The Rumpus Long Interview with Dave Eggers

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Dave Eggers has a new nonfiction book, Zeitoun, coming out in a few weeks, fast on the heels of Away We Go, a movie he co-wrote with his wife, Vendela Vida, and directed by Sam Mendes. Dave talks to The Rumpus about the new book, his optimism for print publications, what the kids are reading, and the advantage of attending a state school.

The Rumpus: We both went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. We didn’t know each other, but we both ended up as writers living in San Francisco. What’s the connection? Is U of I the best university in the country?

Dave Eggers: The weird thing is that I knew your sister Victoria while we were in school. She and I worked at the Daily Illini together. I guess you and I didn’t meet until maybe 2002 in San Francisco. You used to come talk to my high-school classes at 826 Valencia. Wait, I didn’t answer the question.

Is Illinois the best state and the best state school? I don’t think anyone’s ever debated either of those questions. Not seriously, at least. Illinois is the best state, and U of I is everyone’s favorite university located in East-Central Illinois.

Rumpus: This book, Zeitoun, is coming out very close to Away We Go.

Eggers: It’s weird, because they happened over such a long period of time. I don’t know; I was working on Zeitoun back in 2006. That book was pretty slow-going. It took an incredible amount of research. And the first draft of Away We Go was written in 2005. So both have been sort of slow processes. It’s odd that they both landed this summer, but it didn’t seem right to push Zeitoun back to 2010 just because the movie was scheduled this summer.

Rumpus: Zeitoun is nonfiction, set during Katrina in New Orleans and its chaotic aftermath, as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family, the Zeitouns, who were living Uptown during the storm. I didn’t hear about Zeitoun until a few weeks ago when you printed a copy for me, which I briefly considered selling on eBay. You were pretty quiet about it.

Eggers: Sometimes we [at McSweeney’s] don’t do galleys for my own books. I always blow the deadline to get galleys done. Usually there’s only a month or so between when the book’s done and when the hardcovers come back from the printer, so we sometimes skip the galley step—galleys cost a lot of money, and we don’t have that kind of budget. So we print a few, and they’re about $20 each to print at Kinko’s or wherever, so it’s hard to justify all that expense when the actual hardcovers are coming back from the printer in a few weeks. And this book was meant to be out back in March or April anyway. I just kept fiddling with it, and it took longer than expected to get finished.

Rumpus: But you always fiddle until the last minute. I remember that from working on Happy Baby with you and also publishing Where to Invade Next with McSweeney’s.

Eggers: Yeah, the McSweeney’s publishing system allows that. We vet books as thoroughly as anyone, but then when they’re ready to go to press we send them to press. There’s not much of a delay between when they’re ready and when they’re available to readers. For Zeitoun, the gap was about six weeks. We sent it to press in mid-May and it’ll come out in early July, depending on how far from the printer we need to truck the books. The printer’s in Canada, so maybe if you’re in Canada you’ll get it at the end of June.

Rumpus: The book is about Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, who have lived in New Orleans for a long time. Abdulrahman stays in the city during the hurricane, and afterward he begins to canoe around the city trying to help people. How did you meet the Zeitouns?

Eggers: We have this series of books called Voice of Witness, where we use oral history as a window into human rights crises. Back in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina, a group came together in New Orleans and elsewhere, and they interviewed New Orleanians about their experiences before, during and after the storm. The book became Voices from the Storm, edited by Chris Ying and Lola Vollen, and one of the narrators in that book was Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

Right after the book came out, I was in New Orleans to visit the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts—this incredible high school for the arts—and while I was in town I met up with Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy. We started talking, and pretty soon it was clear that there was a lot more to his story than we’d been able to cover in Voices from the Storm.

Rumpus: This book is nonfiction.

Eggers: It is. That’s my background. My degree—from our sacred alma mater, U of I—is in journalism, and that’s what I did for a living for a long while, so I still have that instinct that says to follow a story if it seems like it hasn’t been fully told. So I started doing more interviews with the Zeitouns.

Rumpus: And?

Eggers: And their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .

Rumpus: How was it working with the Zeitouns? How involved were they?

whatisthewhatEggers: They’re really a beautiful family, and we worked on the book together for a long time. With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Rumpus: The anniversary of Katrina is coming up.

Eggers: We definitely knew that, and didn’t want to release the book too close to that. It’s such a horrific anniversary that we didn’t want to seem to be timing the release to coincide with it in any way. I meant to get it out in April. It was scheduled for April but it wasn’t ready in time.

