"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Let it be known that Dave Eggers does not want to be interviewed.
In the past month, the editor of McSweeney’s, a literary quarterly that even Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham thinks is hip, and the author of a “memoir-y kind of thing” called “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has been interviewed by the New York Times, the Village Voice, Time magazine and assorted publications too numerous to mention.
Michiko Kakutani, the famously cantankerous New York Times book reviewer, has agreed that Eggers’ talent is “staggering,” as have writers David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, David Sedaris and David Remnick (who published an excerpt of his book in the New Yorker under the title of “Here Come the Orphans!” earlier this year.) His readings are standing room only, the new issue of McSweeney’s sells out as soon as it arrives (shipping is rather slow, as Eggers decided to have them printed in Iceland), and even his publisher ran out of review copies of the book a week before its publication date.
The book in question, Eggers’ first, is about a boy (Dave Eggers) raising another boy (his brother, Christopher, called “Toph”). The Eggers’ parents died of cancer within 32 days of each other, leaving Dave, then 21, as the surrogate parent of Toph, then 8. They leave their home in the wealthy suburb of Lake Forest (outside Chicago) and follow sister Beth, then 23, to Berkeley, where she attends law school.
The story is, as one might expect, “heartbreaking,” tragic and inspirational, but as Eggers tells it, it is also funny, lyrical and liberating, full of madcap escapades and slapstick humor. In Eggers’ telling, this story of orphans making their way in the world resembles a Pippi Longstocking fantasy gone wild. He acknowledges that along with the sense of being hard-done-to comes the existential freedom to redefine the entire notion of family: Life assumes a “sense of mobility, of infinite possibility, having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.”
It’s a true story, more or less, and Eggers is relentless in detailing which parts are more true than others: In his preface he walks the reader through the various changes he’s made in dialogue, characters, location and time. He even finagled a highly idiosyncratic copyright page out of Simon & Schuster: After claiming that the book is a work of fiction, mostly due to the limits of memory, he acknowledges that most things, people and incidents described are real “because, at the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for these things, and could not conceive of making up a story or characters — it felt like driving a car in a clown suit.”
The relationship between Dave and Toph, now 29 and 16, pivots around a self-conscious declaration of their unique status — “We are pathetic. We are stars.” — and the sort of workaday banalities and love found in any parent-child relationship. Their house is messy and they spend a lot of time sock-sliding (Dave provides diagrams of the best routes) and playing Frisbee. Dave threatens to pick up women at parent-teacher conferences and worries that Toph will fail because he is always late for school. Dave goes out drinking with friends and spends the entire evening terrified that Toph will be murdered by the babysitter.
In between, Dave and his friends — many of them old friends from Lake Forest who moved to California for various reasons — start a magazine called “Might.” And Dave tries — and fails — to become a character on MTV’s “The Real World.”
Eggers hemmed and hawed, but he finally agreed to be interviewed for Mothers Who Think, on the grounds that Salon is “family” — he was once the editor of the Media Circus site — and on the condition that we both talk about being young parents. (I am the 26-year-old mother of a 10-year-old.)
So, you don’t want to do this interview.
I thought I reached a point where I could never do it again, maybe a month ago. I’ve had a couple of ridiculous interviews. People who just want to ask me about “The Real World,” stuff like that.
So what about “The Real World”? Were they up for having you and Toph? Would you have allowed Toph to move into the Real World house?
I don’t know. I’m just lucky that we all came to our senses before something bad happened. I was never that serious about it. I wouldn’t have lasted more than a week, probably.
But I fantasize about a lot of things. On the way here, I was thinking about going to Mars, but it didn’t mean much. There is a lot of time during the day to think about a lot of things. In the book, I think that some people are misinterpreting my idle thinking as serious thinking. But I’m thinking about 12 things at once, a hundred- thousand times a day. Most people do, I would imagine. But you just choose to write certain things down. I picture my death 20 times a day. But doesn’t everybody briefly picture things like that? You have to be true to how active your brain is.
Do you think people treat your idle thoughts differently because in the midst of your idle thinking — about “The Real World,” about death — you also have custody of a small child? Do you think that people are judging you, wondering what will happen if your child gets caught playing out your idle thinking?
