Go Your Own Way

Dave Eggers, poster boy for the Gen X literati, has built a career on writing whatever he feels like, however he wants to, regardless of conventions or genre limitations. On a 90-degree day in May, with the cicadas thrumming loudly through the open windows of Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall, he stands before a roomful of writers and acknowledges how he’s once again ceded to his own instincts. “I’ve never worn shorts and a T-shirt to a reading before,” he half-apologizes, but no one in the heat-wilted audience could fault him for this choice.

Since his name-making memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, made waves in 2000 and earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination, Eggers has had the financial wherewithal—and critical clout—to throw himself into a variety of unusual literary pursuits (see Dave Eggers Was Here, Page 36). In an exclusive sit-down interview following the reading in Cincinnati, Eggers shared his thoughts on self-publishing, his charity work and why the memoir is the most difficult of all writing forms.

After A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was published by Simon & Schuster, you chose to self-publish your first novel through McSweeney’s [see Dave Eggers Was Here]. Why?

It sounds crazy but, first of all, it’s more fun to work with your friends than to work with a company in New York. But secondly, we can get a book out in a couple of months, whereas with everyone else you wait 13 months. And that, to me … I’m just unusually rankled by that time gap. Because by the time the book comes out, you don’t even feel the same way. You’re onto something else, but you still have to tour, and you have to pretend you still like the first book.

From the beginning, the object of McSweeney’s (or at least one of them) was to try to make some of the best-crafted books possible. So in each case, we try to do something different with the printing process.

With my collection, it’s going to be embossed in a way that nobody’s really done for a couple of decades. Major publishers, their profit-and-loss needs are very restrictive, so they can’t do that. And so they can get a lot more books out there, and they’re better at distributing and promoting them than we are, but we feel better with making the book look how we want it to look.

So it’s a trade-off. And there’s an ongoing myth that we’re at war with major publishers, but it’s totally blind to the fact that we’ve always been working with them. The way we’ve sort of balanced it right now is to do our own hardcovers but do paperbacks with someone else. The paperbacks go through Vintage, and the two Haggis-on-Whey books [the children’s books Eggers co-wrote with his brother Toph] will be republished by Simon & Schuster in the fall.

Did you have writing mentors?

Just my teachers. I remember every one of my teachers and every grade and every comment on every paper. I remember my junior year in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Criche, he wrote on a paper I wrote about Macbeth: “I sure hope you become a writer.” That was actually the beginning, a seed planted in my head.

I try to say the same things to students I know who could do it if they wanted to, you know? It’s a heavy thing to lay on somebody, actually. But when they have the talent, I make sure they know it.

Then there was Mr. Ferry, my speech communications teacher, who was really supportive of some incredibly offbeat things I wrote. It’s rare to get one of those teachers who’ll let you write about, you know, sheep taking over the world. I used to write about that; a friend and I were Sheep Conspiracy Theorists. And Mr. Ferry was cool with that.

I never took a creative writing class in high school, and I took like half of one in college, but it wasn’t helpful. In college, it was my journalism classes that taught the discipline and broke everything down so that you really learned about the preciousness of words. I was taught the economy of words and a sense of responsibility, too.

At the University of Illinois, where I went, they were really into community journalism, and most of the graduates go on to work at small papers, trying to make an impact. So that had a big effect on me.

But stylistically? No, I never really had a style mentor. I guess I just kind of veered around until I settled somewhere. But I’m still settling, I guess.

You’ve said that you’re a relentless self-editor, that you “go through 30 drafts of everything” before you publish it. Did you find that, with a memoir, self-editing becomes a harder process?

Yeah, I’d say that to anybody. It’s infinitely harder. You can’t treat the words just as words; the sentences, you can’t look at them dispassionately. You have to read—especially the more difficult parts you’re writing about—you have to read them over and over again. And it’s really hard.

There were a lot of passages in that first book that I didn’t edit very thoroughly, because I didn’t want to go back there. And I just sort of wrote them down and hoped they’d make sense and counted on the editors there to clean them up. So that makes writing anything but a memoir much easier. I wouldn’t jump at the chance to do that again.

In terms of structuring and self-editing a memoir, how do you determine what’s interesting to the reader vs. what’s interesting to just you and the people in the book?

