Balancing Art & Activism: An interview with Dave Eggers

The prolific writer and publishing visionary reflects on the advantages of indie publishing, the evils of email, and finding inspiration in other people’s struggles

It’s impossible to write anything about Dave Eggers without using a lot of commas. He’s done a lot, and he’s still doing a lot—so much, in fact, that you can’t cram it all into a compressed space (books! magazines! nonprofits!) without eventually succumbing to a sort of incantation: Might magazine, McSweeney’s, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the Believer, What is the What, Where the Wild things Are . . . on and on it goes. When, last fall, Eggers landed the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award “for outstanding service to the American literary community,” the honor officially acknowledged something that’s become more and more clear over the past decade: Eggers is much more than a best-selling author.

Illustration by Anna Hall

Although the James Lipton-ish phrasing would probably make him cringe, he is, by now, a bona fide Force in the Arts in America—a protean multi-tasker whose knack for enterprise seems to put him more squarely in league with writer-publishers like Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and George Plimpton than with the doomed and lonely auteurs of the Sylvia Plath/F. Scott Fitzgerald school. Ever since Heartbreaking/Staggering, his 2000 memoir, became a cultural landmark akin to Catcher in the Rye and London Calling, Eggers has written books of both fiction and nonfiction, has co-scripted at least two successful screenplays, has launched a string of 826 writing centers across the country and has had a hand in so many publishing ventures and nonprofits that they can’t all be listed here without our totally running out of commas. His most recent book, Zeitoun, is a gripping work of creative nonfiction that follows one man, a Syrian-born New Orleans contractor named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, as he experiences both the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the humiliations of a cracked American justice system. Eggers, who turns 40 in March, spoke with Creative Nonfiction about writing to Beethoven, interviewing taxi drivers, the freedom of independent publishing, the perils of email and the pleasures of exclamation points. —JG

CNF: I want to start by asking about one of my favorite old-fashioned devices, one that I think is sadly underused in contemporary literature: suspense. From Pages 183 to 215 in Zeitoun,
you hold the reader in a state of nerve-shredding suspense. Zeitoun himself has disappeared: A mysterious armed group has just barged into the building where Zeitoun is the landlord, but that’s all we know. His wife, Kathy, doesn’t know what’s happened to him. Neither does the reader. We’re left hanging. It’s agonizing. What led to your decision to keep us in a state of anxiety?

EGGERS: I’m glad the tension worked when you read it. I tried very hard to make sure the reader felt something approaching what Kathy and her kids felt—that kind of paralyzing dread. They had no idea where Abdulrahman had gone, so when he disappears, the book switches to Kathy’s perspective, and we spend about 15 or 20 pages with Kathy and the kids as they pass through worry and into a fatalistic void. I thought it was crucial that instead of continuing to switch between Kathy and Abdulrahman, we stay with Kathy alone until she finds out his fate.

I co-edited a book called Surviving Justice, about wrongfully convicted men and women in America, and through that book, I learned a lot about the ripple effects of wrongful incarceration, about the devastation visited upon a family. So it was important to experience things as Kathy did—to live without knowing the fate of your husband.

And I needed to keep it in the moment, day by day. If you tell a story like that another way, by looking backward so that you reveal what happened to him from the beginning, it’s a bit more academic, less visceral.

I had to quiz Kathy so often about what happened this day and that day—she was in the dark for three weeks, and I wanted to know what each and every day was like. I kept asking Kathy how it felt to live with that kind of pressure, and it took some time to really get at her emotions from that period. She’d held her breath for so many weeks, and after they were reunited, her focus became seeking any kind of retribution. Thus, she hadn’t really revisited that time when she thought she’d lost Abdulrahman. But that’s where her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder came from. Her hair went from brown to white in those weeks, the physical manifestation of all that crushing worry.

It was a lot of work trying to reconstruct those days. I asked Kathy so many mundane questions: What did you do each morning? Did you make breakfast? When did the kids start going to school? Did you stay at home most days, and in what room did you spend most of your time? She thought I was nuts for caring about the day-to-day details. But it’s crucial to understanding the situation—to be with her every hour of those weeks when she didn’t know whether or not her husband was gone forever.

