Dave Eggers on the importance of talking to strangers

"I interview the driver every time I get in a taxi, and it always yields interesting results"

JEFF GORDINIER: You’ve said you got your start in newspapers. What did you learn from that experience?

DAVE EGGERS: I recommend journalism courses and/or writing for newspapers to every young writer I meet. I think there’s a discipline—that word again—that’s very valuable. And a humility. You learn both to examine every last word—to be able to prove it and its worth—and to make every word count, because in newspapers you usually work within strict word limits. There are so many other things you learn. You learn about meeting deadlines. I think having daily or weekly deadlines focuses the mind and prevents you from doing what I’ve heard called the “graduate-school drift”—where you might spend three to four years on a writing project that perhaps could be done in less time. (I’m only repeating what I’ve heard, given I know very little about actual graduate-school life.)

One of the most important things about newspaper work is how it forces you out of the house and puts you in touch with actual people. As a novelist, you might see someone on the street and assume a lot about that person. But you interview that person, and most of your assumptions are upended. When I teach writing to high schoolers, I send them out on the street the first day. I tell them to find someone about whom they might assume certain things and then interview that person for twenty minutes about his or her life and opinions. It works every time. The first time I did the assignment, one of the students interviewed a guy with a Mohawk, leather head-to-toe, et cetera. He assumed the guy would be a liberal anarchist with all kinds of radical views but, in ten minutes, found out he was actually a staunch conservative, who lived at home with his mom.

I think a continual practice of interviewing real people is helpful to any writer. I interview the driver every time I get in a taxi, and it always yields interesting results. Last week, I met a guy from Morocco (we talked a lot about different English translations of the Qur’an), a guy from Jamaica (he’s planning on writing his own life story), and a guy from the Lower East Side (who grew up with the actor Luis Guzmán!).


Dave Eggers is the author of books including The Circle, The Monk of Mokha, What Is the What, A Hologram for the King, and The Lifters. He is the founder of McSweeney’s and cofounder of 826 National, a network of youth writing and tutoring centers.

About the Author

Jeff Gordinier

Jeff Gordinier is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in Esquire and the New York Times. He is also the author of two books, X Saves the World and Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World.

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