Rumpus: You’re setting up a nonprofit for Zeitoun the same way as with What Is the What.

Eggers: With the help of some lawyers working pro bono in New Orleans, we’re setting up a foundation to distribute the funds from the book.

Rumpus: So you’re not being paid.

Eggers: Not for this, no.

Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng

Rumpus: Is this the same or different from the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation? And who runs that organization?

Eggers: The VAD Foundation is actually using the funds to build a school complex in his hometown. And that’s really Valentino’s doing. I think I had to do about 1 percent of the work involved in the foundation. We set up the parameters of the foundation, and the rest was Valentino’s doing. He hired Greg Larson—his foundation director here in the U.S.—and from there it’s been those two guys, and a few volunteers, and all the teachers and builders Valentino’s hired in Sudan. Valentino has an incredible organization in his hometown, and he’s built it entirely himself.

Rumpus: Greg Larson was a student of mine and I recommended him for the internship at McSweeney’s, which led to him applying for the job with Valentino. I’m not trying to take credit. I’m just saying.

14Eggers: Greg’s incredible, and the two of them together are a real force of nature. Those two guys, and their builders in Marial Bai, have done what I think no one else could have done, which is break ground on a 12-building educational complex in a remote part of Southern Sudan and open his school within 9 months of that groundbreaking. They started classes at the beginning of May. It’s the first secondary school in the region. I mean, that’s just astounding to anyone. NGO workers and people we know in the government of South Sudan, are all flabbergasted. The minister for education for the Government of South Sudan just flew to Marial Bai a few days ago, just to see this school that Valentino built. There are pictures on his Web site.

Rumpus: And the Zeitouns will do the same kind of thing? A foundation and projects in New Orleans?

Eggers: It’ll be different this time. The Zeitouns already have a business they run, and they have five kids, so they’re not in a place where they want to start and run a new nonprofit. So the Zeitoun Foundation will be mostly a grantor. Funds from the book will go to the foundation and then flow to a bunch of nonprofits already working in New Orleans. There are so many great organizations there already that it didn’t seem necessary to start another from scratch. Better in this case to help nurture the work already being done.

Rumpus: I guess people will want to know why you chose nonfiction for this and fiction for Valentino Deng’s story in What Is the What.

Eggers: I definitely concede that it’s odd, given they’re both forms of biography. But with Valentino’s story, there were too many events and time-periods that we had to cover but were so long ago that Valentino’s memories weren’t sufficient for nonfiction. So in some cases I had to take an event about which he might have remembered a skeletal amount, and then flesh it out a bit given the historical record and personal observation and some re-creation of dialogue. What Is the What is Valentino’s true story, but it’s not strict nonfiction in that we can say, Yes, back in 1988, on October 31, Valentino was standing in this one spot. But of course all the events in What Is the What are based closely on Valentino’s experiences.

Rumpus: Including the attack that begins the book?

Eggers: People sometimes ask me if I think that’s where the fiction comes in. Valentino was attacked in his home in October of 2005. And when he was, that’s when I thought that Valentino’s life in America, and all the continuing struggles of that life, should be part of the book. Until that attack, I’d planned on having the book end when he reached the United States. It would have been a very different book and a simpler one. But after knowing Valentino for three years at that point, it was clear that the story didn’t end with a simple and triumphant story of a refugee getting to the United States.

Rumpus: Zeitoun’s story is also one of an immigrant’s struggle. But it’s nonfiction this time.

Eggers: Because Zeitoun’s story is so recent, and there was so much documentation available, and I could interview so many of the people involved; I could recount the events sufficiently to write it as nonfiction. But in a few ways, their stories are similar, in that they’re incredibly hardworking people who are victimized by societal indifference.

Rumpus: One of the things that really struck me in Zeitoun was that I really felt I was there in a way. Or rather I could see what the world looked like to a man sleeping on his roof in a tent, half of his home underwater.

Eggers: Zeitoun’s experiences right after the storm are surreal, and very quiet—the opposite of the chaos we saw on the news reports. The Zeitouns live in a neighborhood called Uptown, which is a few miles from the downtown/Superdome area of the city, and even farther from neighborhoods that were harder hit, like the Lower Ninth Ward. So Abdulrahman Zeitoun stayed behind in his house in this quieter neighborhood, and his experiences were very different from what we often see or hear about. He had an experience that was kind of post-apocalyptic in a way, everything very quiet, where he was canoeing around, seeing few people, helping neighbors and pets who were stuck in the upper floors of houses.

