The believer

Dave Eggers talks about production by procrastination, how understanding book-selling can empower a writer, and what it's like to be the head of a publishing empire that everyone has an opinion about.

By David Amsden
Published March 9, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Ever since publishing his memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" in 2000, Dave Eggers has been deconstructed as much for who he is as for what he writes. This, of course, is something of an inevitability when you find fame through exposing yourself through writing, through demanding readers to stare, to crawl inside and look around, no matter how awkward it ends up feeling. The book's extraordinary success allowed Eggers to turn his literary magazine McSweeney's -- once slapstick and satirical, now decidedly more serious and mainstream -- into what's often referred to as an indie publishing empire: There's a publishing house, a monthly magazine about books (the Believer), a bicoastal tutoring center for kids. Bring up Eggers today and you're supposed to have something to say about all this. You're supposed to have an opinion, a stance, a theory.

But five years on and let's be real: Isn't this starting to feel tiring, repetitive, cloying, misguided, weird seeming? One of the many pleasures in reading "How We Are Hungry," Eggers' recent collection of stories, is that it reminds you of his abilities as a writer. He can dazzle, and at his best he can move effortlessly between classic storytelling and the more experimental. There's a sense of maturity to the book, and so it seemed like a fine time to check in on the author -- to talk about the collection, about how his attitude toward writing and publishing has changed since 2000. (For some reason, if only because Eggers is the sort of person who tends to inspire assumptions, it feels relevant to state that we didn't know each other before I interviewed him, though I have written for the Believer.)

In conversation Eggers is funny, chatty, uninhibited, and a true master of the extended tangent. We had a long telephone conversation, very long, probably much longer than either of us realized, one that took place with Eggers driving, then talking in a parking lot for another half hour. Among the topics discussed: Eggers' take on short fiction, his adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" for Spike Jonze -- and, yes, the culture of McSweeney's and the culture that's chosen to define itself in opposition to it.

One thing I've noticed about your stuff lately is that you seem to be willing to just put it out there at various stages and see how it sticks, which is something I think a lot of writers fear -- exposing the machinery before it's running smoothly. I guess I'm thinking of the novel in installments you were doing for Salon, and didn't you republish your novel "You Shall Know Our Velocity" with a different name ["Sacrament"] and ending?

No, it had a different middle, actually. Just some punctuation changes toward the end. But, yeah, the big difference was that I was not always that guy. I had become really precious. I was a terrible freelancer. Magazines would hate me because I'd take some assignment and then I would freeze up, because I'd be like, "Well, they're not going to print it the way I want it to be. What am I doing? I shouldn't have taken this stupid assignment in the first place! It's never going to be as good as it should!" And then I would just obsess forever and then when it was due, I would back out. I did that probably a dozen times. And then after that first book ["A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"] came out, I froze up even more because I thought, "Oh, shit." It becomes a lot harder. I wrote on my own for about a year and a half and came up with a 600-page book that I never published. It was good for me to write -- I don't think anyone else would be interested in it. It was after "Velocity" that I really started loosening up.

Steve [Elliott, author of "Happy Baby," which Eggers edited] has been somebody that's been important to me in terms of a colleague whose work I like a lot, and he doesn't overthink everything. He doesn't overthink stuff from a publishing or career aspect. Also, I need deadlines, just like everybody else, especially coming from magazines, newspapers, and stuff like that. I need daily or weekly deadlines to get stuff done, or I continue to do things and not go off on a year of unproductivity.

Unproductivity -- that's not something I'd think anyone would associate with you. You seem to always be doing a million things. You're doing a book on teachers' salaries now, a biography of a Sudanese refugee, a compilation of prisoners' oral histories -- among others. To sound momentarily like the little old lady who lurks in the back of every reading everywhere, what's your workday like? How do you fit everything in?

It goes in little patches. I've always written really late at night. Like the first book, I never started writing till [my brother] Toph went to bed. It got to the point where I would start writing at midnight and I would write until four, so I'm used to working kind of odd hours or working late. Sometimes, when we [me and wife Vendela Vida] need to get writing done, we'll spend a month away somewhere without a phone.