Well, there’s a choice. A child could be raised by Quakers or Mennonites in Pennsylvania. I think there is a strange American Puritanism, of course, that’s always there, right below the surface, that favors incredible simplicity and austerity for the raising of a child.
And I did too in a way. I really believe strongly that kids should be spared the runoff of their parents’ lives and problems. Chris [Toph] didn’t know — nor will my own kids — about my problems at work, or that I broke up with a person. I didn’t want to burden him with stuff like that.
How did you avoid that, especially as a single parent? How do you avoid him being around you when things happen?
Well, he would meet people. If I were seeing someone, he’d go out with us. I only really took him out with people that he’s known since he was born. These people are all his relatives, basically.
When I grew up, I didn’t know anything about anything. I didn’t know a swear word until I was like, 13, maybe. I couldn’t possibly utter one until well after that. We couldn’t say the word “God” in the house. We’d have to say, “Mom, Bill said the word ‘dog’ backwards.”
I remember my first friend in the world — who was at the reading in Berkeley the other night — when we were like, 8 or 9, asked me what “balls” were, just to test me. And I thought really hard about it, and I was like, “Well, it’s gotta be … your butt.” I couldn’t say “butt” at the time; I had to say “rear end.”
I didn’t know the first thing about drugs until maybe college. My parents didn’t idly talk about adult things and problems of the world and that kind of thing to us, and burden us with stuff. We were left to be kids.
It was the same way, as much as possible, with Toph. He didn’t see anything. And I believe in this. There were a few people, my age or my sister’s age, that didn’t know how to act. Some people are really fucked-up around kids. They think kids need to be deflowered intellectually. I remember a good friend of Toph’s in Berkeley, when he was about 10, knew absolutely everything about every conceivable drug-related subject — all the terms, all the slang. I had no idea what he was talking about. I don’t know where he got it. Maybe from his brother, maybe there was some talk in his home. The stuff that came out of his mouth was so old and icky and dirty. It was sort of sad, I think.
You mention in the book a mother who talks about allowing her son to smoke pot at home. She looks to you, thinking that as a young, hip parent, you will understand. Do you feel that other parents had the expectation that you would be more lenient than you actually were?
Yes, I think a lot of parents assumed that our house was a young bachelor pad, chaotic sort of thing. At one point, a neighbor of ours in Berkeley thought that when Toph didn’t want to play with her son. Toph and my older brother, Bill, and I were just sitting around and she burst into the house — unannounced, without knocking — and she said: “What’s going on? Just tell me what’s going on!” like really thinking that she was making a drug bust or something, just because Toph was avoiding her son, who was kind of dorky.
There was some of that, but usually once I would talk to them, the other parents were really incredibly nice and generous. I liked talking to them about parent stuff.
These were private schools. The parents in particular at San Francisco Day School were like, wonder parents. These guys were all just incredibly active and smart and they think hard about everything. I would recommend that school to anybody.
All the schools were rather generous. People were always nice to us. I went to public school all my life and all through college and I liked it. Toph went to private schools because we were never sure where we’d be living. They have endowments, they have people who are well off, who are paying more so that people with less can join in on the fun.
I’ve found that people who are writers or in magazines or doing hip, creative, interesting stuff have a horror of parenting at a young age. These are the people who won’t have kids — if at all — until their late 30s, at least. Do you feel that you did the same things you would have done as a young adult, regardless of your parental status?
Roughly. I think about this a lot. It’s an issue of the chicken or the egg. I never went out a whole lot. Never more than once a week, usually. I always attributed that fact to the conviction I had that something horrible would happen to my brother if I left, obviously, and that I would pay for it for the rest of my life. But a lot of it had to do with work. I like working. I like staying home and working on things and pretending to work on things. And half the time I prefer hanging out with Toph at home to just going to a bar. We had real fun. We had pingpong.
It sounds like you had pretty strict rules about dating. For instance, you never had people sleep over.
Oh, never. Never. It would be just too weird. It got comical here and there. He met many people that I dated, as any child of divorce will meet his mother’s dates.