I ended up not cutting anything, if you can believe that. I think that your brain or your subconscious, especially, is a natural storyteller. Chances are, you’re going to know what to tell and what not to tell, and what’s important.

If you don’t have that sense of what’s interesting to other people, you might have a harder row to hoe. I guess that’s one of the differences between writing that people like to read and writing that’s an exercise in your own head. It’s the same gene that says, well, this is boring. I’m kind of bored. Everyone goes to parties where people talk endlessly about something that isn’t interesting. And you wonder, Man, you’re missing that gene, aren’t you?

We all suffer from that from time to time, I guess. But I don’t know, I guess I’d been thinking about my memoir for a long time so I sort of knew what was going to be important. And beyond that you’re filling in, you’re saying, “Oh, I need a bridge here between this part and that one, and whatever.” The filling-in is the hard part.

Do you think there’s any such thing as pure nonfiction? You’ve said that memoirs can’t be 100 percent “real,” because you have to reconstruct conversations, etc.

Well, journalism should be pure nonfiction. But I don’t think you can make a good, readable book out of pure nonfiction. If you don’t do some time compression, you’re going to bore the reader to death.

The other thing is, if you want to put anything within quotation marks, then it’s not pure nonfiction unless you recorded it. I’m a stickler about that. That’s why I explained [in my memoir] how the quotes were done … because, again, that’s my journalism training. You have to tell readers what they’re getting, which is a reconstruction as close as you can get it and that’s true to the spirit of the people you write about.

And, ideally, you show it to the people who are speaking and say, “Does this reflect how you’d say this?” So that’s fidelity to the truth. With my family, we all said, yes, this was the story.

Had you always written fiction, too?

Eggers: Never. I wrote my first piece of fiction, like, three or four years ago, in a short-story collection edited by Nick Hornby called Speaking With the Angel. Before that, I’d only written journalism—features and essays and profiles and all that stuff.

Do you have plans for another novel?

I’m working on two things right now. One is a biography of a Sudanese refugee named Dominic Arou, which has been running in The Believer. Three episodes of that have run. The whole thing should be complete in the next year.

And then I’ve been working on this political novel that’s been running on Salon.com for a long time. I don’t kn ow when I’ll be done with that.

The serialization of your work—you do that a lot. Do you do that by design?

It’s a deadline. It keeps you working on a schedule; I recommend it to anyone. I like being out there, rather than being sequestered a year at a time. I always recommend not spending five years alone without any feedback, without finishing portions of what you’re working on. But that’s me. I need a deadline to eat toast. I’m a procrastinator.

So having 8,000 words a month in The Believer for the biography was really helpful to get it started. The Salon piece is the same thing. Some people are much more diligent about working on their own, and that’s fine. I really like reading the Paris Review interviews about how people go about writing, with Hemingway writing his daily word count on a chalkboard and that kind of thing. So I was like, OK, if you do it that way, you know where you stand.

So if I say I’m going to put 3,000 words up on Salon every week as a general goal, it does help. And before you know it, there are probably 80,000 words done on that so far. And I actually think it’s good. I mean, I know it’s going to go up on the site, and they edit and everything, so you’re getting that tightening. I don’t think serialization is used as often as it should be.

Was it a big difference shifting gears from a memoir to a novel?

Nah. The first book, even though it was a memoir, I approached it like a novel. So I didn’t really feel like it was a stretch to write a novel. I think people who write semi-autobiographical fiction are sort of bridging those two forms, anyway. It’s like a memoir where you change the names. So it really wasn’t that much of a leap. But it was liberating not to have to worry about your responsibility to the people you’re writing about.

So it’s incredibly freeing—although, for a while, my fiction was heavily influenced by actual events. Like, I wrote a story about climbing Kilimanjaro that was based on a trip I took, and I had a hard time departing from the real events of my trip. I think that’s just a handicap of the journalist. It’s hard to use your research and then depart from that when necessary. But I’m learning. I’m beginning to start from scratch sometimes.

So you don’t have any interest in writing another memoir?

No. I mean, there’s some stuff I’m doing, a collection of stories that are somewhat autobiographical … but never again that level of revelation. I guess it was cathartic, which is what people always assume, but at the same time, anytime you open up a can of worms like that you’re getting into just as much trouble as you would if you’d left it closed. There’s no such thing as closure. You open it up and you just get messy again.

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