Conversation with Eggers fills Zankel

Posted by Noam Dagan

On March 28 writer, editor and publisher Dave Eggers spoke in front of an audience of 600 at the Arthur Zankel Music Center.

Rather than a conventional lecture, Eggers sat down with childhood friend and Assistant Professor of the Government department Flagg Taylor to talk about their childhood together and Eggers' career.

He showed a photo slideshow of himself and Taylor during their childhood and high school days in Lake Forest, Illinois. The audience responded with laughter as Eggers said Taylor was "the smallest kid in cub scouts — they had to special make his uniform."

The conversation then turned to Eggers' discussion of the process behind writing several of his books.

Eggers' body of work is vast, touching on many different genres and mediums. Some of his best-known works include his memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," "What is the What," " You Shall Know Our Velocity," and his collaboration on the screenplay for "Where The Wild Things are."

He began by discussing the title of his best selling memoir "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius."

"It's a tough thing to live with," Eggers said in reference to the book's title. Eggers told the audience this title was meant to be a placeholder, but by the time he thought of a new title, it had already been printed.

Eggers said he never predicted the success of his first book and that the title was more of an inside joke than a serious artistic decision.

He then recounted how he came to write "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng."

Eggers said the project began when he received a letter from Jane Fonda's adopted foster daughter, Mary Luana Williams, the biological daughter of members of The Black Panthers. Williams requested that Eggers write the biography of Valentino, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys program.

Writing the book did not come easy to him, Eggers said, and with great remorse he gave up on the project after three years.

"Two hours after giving it up, it all came to me," Eggers said.

The structure and architecture of the book that he struggled so hard to conceive of finally fell into place, he said.

Eggers also said he decided to incorporate fictional elements rather than keeping the book a biographical account, so he could recreate scenes that would otherwise be impossible to substantiate if it were strictly non-fiction.

Taylor then asked Eggers to explicate his journalistic process and how he gathered research for the book.

Rather than pressing Valentino and his family about the crux of their struggle right off the bat, Eggers said he slowly built a personal relationship with them to understand the grand scope of their life beforehand, "to describe and illuminate the full human being."

In the spirit of being as respectful to Valentino as possible, Eggers said he had the family pre-approve the book before it was published so they could take ownership of their own story, and so "the process could be healing in the end, instead of further violating."

Eggers said after evading near disaster with "What Is the What," he promised himself he would never write about a real person and for a real constituency again for fear of letting them down.

But after Hurricane Katrina slammed the coast of Louisiana, Eggers said he felt compelled to take up a non-fictional project of the catastrophe. "Zeitoun" is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American and New Orleans native who volunteered to stay behind in the flooded city and help rescue his neighbors.

During the subsequent question -and-answer period, an audience member asked Eggers if he was working on any new projects.

Eggers said he was nearing the end of his next novel, and thanked the audience member for reminding him to finish.

In addition to Eggers' literary pursuits, he is also the founder of the independent publishing house McSweeney's, and co-founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring center for underprivileged kids with locations in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Washington, D.C. and Boston.

The mission of McSweeney's is to publish writing that could not get published anywhere else. Eggers said he has designated it "the land of misfit writing." With only a 10 person staff, it publishes two literary journals and 20 to 30 books a year.

The 826 Valencia locations are not only literacy centers, but each sells its own line of quirky supplies, according to Eggers. The San Francisco location, for example sells supplies for the working buccaneer, and the Brooklyn location sells tools for the amateur crime fighter.

The quirky retail does serve a legitimate function, however. Eggers said that since all the proceeds fund the center, customers are more likely to purchase something when they see the children working in the back of the store.

After the question-and-answer period, Eggers stayed in Zankel to sign books and answer students' questions in person. "I give excellent insight and advice about relationships," Eggers said.

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