If someone’s not comfortable around your child, that’s sort of a weeding out. I think that there’s some issues there. To think that kids are some other species that you have to act a certain way around, to be nervous around. I’ve had people who were very nervous around my 12-year-old brother. Whatever. And that’s a problem.
But you also said that you don’t want them to act the same way they would around adults, right?
Well, yeah. But there’s a pretty easy balance. You treat a kid with respect and as an adult you talk to them as if they’re smart people. But you don’t throw at them the trappings of adulthood and you know, the darker stuff. I’ve seen people throw that at kids — they prick them. Parents do too. They lean on them too hard with their own problems. They don’t need that. They want to know their parents are pretty invincible. And then they want to play. That’s it, you know. Let them play.
They certainly don’t want to think, “I hope Dad doesn’t break down again.” Growing up, my parents were pretty invincible. And that’s important. That allows you stability in your brain to develop other interests outside your family. No kid should have to worry, “Where am I going to be tomorrow?”
And that’s primarily in the formative years, I would say, like from 0 to 8, maybe. Those years should be trouble-free.
Obviously, my mom was a master, so she took care of that with Toph. So by the time he and I got together, it was pretty easy. She had done all the real work.
So do you feel that you were pretty consistent? Do you feel that you raised Toph the way you felt your mother would have done?
Yeah. Absolutely. She was a parenting genius. I’m not the only one who would say that. She taught for many years and had hundreds of kids and I think almost all of them would say that. You define a genius as someone who almost never has to second-guess what their instincts say, who knows things without ever having to be told them. Obviously, a lot of people are like that, parenting-wise — parenting is an instinctual thing — but a lot of people aren’t. And lot of people have to read books.
What do you think about parenting manuals?
I’ve never read a word of one. Nor will I ever. I’m sure that there are a lot of helpful ones out there. I don’t know much about it, though. That’s a different world. Like my mom, I kind of feel like I know it all, and I’m not going to let someone tell me what’s what. But I don’t read any self-help anything. It’s a genre I know nothing about.
Why did you decide to leave Chicago?
Gotta go. You can’t stay and fester in the community of your childhood. I don’t want to say that it’s always bad — fester is a tough word to use — but you know, because you have a young ‘un with you, it doesn’t mean you can’t move. And do. And I think in the long run, your child is going to respect that.
But how did you justify that to yourself? You decided that you were going sell the house, sell the furniture, take your child out of school and move across the country to a place neither of you had ever lived before.
We couldn’t afford to stay there. This was Lake Forest. This was not a cheap place to live.
But the Bay Area isn’t exactly cheap, either.
In Berkeley, we were paying about a $1,000 a month for a house. Beautiful little street, nice neighbors, which I imagine would have beat our mortgage out there in Lake Forest by a mile. And my sister, Beth, was in law school out in Berkeley, so everyone had sort of put their life on hold for a while anyway. So at that point, if you’re a kid, and you’re 8, do you want to be in a town where everyone knows exactly what happened to your parents? Or do you want to move?
So we got a fresh start. In a few weeks in our new school, no one knew anything. Kids don’t care.
But clearly they picked up on the fact that you were a lot younger than the other parents.
Yeah, sure, they picked up on that. But that just made it more fun.
I once lived with an old friend from high school. That was hard. I think we are especially vulnerable as single parents. We think that it will be easier to live with other people, but once you are sharing space with another person, your child becomes their roommate, too. And then they assume parental rights.
And you want to strangle them. The people around people like you and me are under a lot of weird stresses. They don’t know what it’s like. They sometimes want to second-guess you, which makes you want to throw them off a cliff. And I have severed relations here and there with people. I mean, after six years of doing this stuff and then they try to second guess me: It’s like, “Well, I’ll see you in hell.”
But we have young friends. And a lot of times, their ignorance comes through. Obviously, 10 years down the road, they’re never going to second-guess the decision of a fellow parent. Nor would they now second guess the decision of a 40-year-old parent. But they feel like they can do that with us. And that’s a problem. Because nobody knows better.
But on the one hand, there you are walking around the PTA meetings saying: “We’re special, we’re different, we’re better, we’re stars, we’re the thing, we’re the new thing. We’re the thing that nobody here can ever be because we’re young and free.” You want it both ways, right? Because you also want to have the fabulous power of reinventing parenthood in a way that seems more interesting. And yet you don’t want to lose the authority that comes from seniority and experience.