CNF: Coincidentally, the book that I finished reading a few days before I picked up Zeitoun was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, from which you include an epigraph: “[I]n the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime. . . . ” I’m wondering whether The Road had a structural, tonal or even thematic influence on Zeitoun. For instance, one of the things about The Road that kept me utterly engrossed was the way it looked on the page: Instead of long chapters, there were all those relatively short sections punctuated by the eerie silence of space breaks. Norman Mailer used a similar approach in The Executioner’s Song.

EGGERS: Both of the books you mention were on my mind while writing Zeitoun. Both books because they pivot on an apocalypse that comes to America, and The Road, specifically, because I read it while researching Zeitoun. It was one of the few books I was able to read for pleasure while working on the book, and the epigraph struck me when I read it. I forget the context in which it appears in The Road, but it seemed so simple an idea, and so true. Again, working with a lot of wrongfully convicted people, you come to know that the kind of Kafkaesque interaction the Zeitouns had with the American justice system is not as rare as we’d hope.

The Executioner’s Song has always been a very important book to me. I read a lot of Mailer in college and after college, and I more or less read his books in order, so I traced his development pretty closely. It was so startling when he wrote The Executioner’s Song, how utterly different it was in style from anything else he’d written. And, yes, the book, of course, is broken into these small sections, and I responded to the structure of the pages because it gives readers room to breathe, to place themselves in the narrative.

But separately, as a journalist, it was necessary to write Zeitoun in short paragraphs. When you’re writing fiction, you can go on and on, describing anything any way you see fit. But to ensure that I kept Zeitoun to what I could prove, the short paragraphs helped me focus on the facts.

People’s memories are broken into episodes and moments, and very often, the transitions simply aren’t there. So Abdulrahman or Kathy might remember a moment, but they wouldn’t remember what was immediately before or after. Thus, the spaces between these paragraphs allowed me to imply that things might have occurred between these provable moments and events. So I structured the book that way for a lot of very practical reasons, but it ended up giving the narrative a certain spare, brutal rhythm, which I think fits the story.

CNF: The writing in Zeitoun feels very different from the prose we encountered almost a decade ago in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. From a prose standpoint, Zeitoun comes across as clean, dry, disciplined, reportorial. Do you think this represents an evolution in the way you write, or is it simply an example of your choosing the style that was most appropriate for this particular book?

EGGERS: Well, as a writer, I can’t say that the prose style in Zeitoun is the most enjoyable to write. You have to question every word, every adjective, and be able to prove everything. Not only that, you have to check with the subjects, Kathy and Abdulrahman, to make sure you’ve gotten it right. So it’s limiting in terms of whatever creative freedom you might seek or value as a writer. When I’m left to my own devices, untethered, my sentences tend to be long and adorned and full of exclamations—like this? yes, like that!—which may or may not be necessary.

That first book of mine was written in a blur, over a very short time, and was a relatively uncensored version of my voice. But I’d trained as a journalist long before that book, and Zeitoun is a reflection of that training—the ability to get out of the way of the story when necessary.

The more I studied the writers who influenced me a lot—Mailer and Orwell and Didion among them—the more I realized they had different versions of their own style, adapted to whatever story they were telling. Didion’s fictional voice is very different from her journalistic voice, and even her nonfiction changed significantly over the course of her career. Vollmann, too, seems to work on different frequencies depending on the subject matter.

Now, I’m pretty comfortable knowing I can shift a bit depending upon what will best serve the work at hand. I do plan to write a book, next, where I’m a bit less constrained.

CNF: How do you know when you’ve found the subject matter for a book? Is there a distinct Eureka! tingle that lets you know you’re on the right track? Do you remember when you realized you wanted to tell the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun? What was going through your mind?

EGGERS: I was intrigued the first time I read Abdulrahman’s story, in the first transcripts of the interviews that eventually became Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. There were so many elements that struck me on a bone level: the immigrant’s story, which is one I always listen to closely; the solitary man in a canoe, listening for voices in need of help, something like an explorer in a new world; the element of wrongful incarceration and the frailties of the U.S. justice system; and the effects of widespread bureaucratic indifference. All of these themes are continually interesting to me.