I have this thing where in order to feel productive I have to feel like I'm procrastinating -- so I'll take on a bunch of work, even stuff I don't really want to do, just so I have an excuse to put it down and pick up something else...

Yes! You said it way better than I could. It's been that way for me basically forever. I was thinking about writing "Heartbreaking Work" the whole time that we did Might magazine --and that, for me, was competing with my time to maybe write that story out. And then I worked for Esquire for a year and I was supposed to be writing there but all I was doing was working on the memoir, for the most part. And then while I was stalling on that, that's where McSweeney's came from. I thought, "Fuck that, I haven't published anything and I don't know where I'm going with this memoir, but I have this idea for a magazine!"

You only want to work on the stuff you're not supposed to be working on. That's how it always is. I'll always be working on five things at once, usually with those documents open at the same time because if I get stuck somewhere I'll jump over to something else. That's how my head has always worked. I don't know if it's 'cause I watched too much TV as a kid or what. It really could be that.

Since you're your own publisher, I'm curious about who edits you.

Vendela, my wife, is probably the first person that reads things. And then Eli Horowitz, our managing editor -- those are probably the two main people. I don't know if you ever do this, but I'll pick people for certain stories and I'll say, "If this one doesn't make sense to you, I'm doing something wrong."

The classic line about the short story is that it's nothing what it used to be, that it's on its last leg as being culturally or literarily relevant or whatever. Anyone writing professionally knows how hard they are to sell -- to magazines, and especially as books -- that the whole machinery, except MFA programs, discourages them from being written. It's all about the novel -- and long novels in particular. I guess maybe that's why I like a lot of the shorter pieces in "How We Are Hungry," which I want to talk about. Maybe I'll sound like an ass saying this, but they were quick and fun, which I think is kind of rare.

Thanks. You know, it's funny: I was in Minneapolis the other day and I did a morning NPR show. There was a substitute radio host who interviewed me -- I'm not sure where the regular person was. This substitute person wasn't incredibly in touch with what's going on in contemporary books, but she was nice enough, until the end. The last question -- it's like how they teach journalists to hold your tough questions until the end -- so the last question is, "Do you think that some of these stories that are very short ... well, what would you say if I said I kind of found them sort of gimmicky?" This woman felt very, I think, alienated, like the stories weren't for her and they made her feel old or unhip.

I just didn't know where to start. I keep thinking we'll wake up someday and everyone will remember that every memorable piece of art we've ever had surprises us in its form. Part of it is the assumption that you're not supposed to have fun with the short-story form. [Laughs.] It should not be fun, they say. Gertrude Stein died in 1946 or something, and yet I print a story that's seven blank pages ["There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself"] and people throw up their hands in exasperation.

What's the deal with that story, anyway?

There was a story there, seven pages, until a few weeks before we went to press. And it was a very personal and painful kind of story, and I thought it fit in the collection. But then I was advised that it wasn't such a good idea to put it in, and so instead I changed the title and left the pages blank. In a weird way it went from the most wrenching part of the book to what appears to be a quick gag.

I want to talk about the idea of funny: What annoys me is how on one hand it's not cool if a book's obviously trying to be funny -- or it's at least harder to get "respect" -- and at the same time every book that gets critical respect is now described in reviews as "containing prose that's both unapologetically serious and, at times, disarmingly hilarious" or whatever. I'll read those books, and I'm always struck by how unfunny they are. Good maybe, but not funny. Do critics just have no sense of humor?

Yeah -- well, it's true that if you want to know what's fall-down-laughing funny, there aren't too many pundits who are going to recognize it. Sam Lipsyte and Jonathan Ames are duly recognized for being funny, thank god. But generally, there are really only about two or three truly funny books published any given year. I think the Jon Stewart book is really funny, partly because it's totally reckless. I had no idea it'd be that reckless! That and the Onion -- they're funny because they're unbridled; you just don't know when they're going to say "motherfucker" or just jump the rails in some way. That Jon Stewart book is one of the best books of the year, but it's not going to win any awards.