They’re not at all mutually exclusive.
Just because you’re reinventing it? By innovating it, do you mean that you lose your grip on authority?
By insisting that you are not them. You define yourself as not being an older parent: You are not old, dumpy, boring, unable to play soccer. But at the same time, (in the book) when you have to prove your own authority to a friend, you scream: “I am a 40-year-old mother. Don’t ever forget that.”
Right. You want it both ways. Obviously. You want the moral authority. But you think that you know a bit more because you’re closer to the age. You probably think that your fellow parents are woefully out of it, and don’t know what’s what. I mean the closer you are to your daughter or brother or sister’s age, the more you feel like you can relate. And that means the world when you’re raising a kid, right?
But there’s also the danger that being too cool of a parent will cause your child to rebel.
I never rebelled. Not in any conventional way. I wanted to please my parents. When I liked an album, I wanted them to like it too. I was desperate to make connections with them, and I really liked doing that. So I don’t ever identify with the idea that you try to upset your parents in some deliberate way. I didn’t understand that. I never thought of it as an antagonistic relationship. It’s not that way with Toph and I because we’re part of the same thing. It’s a partnership.
Do you feel that it’s more of a partnership because you are his brother, not his parent?
No. It’s always been exactly the same. We’ve never been like brothers, like brothers who grew up together. It’s always been a hybrid of brother and parent ever since he was born. And it’s still that way.
I think that for people in our children’s situation, it’s less likely for them to rebel.
The problem is that being a single parent, especially a young single parent, you are told that you don’t have the moral authority, that because you are more like a pal than a parent, your child is more likely to lack the stability that a nuclear family provides, and more likely to have problems.
Well, there’s nothing on paper that can tell you how someone’s going to turn out. I think most of the damage is done by the time the kid is 4 years old. I believe very strongly in that.
Which means that you never could have done any damage. It was all set up by the time you became Toph’s guardian.
Sure. Don’t blame me.
No, I do think that the seed is planted in the first couple years. If the kid grows up in a loud or stressful household, they’re going to absorb that. At the developing stages, all external input has infinitely more influence than it does later on. I have so many vivid memories from when I was 3 that mean nothing. Why do I remember exactly how Uncle Ted threw me in the pool? And I can’t remember what I did yesterday.
Most of that stuff happens really early on and the only solution to anything like that is love. And if a child is provided enough love at all times, and he knows it, then fuck everything else. There’s just no way that you can go wrong. That’s the only thing that’s ever lacking, I think. Are you very clear to this person always that they mean absolutely everything to you and you’re behind them 100 percent? After that, it’s simple. Who cares about laundry and the house and what kind of food you eat?
Well, some people would say that that’s exactly what matters. That this is how kids get their sense of stability: Knowing that the house is clean and the laundry is done and the food is there is all part of the care and maintenance to provide a happy home.
No, that’s a smokescreen. That’s for people who don’t know what they’re doing. That stuff helps, sure. It’s nice to grow up in a house where everything is taken care of. Does it make a damn bit of difference if your parents are reluctant to express their affection to you? No. You’re going to end up shooting people from a tower in Texas. No matter how clean your laundry is. Take John Wayne Gacy: I’m sure his house was immaculate. It just all has to do with constant, unconditional love, as corny as that sounds.
So do you think that you’re ever going to have other kids?
Oh yeah, sure. I love kids. I’m going to have a bunch of kids.
But do you feel like you could be in a serious relationship with somebody and consider having children with them while Toph is still in the house?
No, you’re right there. Pretty soon he’ll be in college. I’m not saying I’ll do it any time soon. But I’ll do it. I’m never anywhere near as happy as I am when I’m in a house full of kids. I was just visiting a friend of mine who just had a baby. I had a reading in Berkeley. And there was just no way I wanted to go to that reading, not with this cute little thing. He smiled all the time and I had him on my lap and I was just like, I’m crazy to leave. I’ve spent most of my life around little kids. It’s certainly better than spending it around adults — so boring. No offense to you guys.