So I went to meet the family the next time I was in New Orleans, and amid all the wonderful chaos of the house—they had chickens as pets at the time, and the girls were running all over the place— Abdulrahman told me about his brother Mohammed, the most famous Syrian athlete in that country’s history.

I think I knew then that the story might have the scope and depth necessary for a book. And even in those first hours together, he elaborated so much on the story he’d told in Voices that I knew his story needed to be told.

CNF: To some Fox News viewers, Abdulrahman Zeitoun might not seem like a “typical American,” given his Muslim faith and Syrian ancestry. How did this play into your decision to focus on Zeitoun’s personal story?

EGGERS: If we’re to believe that true-blue Americans are hard-working, that they love their families and put families first, that they have great respect for education and that they’re people of deep religious faith, then Abdulrahman is pretty much the ultimate American. And the fact that he comes from Syria both does and does not matter. On the one hand, he didn’t learn his values in America; he learned them in a coastal village of Syria. Which says, first of all, that those values we just enumerated aren’t just American values. They’re common to the majority of people around the world. I really believe that.

But it’s notable that in a city like New Orleans, where some people, you might say, pursue a more easy-going lifestyle, you have a family like the Zeitouns, who work extremely hard and live according to some pretty simple values: Be kind to your neighbors, do right by your friends and try to improve the community around you. Everything mainstream Islam stands for—community, compassion, faith, family, fairness—is, step for step, in keeping with everything mainstream America holds dear.

CNF: There is a sense in both Zeitoun and What Is the What that America— particularly the America of the Bush years—has undergone some kind of drastic and disorienting change. Abdulrahman and Valentino Achak Deng both have moments where they’re almost longing for the relative simplicity of, respectively, Syria and the Sudan. In these stories, there are violations of civil liberties, yes, but also violations of civility itself. Have you found yourself drawn to stories that help illuminate that? Thinking of both Zeitoun and What Is the What, do you think a sense of outrage is crucial to what motivates you?

EGGERS: I’ll admit that I was infuriated by the policies of the Bush administration and, it goes without saying, that those were the darkest years of America during my lifetime. So as a journalist, I was attracted to stories, and the themes within those stories, that dealt with the changes wrought by Bush policies. I’m a patriot, and I know why immigrants around the world are attracted to the U.S. I get it, and I believe it, too. But for six or seven years, we weren’t that place. We weren’t compassionate, tolerant, open or enlightened. The image projected from the White House was one disdainful and distrusting of science, of facts, of historical precedent, of the rule of law, of any kind of curiosity or interest in the rest of the world. So it’s important, I think, to tell stories that might shine a light on how wrong we went for a while.

CNF: I once heard someone ask Fritz Haeg (the guy behind the Edible Estates movement, the Sundown Schoolhouse and scores of other projects) whether he saw himself as an artist or an activist. Fritz responded with something like “Both. I don’t see why I can’t be both.” How about you? Where do you think you fall on the artist-activist spectrum?

EGGERS: I think you can certainly do both, but there’s a danger in letting them bleed into each other too much. I guess it’s more of a danger that your politics will influence your art than the other way around. I’m never so interested in, say, a painting that has the words “War Is Bad” painted on it. I’m not sure how policy would change due to the existence of such a painting. So I think that if you’re a political artist of any kind, the challenge is to use outrage as the fuel to create things which might have impact and still work on an artistic level.

Orwell was so good at channeling his rage into these wonderfully effective and disciplined vehicles. I think discipline is key. That’s where the training in journalism helps, I think. A war reporter’s job is to report the horrors and folly of war; if he does his job well, he can illuminate the effects of bungled foreign policy far better than, say, some rant on the op-ed page can (not that all op-ed commentaries are rants). I guess it’s the simple difference between showing and telling. An op-ed tells; a story shows.

CNF: Zeitoun himself comes across as such a heroic figure—sturdy, faithful, reliable, hard working, generous. It’s impossible not to like and admire him. But were there any personal flaws in him that you felt tempted to leave out or underplay in the narrative?