Rumpus: How much time did you spend with Zeitoun and Kathy and in New Orleans? How hard was it to do the research for this book? What were the obstacles?

Eggers: The book took about three years, and the Zeitouns were deeply involved in every step of the process. So we spent a lot of time together in New Orleans, and over the phone, and via email. And I was able to go to Syria and meet Abdulrahman’s family there, and spent some time with his brother Ahmad, a ship captain in Spain. Ahmad was a wealth of information and is a meticulous record-keeper. I had to get to know the whole extended family because Abdulrahman’s life before New Orleans figures into the story too. I had to go to Syria and see where he grew up and visit the ancestral home of the family, on this island off the coast, Arwad Island.

Dave Eggers by Mikayla Butchart

Rumpus: You do a great job at giving the different perspectives of different people in New Orleans during Katrina. There was a lot of fear, and some people in government, some police officers, might have overreacted. But you go out of your way to contact those people and find out what their experience was like. Some of the people who made mistakes also saved lives, often in the same day.

Eggers: It was strange, because even the police officers I talked to who made mistakes, they talk about how chaotic it was, and how they came into the city with bad information. All the media coverage was so dire, and there was so much talk of lawlessness that they came in with the idea that they were coming to a war zone. Tens of thousands of cops and soldiers came to the city heavily armed, with riot gear on, machine guns, armed helicopters, tanks, everything. And then they arrived and found just a lot of desperate people needing food and water and rescue. Every law enforcement officer I talked to said the same thing, that they came in with a mission to restore order, and they ended up spending all their time doing search and rescue.

Rumpus: Could you talk about some of the misperceptions that occurred during Katrina? Particularly the government’s willingness to believe that terrorist cells working with al-Qaeda could be on the loose intentionally exacerbating the chaos in the aftermath of the storm?

Eggers: There’s a very interesting document available online—or it was last time I checked—called “How Terrorists Might Exploit a Hurricane.” It was issued by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. It actually goes through all the possibilities for terrorists who might swoop in after a hurricane and somehow make things worse. This was just indicative of the madness of Homeland Security, which had absorbed FEMA after 9/11. In the ’90s, FEMA was a freestanding agency and was run exceedingly well by James Lee Witt. It was dedicated to actually helping people after disasters. But when it was folded into Homeland Security, its focus was altered, and anti-terrorism sucked out all the air from the room. There are some incredible stories about local governments being unable to get the attention of FEMA unless there was some terrorist component to whatever natural threat they faced.

Rumpus: How do you mean?

Eggers: There are a couple great books that detail this. There’s a fantastic one called Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of National Security, by Christopher Cooper and Robert Block. It’s very lucid and reads like a thriller. It details how after 9/11 the focus of FEMA moved from the relief from hurricanes and floods and fires, to this overarching anti-terrorism agenda. It became hard for cities and states to get any FEMA money or attention unless there was an anti-terrorism component to whatever they asked for. It was absurd. And that’s partly why the response to Katrina was so botched. The agency had been re-calibrated for anti-terrorism; response to actual natural disasters didn’t figure so well into their new mindset. And that’s why, in part, the government response to the disaster was overwhelmingly a military one. Instead of search and rescue, they sent tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, all of them expecting widespread rioting or some version of urban combat.

Rumpus: Were there obstacles in writing Zeitoun? Were there any documents you were unable to get to?

Eggers: There were some obstacles, but I had some help in New Orleans from people who work with the courts down there. Billy Sothern, a great writer and lawyer who defends prisoners on death row, was helpful all the way through, and connected me to some of his colleagues who helped get some documents I couldn’t otherwise access. But really the book is about this family and what they went through. Most of the research consisted of interviews with them and then the research in Syria and Spain.

Rumpus: Did you read the Qur’an? You excerpt it a few times.

Eggers: I read a few editions of the Qur’an, trying to find an edition that reflected what all Arabic speakers talk about—the incredible beauty of the language. I found what I consider a phenomenal translation by Laleh Bahktiar. Her edition is recent, and it’s called The Sublime Quran. The way she brings it into the English language, it’s incredibly powerful and beautiful. I know it’s still a far cry from hearing it in Arabic, but still, this is the edition I’ve been pushing on people.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Eggers: I guess we’ve talked about this newspaper idea. We’re putting out a newspaper prototype. It’ll be an issue of McSweeney’s, but it’ll look and read like a daily newspaper and will cover the news on the day it appears.