Why is it that everyone hates to admit to being adults? Why is it that no one wants to admit anymore that there are cool things about being an adult?
I don’t think that it is cool. It basically just means that you’ve accepted the fact that you’re slow and boring. Really. I have a lot of friends who do accept it: “I wear these clothes, because I’m an adult now.” Good God!
Most people would say that the truest sign of being an adult is becoming a parent, regardless of your age.
No, not at all. I would say that it’s completely unrelated. I mean, there are things about parenting that will mature you, for sure. But you know. Tell me something: When you meet people, do you draw a line between those who have been through stuff, who know what it’s like to struggle on a daily level to get things done? I mean, at 26, some of your friends must be incredibly immature by comparison. I used to always divide people like that. I would find that those whose parents had been divorced, if a parent had died, I could identify with them better. Any sort of breakage in the family unit will mature someone, will sober them a little bit. And they will understand that things aren’t always just so.
You probably find people who want to judge you, right?
Oh sure. But what I think is strange is that although you say that you do end up seeking out people who have some sort of breakage, these are the same things that you say you don’t want to expose your own children to. So this is the question: If you believe that hardship matures you, makes you interesting, and if you don’t believe in exposing your own children to hardship, are you then in danger of raising boring children?
No. They’ll absorb enough. Your daughter and my brother will know enough to know that they are — unusual — but there’s no reason to pound it home. You have to allow them to think that they’re just as good and just as normal — or in our case, better — than anyone else. You’re special. You’re chosen. But what you never want to do is use your situation as an excuse to wallow or fail. It just means that you’re that much more. It’s all an advantage.
Because, do you want to be like everybody else? I think that’s the question that you have to ask yourself, ask your daughter. And I think that people who would judge you and your daughter — and I’m sure that the things that were said to your daughter are similar to the things that were said to Toph, because you’re different. Oh, “You’re the one with no dad.” Or, “You’re the one with no parents.” Or, “You’re the one whose house is filthy.” Or, “You live in an apartment.”
It’s a badge of honor, though. Soon enough, they’ll realize that. Kids like to be considered normal so they can go ahead and get on with their lives and not have to worry about that. But soon enough, it turns 180 degrees, and the more normal you are, the more likely you are to be predestined for some boring, predetermined life.
It’s just like growing up with a silly name. Like one of my friends was Giacomo Calliendo. And we had another kid in high school named Gonzolo Chocano. And my best friend in the world is named Flagg. And you get all the shit in the world for that. But at this point, who would you rather be: Giacomo, Calliendo or Dave?
It’s the same thing with your upbringing. Who wouldn’t envy someone who was brought up on ships sailing the Pacific? Or was brought up in Nova Scotia? Normalcy is OK to a point — but what do you get for it? Nothing. You’ve lived your life in a normal way. And then, you’ve got a problem. Because what have we been seeking this whole time? Anonymity and normalcy? I mean, you’re dead and you’re glad that you were so normal? And you’re glad that your familial structure was as normal as possible and your parents were just the right age? Strange thing, you know. Very strange.
And in the end, at least in the existential sense, you only have what you have, you know. Unless you’re saving it for some other world, and I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know if there’s some other world. So you try to make it as interesting as possible here.
So if you later decide to have kids at a sensible age, in your late 30s, with a stable income, a good career and a nuclear family, then what do you do?
You have to manufacture chaos.
That’s a recurring theme in the book: The manufacture of chaos. Trying to make seemingly safe lives seemingly dangerous to satisfy that primal urge for danger.
And yet, I know many 40-year-old mothers who tell me that they are just as insane, just as unconventional as I am. Is there really a divide between young parents and 40-year-old mothers? Or are we 40-year-old mothers?
We can’t possibly be. I think kids feel the difference. And they see the difference, when we show up at parent-teacher conferences.
I love the parent-teacher conferences in your book.
I didn’t even go into them all the way in the book. At times, there would be three of us: me, my older brother Bill, who is an arch conservative, and then my sister, Beth, who is way left. And we would be barraging them with questions about their curriculum. We all thought we were so smart. And we were the same age as most of these teachers, so we felt like we knew the game, we knew what was up with them. But we also had the moral authority to question them on the very foundation. So it was fun.
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)