When I was reading "How We Are Hungry" I was struck by something: It seemed less angry than your stuff in the past. I don't mean to say that both "Heartbreaking Work" and "Velocity" were similar books, but they both felt fueled in large part by anger.

"Heartbreaking Work" is a really angry book in a lot of places. It was meant to be and I'm fine with it being that way, but I can't really tap into that as much anymore.

What changed?

Well, there was a lot of solipsism to "Heartbreaking Work." The book itself talked about that, about the self-centeredness of people that age. It was supposed to be an indictment of that, too -- about how you're 25 and you truly think your thoughts and your goals are the main engine that keeps the world turning. And that's true and completely ludicrous at the same time. Anyway, I think that's why so many first novels are either semi-autobiographical or baldly autobiographical, because at that age, you're really trying to figure out your own sense of self and what you are and what you mean to the world. I think "Velocity" might have been a transitional book, and this book, I think, is inching to go further. I mean, outside of journalism, I didn't even write in the third person until this collection.

Did you find that tough? Freeing?

I think in general it's an effort -- not an effort, but an inevitability that I've been moving further and further away from self-analysis and self-concern and just more into ... I'm trying to put it in a way that's not really corny. 826 Valencia [the tutoring center in San Francisco] was really born out of a feeling that I'd spent a good year and a half pretty much alone writing the unpublished book, and then "Velocity," thinking what I was writing was so crucial to the world that I had to spend all this time just doing that and thinking about it, to the exclusion of all else.

We lived in Costa Rica for a while, then Iceland, and all the while we weren't speaking English much, and we were just these people living in little shacks, writing books, without any contact with anyone, without any ties to the community. And living that way, you spend far too much time inside your own head. You're really not re-energized with your connection to people and just how, I don't know, soul-strengthening that can be.

I lost a bunch of people in my life in those years, between 2000 and 2003, a couple of suicides among them, and not that I wasn't in touch with mortality before, but I became more so in terms of people my age. I had always advised my friends that were really depressed and directionless to try to direct some of that energy outward and get involved in other people's lives and help people -- to address the concerns and needs of people who are even needier than they. So many people I knew were just tearing themselves up and devouring themselves, full of regret and torment, and I had this theory, based on nothing, really, that they might be saved if they leave the house and use their educations and healthy arms and brains to help people who might need their expertise or energy. But it was weird, because I would always advise this but I wasn't really taking the advice so much myself.

Tell me a little about how 826 Valencia started.

When we moved back to San Francisco -- that was in summer of 2001 -- right away we rented this building in the Mission District. We didn't have 501(c)(3) status; we had nothing. We just sort of rented the building and started tearing it up. It was a mess when we moved in. I convinced a high school friend of mine, Barb Bersche, to move out, and she and Vendela and I just started getting this building together and buying computers and that kind of thing, without really any definite clue of what we were doing.

I had friends who were teachers in San Francisco, and we'd been talking about how we could get the writing community involved in the public schools on a pretty massive scale, and we had an inkling it would work. And personally, it was just an effort to get out of my head a little bit and be able to come home at night and talk about something other than my own writing.

I already know you're going to hate this next question, but I feel it has to be asked. Let me put it like this: When I wrote that piece a while back in the Believer [dealing with the literary world's fetishization of youth], I ended up on a panel talking about it. Anyway, there was this notion that I was the "McSweeney's guy," as if I'd sat around a fire with you and [co-editor] Heidi Julavits concocting something, when the reality was I'd just pitched Heidi cold, and then wrote a piece. I guess what I'm getting at is the animosity that is, within the little world you were just describing, directed at McSweeney's, and what your thoughts are about that.

Just a warning, it's definitely not a subject I want to get too far into. It gets into crazy people, and it always puts me in a bad mood to talk about crazy people. I personally don't ever hear much about people like your panelist friend, because here in San Francisco it's a sort of ridiculously supportive atmosphere. What always cracked me up about some of the initial reaction by a few to the Believer was that here was this magazine that was designed to talk calmly, enthusiastically and intelligently about books, and some people were, I guess, threatened by that.