EGGERS: The thing is, he’s a pretty rock-solid man. He’s decent, and he’s very straightforward about how he looks at things. He goes to work, he feeds his family, he runs his business. There’s not much time for anything else. And I know a hundred other people like him. They’re everywhere. I do occasionally hear people say, “How can he be so good?” It’s as if I should insert some bad habit, like nose picking, or have him kick a cat every so often. But the book wasn’t about the hidden flaws of the man. It was about the essence of the man, and the essence of Abdulrahman is that he is the very good man on the page.

CNF: Did you travel to Syria while researching the book? If so, what were your impressions? Did you get to observe the lampara fishing method firsthand?

EGGERS: Unfortunately, they don’t do lampara anymore—at least not near Jableh, where I went. But otherwise, the visit was astonishing. First of all, in Damascus, you immediately notice the many tourists from all over the world—from everywhere but the U.S., that is. We’ve been sort of brainwashed into thinking Syrians will be unfriendly toward Americans, that the country’s on our State Department list of terrorist states and, thus, we should avoid the country altogether. It’s a shame because there’s such incredible history all over Syria. Certainly, anyone interested in the history of the Abrahamic faiths and world history in general needs to go to Syria; it’s so central to so many key stories. And it’s exceedingly easy to travel in Syria, I think. Kathy, too, had the impression it wasn’t as developed and advanced and open as it is, but it’s all of those things—and quite liberal in most ways. It’s a Mediterranean country with the attendant love of the sea and food and new cultures. The country has very developed and modern cities, and it’s a highly educated place. I know that the Assad regimes have been guilty of human rights violations—I won’t sugarcoat that—but on a human level, the Syrian people are wonderfully open, and culturally speaking, the country is fantastically rich.

CNF: Did Abdulrahman and Kathy ever express any fatigue with the interview process? Were there times when you knew you needed to leave them alone for a while so they—and maybe you, too—could relish the rejuvenation of silence?

EGGERS: They were never fatigued, no, thankfully. Usually I do interview sessions of about three hours. With a family like the Zeitouns, that’s all they can do while still taking care of the kids. So I would go down to New Orleans, schedule interviews with them and some of my other sources, and when I wasn’t interviewing the Zeitouns, I would drive around, taking photos, studying the various places where events in the book occurred.

But, of course, a lot of our time together wasn’t interview-driven. We would have meals together. I would play video games with the kids, or I’d just sit in the passenger seat of the van while Abdulrahman made his contractor rounds. All of this was necessary because “hanging out” becomes crucial to understanding the real functioning of a family. You have to know how they eat, how they clean up after dinner, how they go to bed, all that.

And sometimes the biggest revelations happen while just talking casually. I think we’d done two years of interviews when Abdulrahman and I were driving around one day, checking on some of his job sites. He pulled into the driveway of their house, and although I can’t remember how it came up, that’s when he told me he’d been strip-searched multiple times at Hunt Correctional Center, the prison he’d been sent to. The first time he was strip-searched, at Camp Greyhound, was a cataclysmic event for him, so I would have expected him to tell me about the subsequent times it had happened. But it just came out one day, and we sat in the driveway, talking about it for a long time. Maybe he was waiting for the right moment to tell me, or maybe he’d finally decided he knew me well enough; I don’t know. But I do know that time is crucial. These revelations don’t arrive on schedule, and they don’t always arrive in the middle of a formal interview. You have to commit to a loose process that might take years.

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

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 20 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 10 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 Guzman!).

CNF: What have the 826 National centers taught you about writing? Has working with the kids changed the way you write or think about storytelling?

EGGERS: Well, not so much. It can be really tiresome when an artist or musician you like suddenly goes from writing beautiful love songs to writing ceaselessly earnest screeds against a government or injustice in general. You have to work hard to keep the two things separate, more or less. Or at least you have to make sure the work you’re producing hasn’t become too much a tool of the activist work.

For instance, very often authors or musicians will ask what they can do for 826 National, and sometimes they suggest writing a book about being in school or about the state of schools—that kind of thing—with proceeds going to the nonprofit. But that’s less useful than the author simply writing another best seller about vampires or whatnot and donating those proceeds.

