The Uncloistered Dave Eggers: An Interview

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image by David Shankbone, licensed under GNU

After the runaway success of his Pulitzer-nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, literary wunderkind Dave Eggers could have settled into a comfortable career cranking out similarly self-referential fare, holding court at book signings and authors’ roundtables, perhaps doling out a few graduation speeches every spring.

Instead he took a more dynamic path. He founded the small indie publishing empire McSweeney’s, which produces the Believer magazine, and started two nonprofit enterprises with a humanitarian bent: 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring laboratory for young people ages 6 to 18, now located in seven cities, and Voice of Witness, a series of books that use oral history to tell the stories of the abused, oppressed, and impoverished. Eggers himself provided the template with What Is the What (McSweeney’s, 2006), his gripping fictionalization of Sudanese “lost boy” Valentino Achak Deng’s story.

Eggers took the time to answer a few questions in this exclusive Utne Reader interview after the magazine chose him as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” in its Nov.-Dec. issue.

What do you get out of the experience of working with kids at the 826 Valencia centers–and what do you think the kids get out of it?

“I teach a weekly class for high schoolers–the same class I’ve taught for six years now. Eighteen high schoolers meet every week to compile The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It’s two hours of free-ranging discussion of whatever we’re reading from magazines, journals, the Web. I love working with high schoolers because their brains are at such a point of change and openness–they’re so insanely curious and passionate and haven’t made up their minds on everything just yet.

“When I started tutoring at 826 back in 2002, I used to come home on such a high, a teaching high. It happens when you know you’ve reached students in whatever way–maybe you’ve related a new idea, or changed their minds about something, or awakened them to why a certain book or story works. I think the students feel something similar, at least some of the time. A lot of my students come to the class because it’s the main place where they can talk about contemporary writing on a certain level, with peers who are all as well-read as they are.”

With 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness, you’ve turned your literary success into social ventures. What inspired you to help form each of these organizations?

“They both started with vague ideas in my head, and I was lucky then to partner up with people who helped shape the notions into reality. With 826, we opened the building in  the winter of 2001, but the center didn’t really come into its own until Ninive Calegari, a longtime teacher, came on in summer of 2002 and bolstered the program and grew it in a dozen ways. It wouldn’t at all be what it is without Ninive’s expertise and passion. With Voice of Witness, I’d begun vaguely planning an oral history series when I met Lola Vollen, a physician and human rights activist who was working with the exonerated community in the U.S. From there and with the help of a group of UC Berkeley graduate students, we shaped the first book, Surviving Justice. With both Voice of Witness and 826 the ideas just seemed logical and feasible extensions of what we were doing with McSweeney’s. At its core, 826 began as a way to put the McSweeney’s group of writers and interns to work helping in the public schools; we didn’t predict it would shoot out into so many different directions.

“With Voice of Witness, after we published Rising Up and Rising Down, William T. Vollmann’s book about the history and justifications of violence, it seemed logical that we might use our small-publishing model to create social justice books that required low overhead and a lot of volunteer help. With all the projects that have come out of our block on Valencia Street, we start with a small idea, with almost no funding, and then create a small model program. And then we grow very slowly. Voice of Witness started four years ago and we’ve done four books; not lightning-fast growth, but then again we have no money and only one full-time staffer, Mimi Lok, and one part-timer, Chris Ying. Our goal in general is to come up with workable models that can exist with lean staffs and low overhead, such that we can get by without much money–that we can live to see another day.

“But at their core all the projects, including The Believer and Wholphin [a quarterly DVD compilation], are fairly logical extensions of the core goal of everyone in the office, which is to advance the cause of the written word generally, and to, as often as we can, use the written word to promote social justice.”

You don’t hole yourself up in a rarefied literary world, but instead get out in the real world and meet real people. Is it more fun out there?

“I tried the more cloistered writery life, and I guess I realized it wasn’t for me. It works really well for a lot of people, but I was going a bit nutty just thinking my important literary thoughts all day. I have no doubt it’s a Catholic guilt thing, but the fact that I can make a living writing books seems to underline the essential inequity of the world. My parents worked very hard all their lives, and I think they would have looked askance at me if I was just sitting alone in a room all day, writing a book every few years and not doing much else.”

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