At the beginning, it was very much like the Believer was saying, "Hey everyone, let's be a bit more mature and calm when we talk about books, and here's some good stuff you might not have heard about." And of course that got certain people even angrier.

It's pretty funny, when you think about it, right? It's like an anti-violence movement being crushed by military force. You can't win, right? I think almost every writer in the world would hope that books would be always talked about with respect and civility and depth and seriousness. It's not such a controversial position, when you really think about it.

A related, though less taxing question: What's it like being your own publisher, in the sense that you have information, like how any copies you've sold, that many writers make a point of pretending doesn't exist?

I'm going to call it a strange Victorian idea, that the authors are away somewhere in a château and all of the people are somewhere else down in the engine room, shoveling coal into the furnace. A lot of authors are like this, where they really want to be completely divorced from all of the mechanics and the making of the books and all that. And then there are those who are always at war with it and always feel like their publisher isn't doing enough for them and they got screwed or whatever.

The problem is, some publishers won't even tell you the truth. They want to keep it all mysterious. But I do adult seminars in San Francisco every month, where we have panels of published writers talking to aspiring writers, and I always make the point that the publishing business, at any level, is still a very gentlemanly business. It's eccentric and still peopled by book-loving people, and the profit margins are narrow, and everyone's overworked and doing the best they can.

In terms of the numbers, I think if the truth is out there for everybody, then everybody is a lot better off. It quells some of the misunderstanding that goes on. I've had so many friends that were published -- and I think published well -- and then they get really angry because they don't even understand how it works and they think, "Well, my book about South American dog trainers in the 16th century only sold 4,000 copies, and it's my publisher's fault!"

That's the thing with writing -- the numbers are most often so dismal. It can be frightening, always worrying you're not selling enough, that no publisher will give you a second or third shot. You don't think that always staring the numbers in the face can have an adverse effect?

It's true, we know all the numbers. There are only four people at McSweeney's, so we all know how much money a book makes, how much it costs to print a book in Wisconsin, how much it costs to print a book in China, how much it costs to print a book in Iceland. We know how much of the cover price the bookstore takes, how much the distributor takes, how much it costs to ship a box of books to Canada overnight.

But it's empowering, incredibly empowering, to know how it all works. If we didn't know how it works, we wouldn't be able to put out Stephen Dixon's book ["I"] that no one else would publish, and William Vollmann's book ["Rising Up And Rising Down," which is seven volumes and thousands of pages] that no one else would publish, because we know the numbers and we know how to figure them out to work for these authors and these strange projects.

OK, last question: So I understand you're working on a film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are"?

Yeah, I've been working with Spike Jonze for about a year on the script. The movie's in production, I guess you'd say. Maurice Sendak has signed off on the basic storyline we did. So that's been really fun. I never thought I would write screenplays, in any form. I just sort of consciously avoided it with "A Heartbreaking Work." Nick Hornby and D.V. DeVincentis wrote a screenplay for that. I really didn't want to be involved at the time. But Spike is one of my favorite directors and "Malkovich" in particular is one of my very favorite movies. I don't know how much detail I can or should go into about "Wild Things," but it's very -- as you would expect from Spike -- it's not really what you would expect. It's what Maurice wants for the book, but it's very odd, too. I think I better go now. I'm in the parking lot.

What does that mean?

I'm standing in the parking lot of a mall. I called you on the way to the mall, then I got to the mall, and we were still talking. I didn't want to go into the mall talking to you, because it'd be too loud. So I've been standing in the parking lot for the last half an hour. It's kind of cold and...

Yeah, you should go inside.

And I look kind of suspicious out here, I think. People thinking I'm casing their cars.

David Amsden

David Amsden, a contributing editor at New York magazine, is the author of the novel "Important Things That Don't Matter," which is now available in paperback. He lives in Brooklyn.

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