I’m realizing now that I’m not quite answering your question. Frequently, I’m asked whether or not my work with the students at 826 has influenced my own writing, and I can’t think of a way it has. I keep them pretty drastically separate.

I could say that reading the students’ stories reminds me how wonderfully strange kids’ imaginations are, but then again, I’ve always known that, and my own teachers always validated my strangest ideas. So more than anything, the work at 826 confirms the ideas I was taught by my mom and teachers while growing up: we need to allow students to discover books in any way they see fit; we need to value the eccentric, the odd, the nontraditional; and we have to be exceedingly careful never to squash a kid’s interest in writing or books with the weight of the form’s self-importance.

CNF: You’ve got so damn much on your plate—various nonprofits, publications, meetings, appearances, raising funds, paying bills, parenting—how do you manage to schedule any time for writing? And reading, for that matter? Don’t you ever worry about becoming tapped out?

EGGERS: I just have to carve out the time, really. When I was writing “Zeitoun,” for example, I just didn’t go into either office (McSweeney’s or 826) as much. I worked at home in my little office. It’s the same kind of time management issue a lot of other writers face. So many writers have written books while working full-time jobs or caring for families, and it’s the same kind of balancing act. I don’t have any more on my plate than the average single mom or guy who works a 9-to-5 job but still finds time to work on his novel in the mornings or late at night. You just have a bit less time to dork around than someone might have if there wasn’t anything but writing to contend with. Again, the constraints help focus the mind, I think. Having nothing to do all day and all week but write can be just as problematic as having a limited amount of time.

CNF: But let’s be honest: You shame the rest of us with your productivity. What drives you to work this hard?

EGGERS: I’ll give a serious answer because I’ve recently figured it out. First of all, I don’t think I work all that hard, and I don’t feel all that productive. I feel as if my head’s mostly populated by ideas I haven’t been able to execute. So I walk around with a lot of shame for not doing things I think should probably be done.

Second, I’m surrounded by people who work harder than me and contend with far more. The parents at 826Valencia are immigrants who, by and large, risked their lives to get to the U.S. They work two and three jobs to pay rent, and they don’t get the time with their kids that they should. Things are stretched thin in their homes, and they live with the constant fear they’ll be harassed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or be deported. Next week, I have to go to a meeting with an immigration lawyer because a friend-of-a-friend from Mexico got pulled over for driving-while-brown, and he’s facing deportation.

So I guess I have an everyday sense that the problems I might face while sitting alone writing books are pretty privileged problems to have. If I’m in the very lucky position that I’m in—where I can live off my writing— then I’d be a real bastard if I didn’t work hard. I know how lucky I am, and I’m determined to work as hard as the people who are digging ditches so their kids or grandkids can get a chance to do the kind of comparably easy work I get to do. Well, actually there’s no way this work is as hard as that kind of work, so I won’t pretend that any level of productivity can equal their struggle. But again, I’m mindful of what a day’s work looks like for most people, and I’m determined not to be ashamed by the comparative ease of my own life.

CNF: Where do you write?

EGGERS: I have an 8-by-10 office in the backyard, and in that office, I’ve got an Ikea couch and a coffee table. I can only write here, sitting on the couch, with the laptop on my lap and my feet on the coffee table.

CNF: Do you listen to music when you’re writing?

EGGERS: I always listen to music, but what I listen to depends on what I’m writing. Sometimes I can’t listen to music with lyrics. Then I listen to Beethoven. I listened to a lot of Beethoven and Bach while writing Zeitoun because I had to concentrate on a certain kind of rhythm and clarity. It seemed to fit the style of the book. Indie rock, which I usually listen to, was throwing me off.

CNF: Which Beethoven works might you listen to? Do you have favorite recordings or performers?

