not only a demagogue that spouts bigotry and sexism, he’s also emotionally unfit to hold office. But as I wrote in that piece about the Sacramento Trump rally, his supporters aren’t all bigots or fascists. His celebrity, his seeming outsiderness, and his presumed business acumen — these things appeal to a wide swath of people who want something different, who are, I think, rightly frustrated with Congressional inaction. They assume Trump will get things done. And I believe he would, too. I think he would get done, quickly, the unravelling of the economy and most of the core principles of American democracy and the rule of law. So let’s say my mood is one of great concern.
You’ve had a lot of previous experience with writing for and being involved with film. It’s such a different experience to writing alone and knowing you have complete control over a project. Have you on the whole been happy with the results of your work in film? We interviewed Charlie Kaufman and he told us that he is considering going back to writing books because he hates Hollywood so much.
I’ve had good experiences on the whole. But the directors I’ve worked with, starting with Spike Jonze — who Charlie collaborated with so brilliantly — have protected me from the more frustrating parts of the business. I haven’t had to be involved with raising money for a movie, or dealing with budgets or schedules, and I don’t have to argue with studios about release dates or anything else. The directors have to do all that, so it gives you a profound respect for all the different hats a director has to wear, and all the people they have to please. Spike said it was like trying to paint a picture with a thousand people holding the brush.
Writing in such a broad range of forms and genres, how do you organise your writing universe? How do you decide on which project to pursue next?
Usually I have a deadline looming, and that’s when I work on something else. Just about everything I’ve ever written started as something I shouldn’t have been working on. Today I’m supposed to be writing about minor league baseball, but I’m writing about wolves.
"Just about everything I’ve ever written started as something I shouldn’t have been working on."
Eggers on his working process
I know you have a strong love for music and have interviewed various musicians. What role has music played in your life and what are some of the records that have informed your career?
My love of music is uncomplicated because I’m a musical idiot. I can’t read music, can’t play any instrument, and have no idea how musicians do what they do. But I listen to music every minute I work, every minute I read, so its fills the days and the house, and because I tend to play a new album on a continuous loop for the first few weeks, it drives my family to the brink. Speaking of music and sanity, we’re working on a collection of songs to address the nightmare path the country is considering taking with Donald Trump. When I was at that Trump rally, I was struck by the music played by the campaign—Queen, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen—a dozen artists who don’t support Trump. So Jordan Kurland, a friend of mine, and I thought it might be good to create Songs Approved For The Next Trump Rally, a set of new songs pre-approved for any Donald event. Ben Gibbard already wrote a brilliant song called Million Dollar Loan, and we’re hoping the compilation might make a dent in his appeal, and resurrect the idea of the protest song along the way.
Do you feel as though the education system you went through disabled or enabled you as a writer? And do you feel that teachers are not given enough credit in our society?
I had a succession of truly great teachers. Starting with Mrs. Wright in first grade, who had everyone in the class create his or her own book— planning, writing, illustrating and binding it. That got me hooked on every aspect of the process, and has informed a lot of what we do at 826 National—project-based learning with a readable outcome ready for an outside audience. So we have students make books very much like this every day, and the process has a transformative effect every time. There’s nothing like an 8-year-old writing a real story, finishing it, binding it, owning it—owning their narrative, making something that could be kept for years or decades. I still have that first-grade book Mrs. Wright made me finish! That’s some powerful teaching.
The teachers I got to study with were scholars, were curious and awake to new discoveries, and were moral role models. When I see teachers scapegoated for whatever new thing we think ails the school system, it’s maddening. For about twenty years, there’s been a war on teachers going on in popular culture that’s shameful, nonsensical, and utterly counter-productive. What’s needed for the public school system is not wholesale reinvention, or the flattening or abandoning of a system it took 250 years to build. What we need to do is double down. We need to double down on public education. Give schools more support, more stability, more of our trust, and give teachers more room to be the creative professionals they are.
"We need to double down on public education. Give schools more support, more stability, more of our trust, and give teachers more room to be the creative professionals they are."
His ongoing fight for better education
Many writers are content to just write a book and hope that it has an effect on some of the people that read it. But it seems that your work is very connected to practical solutions to social problems. How do you feel about the term “activist novelist” that’s been applied to you?
Sometimes after a book is released there’s just a logical next step. When Valentino Deng and I began work on What Is the What, we agreed that something tangible and real should come out of it. So we created the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, and after that, every last thing was Valentino’s doing. He designed a high school for his hometown in South Sudan, built it with incredible speed, attracted students from all over the region, and now it’s considered one of the two or three best high schools in the country. Valentino is a visionary leader, he’s created a magnificent school, and it’s been made possible by the people who picked up the book, and maybe donated a few dollars here and there to the foundation.
Dave Eggers latest work Heroes of the Frontier is out now on Knopf
I’ve been immersed in Paul Simon’s music lately, so I’ll name my three favorite Paul Simon songs.
This is the last song on his latest album, and it’s one of his best-written, lyrically and musically, ever — it’s a very profound summation of a man’s life, an examination of mortality, a wrestling with God— all these things, though it’s only four or so minutes long. The guitar-playing is exquisite, and Simon’s voice is, I think, more beautiful than it’s ever been. And these words! “They say all roads lead to a river/Then one day the river comes up to your door/How will the builder of bridges/Deliver us all to the faraway shore.”
This is from Graceland, so it’s been listened to by millions for decades. And even though it’s one of the songs on the album with less radio play, it holds up against everything else on that monumental album. In the first stanza, Simon invents a new verb, sloped, which the English language had been too long without: “Fat Charlie the Archangel/Sloped into the room.” The song develops into a very deft character sketch of a man—“sad as a lonely little wrinkled balloon”—in the throes of a divorce. “Someone could walk into this room and say your life is on fire/It’s all on the evening news/All about your life on the evening news” I keep the song on endless loop some days, just trying to figure out why such an oddly structured song, balancing such vocal delicacy, even a well-placed falsetto, with a thumping chorus, can work so well. But all three songs on this list are of the kind that it seems only Paul Simon could write—stylistically restless, examining and investing in every tone and chord, somehow managing to pair every musical moment with highly specific words. Never a lazy line.
This is from So Beautiful or So What, from 2010, and for my money it’s his best standalone, acoustic, singer-songwriter song, ever, period. Like a lot of his recent work, God and creation come into play: “God and His only Son/Paid a courtesy call on Earth…” He sings that there are “galaxies yet to be born/Creation is never done…” But in the middle of the song, it pivots. It leaves God and the stars and sky to enter a home, and nestles close to the love that exists there. “The light at the edge of the curtain/Is the quiet dawn/The bedroom breathes/In clicks and clacks/Uneasy heartbeat, can’t relax/But then your hand takes mine/Thank God I found you in time/Thank God I found you/Thank I found you.” I’m not doing it justice here, but trust me that there’s no better love song.