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Stroke of Genius

With his varied approaches in his writing, his own publishing house and other projects, Dave Eggers discusses his staggering workload at this weekend's Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.



After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned," the final story of Dave Eggers' recently published first collection of short fiction, is narrated by a dog named Steven that revels in running and jumping and moving "fast-fast" with his friends. Overhead are the squirrels, with their "small jittery voices" watching and critiquing them, especially when they fail: "That was a terrible jump"; "His bad landing makes me very angry"; and "Everything he ever did was worthless." In the end, Steven has an epiphany about God and the nature of human suffering, and several of the squirrels are crushed by another dog's jaws.

Eggers and the folks working with him on his various creative, publishing and charitable concerns are definitely runners and jumpers. It's pretty obvious who the squirrels are. The momentum of Egger's celebrity and productivity since his Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut in 2000, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (published at age 29), has been formidable. He has authored two books of fiction: the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! and the collection How We Are Hungry. Both were initially published in beautiful, austere hardback editions by McSweeney's Books, his own publishing house, with all of the proceeds benefiting 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing lab and tutoring center he founded in San Francisco in 2002. With his 826 high school workshop students, he edits The Best American Nonrequired Reading, an annual anthology of writing. McSweeney's, which he founded in 1998, also publishes books by other authors, a quarterly literary journal, the monthly book/culture magazine, The Believer, a sub-publishing arm, Believer Books, and a daily humor Web site. He often writes articles on topics ranging from art to Monty Python to teacher's pay, and his design work has appeared widely in many periodicals, not to mention juried museum shows. And still critics gather in the branches.

FROM HIS SELF-IMPOSED SEQUESTRATION in a rented house with his wife and 3,000 books, Eggers recently carved out time to answer a few questions. He's been "reading almost a book a day" and trying to finish the biography of Dominic Arou, a Sudanese refugee now living in Atlanta -- a project he's been working on for three years. "His story was so endlessly fascinating, and seemed to be tied in with so many events and issues we're dealing with right now -- Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, racism in Africa, human rights abuses as a result of oil exploration, the displacement of millions of people, 9/11 -- that I thought maybe I should get involved and do more." Another added advantage to working on the project is that "writing someone else's biography, when the word 'I' doesn't appear in 450 pages."

The "I" was very much a part of his controversial introduction to the reading public five years ago with Staggering Genius, a memoir about losing both parents to cancer within weeks of each other and then, unmoored and raging with youth and loss, taking off to California to raise his 8-year-old brother. "For a while," Eggers admits, "I was too close to it and wasn't always so happy it existed." It's a complicated, fascinating take on the genre and in the opening pages, Eggers, a critic himself, tried to anticipate all possible angles of criticism in order to inoculate the book, a sort of virtuosic self-defense by self-exposure, acknowledging its (and his own) potential flaws. He then proceeded to turn himself inside out, exposing his appetites, fear, desires and failures to work with maddening, erratic brilliance, turning unspeakable loss into unrelenting art.

Like Staggering Genius, the novel Our Velocity reflects the jerky tilt-a-whirl rhythm of lives that are being fully lived, of minds that swirl relentlessly, both inward and outward. In Our Velocity, two friends try to give away $32,000 in a week during an international and often conflicted and misguided spree. It's an absurd response to the absurd death of a friend and an absurd financial windfall. Much like Eggers in Staggering Genius, the characters are propelled by loss, anger and bewilderment, the need to feel alive and connect with people in a meaningful way, and have some good stories to show for it. At its best and most compelling, the language is imaginatively, ecstatically driven, a voice that sparks back at times to Eggers' debut.

THIS VOICE IS A HURDLE THAT EGGERS admits to: "People are used to that 'I' being me, the writer, and I don't always get cut as much slack when it comes to adopting fictional personas." In fact, one of the major achievements throughout much of How We Are Hungry is that you forget they were written by Dave Eggers. In "Going Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," about a woman climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, her own sense of personal injustice connecting to the ones magnified in the world around her, the artist disappears exquisitely and the characters and place take over. Other stories are stylistically, familiarly experimental, but the variety is refreshing. "Because the stories were written over a period of about four years, there were some differences in style, as I did the experimenting people do," Eggers explains. "But I come from a more journalistic background, so fiction is still relatively new to me. I'm really just beginning to try on different masks, to use a terrible metaphor." It's easy to forget, given his overarching fame, success and creative output that Dave Eggers is still a relatively young writer and that writing good books is very, very hard.

And he's also been very, very busy. His 826 Valencia project has spawned 826/NYC and 826/ LA, and it looks as though Seattle is next. But contrary to the claims of some critics who've dubbed it a "micro-solution to a macro problem," overshadowing older programs with less glamorous associations, this rapid expansion hasn't arisen out of any narcissistic, missionary zeal. "With each new 826, they come about because people in the community approach us about starting centers like ours. We don't really sweep into a city and start places top-down. It's always bottom-up, with the guidance of the teachers and parents in the area." This underscores how Eggers and his associates take a pro-active stance in the world of literature and don't just sit on the sidelines and discuss it.

In an essay lamenting how American society was in danger of losing its connective tissue -- the intimacy of human congregation -- A.J. Liebling once relayed editor Thomas S. Matthews' philosophy of journalism: "The most important thing is the man on one end of the circuit saying, "My God, I'm alive! You're alive!' and the fellow on the other end, receiving his message, saying, 'My God, you're right! We're both alive!'" All three of Eggers' books are hard-wired with this message, and each ends with an imperative attempt at contact with the reader, whether desperate, joyful or hopeful. No matter what your opinion of the books or the writer, on this end of the circuit the message comes across loud and clear.

Dave Eggers' latest work, How We Are Hungry, is his first collection of short stories. "I come from a more journalistic background, so fiction is still relatively new to me," he says. "I'm really just beginning to try on different masks, to use a terrible metaphor."
  • Dave Eggers' latest work, How We Are Hungry, is his first collection of short stories. "I come from a more journalistic background, so fiction is still relatively new to me," he says. "I'm really just beginning to try on different masks, to use a terrible metaphor."

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