EGGERS: Well, I have to admit I’m not the kind of connoisseur who can discern great differences in different recordings. I used to try to get Glenn Gould’s versions of anything I listened to, but those are all on CDs somewhere. On my current iTunes setup, I have what I think is a pretty good album of piano concertos, conducted by Alfred Brendel. My dad was a big classical music guy, and I remember the first time I had a moment with any piece: it was Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major,” about three minutes in. I was about 15, and my dad and I were driving into Chicago—he used to take me into the city on summer days when he was going to work and I was taking painting classes at the Art Institute. And he almost drove off the road, conducting that part. But the delicacy of that moment hit me.

CNF: Do you transcribe your own interview tapes?

EGGERS: I don’t transcribe them very often. I had a lot of help with Zeitoun for those tasks. Michelle Quint and Chris Benz at McSweeney’s helped with transcription and research. It was a godsend to have their help because I was having enough trouble “seeing” the book, structuring it, that I couldn’t get waylaid. When I have to transcribe, I procrastinate, and I end up way behind schedule. It’s better to pay someone to do the work and have it done in a few days, as opposed to weeks or months.

CNF: I imagine you get hundreds of emails every day. How do you keep them from becoming a distraction?

EGGERS: Well, I don’t get that many emails, actually. Partly because people know I’m a slow emailer, and I’m probably kind of an unsatisfying emailer. I answer email very slowly and briefly. A lot of times, people will hope I can keep up with a five-times-a-day correspondence, and then they find out I’m lucky to get one email to them in a given week. I don’t have Internet access at home, so if I’m writing, I’m really only online a few times a day—once at about 9 a.m. and again at 5 p.m.—which helps with the distractions and brings a level of control back into my life.

Otherwise it’s as if someone is ringing your doorbell a hundred times a day. Madness. I always compare notes with writers on this subject because I see book-writing as a sort of deep-sea diving. You have to go so far into a book to produce anything good, so you really need hours and hours alone immersed in the work. But email is a constant call to the surface. You’re trying to dive, to get at those treasures on the ocean floor, but if you’re constantly called back to the surface, I think it’s very difficult to make those discoveries, to think well and deeply.

But that’s probably just me. I need a lot of time alone to get work done. I can’t write at cafés or with a TV or Internet nearby. And email, when it invades your thinking so often—I’m in awe of anyone who can write well while constantly being sent forwarded jokes or invitations to barbecues.

CNF: Do you procrastinate?

EGGERS: I always procrastinate. I’m always late. On everything. Even this interview took me, I think, a month longer than you’d hoped. You sent me these questions six weeks ago, and it’s due today, and I began the answers at 2:23 p.m. today.

CNF: Now that you’re a parent, is it harder to write? Is it hard to concentrate on your work when you have kids in the house?

EGGERS: It’s vastly more difficult, especially given I write at home. I’d much rather be playing with the kids. I think my writing time has been cut cleanly in half since the kids were born. And since the second one was born, it’s been cut another fourth. The window is very limited, so you have to get serious right away, every time you sit down and have a few hours.

CNF: From an observational standpoint, it seems as if you’re constantly traveling around the world.

EGGERS: I used to travel a lot. But ever since the kids were born, I try not to be away from home more than a few weeks a year. So that requires some intense budgeting. For instance, I’m not doing a book tour for Zeitoun because I used up the travel-time budget on some other travel for work and for 826. But there was a time, I guess between the ages of 26 and 36, when I traveled a lot. (I didn’t have a passport till I was 26, so I felt as if I needed to make up for lost time.) But now I spend most of my time saying no to travel opportunities. I dread most trips. I need a few more years of rest. I went to Syria and Spain last year, and I guess I was in Sudan at some point, but otherwise I’m trying desperately to reduce my time on planes and away from home.

CNF: What factors lead you to believe that the classic format for books and publications—printed words on paper—can and should be saved?

EGGERS: For one thing, none of the kids who come to 826 are yearning to read books on the computer. Few of the kids who come in after school have computers at home in the first place, so almost everything we do is paper and pencil homework. Basic stuff. So if for no one else, books on paper will exist for the gigantic portion of people in the world who can’t afford these insanely expensive e-readers.

Secondly, I just plain won’t read books on a screen. It just seems nuts to put every last aspect of our lives continually onto a screen. We moved entertainment onto screens (TV), and then we moved most of our work onto screens with computers. And I know so many people who just can’t wait till they can read everything on a screen—and presumably do their laundry and eat and defecate through a screen, too.

It’s just strange to me—the feeling that everything will inevitably be experienced through an LED screen. I write on a computer, and it’s a great tool, but the last thing I want when I’m done writing is to take a break by doing something else on the same screen. It feels like an addiction or some kind of enslavement when an increasingly huge chunk of one’s time is spent staring at the same 15-inch rectangle.

Anyway, that’s one of the reasons I believe in the physical, paper-and-board object that is the book. Beyond the enslavement-via-screen argument, books are just infinitely more pleasurable objects than a sterile screen. We’re innately connected to books because both they and we are made of organic matter. Maybe that sounds like some kind of California touchy-feely reasoning, but I do think that things made from natural elements of the planet feel better to us on a profound level, and they sustain us.

I could go on and on, but I think I’m already sounding kind of weird in this answer, so I’ll quit.

CNF: With your publishing ventures you remain resolutely Do-It-Yourself. Why? What’s the philosophy behind that? Are you ever tempted to go with a mainstream corporate publisher, if even for a single book?

EGGERS: Well, it hasn’t always been so smart. With my second book, we ended up actually losing money. It was pretty strange. We just plain weren’t so good at doing the math on any given book back then. But now that Eli Horowitz (our editor in chief) straightened out the company finances, it’s hard to think about going with a bigger publisher.

On a very basic level, I just don’t like debating about simple things. I wouldn’t want to have to argue about a cover design or a typeface for a book. Every week, I hear from an author friend who’s in some kind of intense debate with their publisher, arguing about the jacket cover, a press release or a publication date. I truly think publishing is the most genteel and polite of the creative industries—it’s absolutely full of good people—but corporations always behave like corporations, which means you’re invariably going to get a ludicrous query from a lawyer with too much time on his hands, and contractual hassles or receive a note from the buyer at Target who wants your cover to be pink, not brown.

These are real things that happen every day when interacting with large companies. I know I’m probably impatient about this stuff, but everything’s just simpler with a small publishing model.

It’s faster, too. Instead of months of debate about every last thing, we just sort of do the books the way that makes sense. Instead of a hundred cooks in the kitchen, there are three. Or even one. I might finish a book, and then I can lay it out in a few hours, and then we copyedit and fact-check it in a week or so, and then it goes to press. Some companies have gotten themselves into a sort of corporate slo-mo vortex, so they might take four months to do the same work. And in the process, the author gets increasingly disconnected and alienated from the work they’ve spent so long killing themselves on.

Corporations inevitably behave in a corporate way, and even the most humane companies will at some point forget that the book they’re selling means everything in the world to the author. They take it, and it becomes a thing to sell, to schedule, to move through the machine. And I’m saying this while, again, thinking that almost everyone I know in publishing is exceedingly kind and means well. I just think scale is important in the producing of any kind of art, and very often the smallest scale is the best scale. That said, there are a ton of things big companies can do that we can’t. No doubt about it. We don’t have the same reach, the same muscle, the same ability to launch a new author in a big way. But on many levels, including the design and production side of things, the speed and efficiency and humanity of the DIY model is pretty hard to beat.

CNF: On Page 209 in Zeitoun, there is this passage: “He could be exasperating in his sense of destiny. Whatever he set his mind to, even a crackpot idea of touching some random rock miles in the distance, she knew he would not rest until he had done it.” Is there anything of you in that description?

EGGERS: Zeitoun and I share a lot of ideas, and I share a lot of traits with Valentino, too. That’s why we get along so well, I guess. I like practical things, and I’m partial to results over theories and meetings. I’m stubborn, I’m told, and Zeitoun is about the most stubborn guy alive.

But after spending a few weeks with Zeitoun, I came to see how he can enter any given dilapidated house and immediately know how much it will cost to fix it up, know how long it’ll take, everything. And he’s never daunted by any given project. I love that kind of guy. He’s a dreamer, but he gets stuff done—and on a budget. I knew I would learn a lot from him.

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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