Rumpus: You have a lot of optimism about print in general.

Eggers: Well, there are still a billion books sold every year. And there are about a billion newspapers printed every day. I understand when people are worried about aspects of the business, and as a small and always struggling publisher, we worry at McSweeney’s too, but there’s an element of doomsaying that’s just premature. The Kindle, for example, has a comparatively tiny portion of the overall book sales, but I have friends who already assume that new books won’t even be printed on paper in a year or two. It’s kind of extreme, and it ignores a fair bit of reality.

Rumpus: I know a lot of your optimism comes from your working with kids at the 826 centers.

Eggers: The students we serve at 826, by and large, just aren’t addicted to electronic media—not in the way we’re led to believe all kids are. Most of our students don’t have cellphones of their own, and they don’t have computers at home. So they come into 826, and they work with paper and pencil on their homework. Honestly, that’s about 80 percent of what we do. Even at the high-school level, the students we work with aren’t soaking in the Internet all the time. To some extent all the doom about the printed word is a class thing. Wealthier kids who can afford their own phones and computers are probably spending more time online and in some cases, less time with books, but the kids we work with are honestly pretty enamored of books and newspapers. It means a lot to them to have their work between two covers, an actual book that they can see on a shelf next to other books. There’s a mystique about the printed word. And the students who come into 826 every day really read. These middle schoolers have read everything. Judy Blume came into the center in San Francisco one day, and she was mobbed. Fifty kids swarmed her. They practically tackled her. Same thing with Daniel Handler, who writes the Lemony Snicket books. These are by and large kids whose parents immigrated here from Latin America, and English isn’t spoken at home. But they’ve read all thirteen Lemony Snicket books. So I have optimism about print because I see these kids and how much they love to read. And they work on our student newspapers and anthologies and a dozen other print projects. They really have a thing for print. And I do too. I fear sometimes we’re actually giving up too soon. We adults have to have faith. And we have to rededicate ourselves to examining what in any given issue of our daily papers is really speaking to anyone under 18. That’s a challenge. I was just in Chicago, and the Tribune there does all kinds of very interesting stuff to reach out to younger readers. It’s something that we all have to think about.

Rumpus: So you’re not looking at a post-paper world.

Eggers: My admittedly strange opinion is that we need to try harder with print. We can’t just give up on it. Inevitably there will be some loss of newspaper readership, but even that will stabilize. Not everyone wants all their news online. Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum. I guess that’s one of the things that’s always frustrating to hear, that the rise of the Internet means the death of print. There’s always this zero-sum way of painting any given industry or trend, while the reality will be more nuanced. I think newspapers that adjust a bit will survive and still do great work. But we do need to give people reasons to pay money for the physical object. The landscape right now does require that we in the print world try harder. We have to think of the things that print does best, and do those things better than ever before. We need to use the paper, maximize the physical product.

Rumpus: Could you talk a little more about this newspaper you’re putting together? What’s involved?

Eggers: I come from a newspaper background, and I still get most of my news from newspapers and magazines. So we’ve been spending a lot of time at McSweeney’s just running numbers and starting to make a prototype, trying to prove that there can be a way to run a newspaper in 2009 without losing your shirt. And so far we’re pretty sure we can create a workable model. It’ll look different in some ways, but it’ll be a true newspaper, where journalists are paid well to hold their government accountable, where they have time to do enterprise journalism, to seek out stories all over the world and write them well and at length. But we’re just doing a prototype. It’ll just be a one-off thing, but we’ll be providing all the information you’d need to replicate it, in terms of the economics of it. The hope is that, for example, the folks formerly at the Rocky Mountain News might band together and put out a print newspaper again. It doesn’t have to be a billion-dollar enterprise. We’ll have a business plan included in the issue, hoping to prove that there’s an opportunity for smallish newspapers of high quality to exist and stay in business. The business model will be a bit different than some of the bigger papers, but the emphasis on investigative journalism, and great writing, on the best photography and design and all the things that newspapers can and should do—all that will still be there.

Rumpus: Do you feel you’ll be competing with Internet sites?

Eggers: No. I mean, there’s that zero-sum thinking again. I actually don’t think newspapers and the Internet need to compete with each other. I think that we’re heading to a point where the two media will each do what they do best and coexist peacefully. I really think we’re all in it together, all of us who care about journalism, so we should all be thinking of what’s best for journalism—and that, I think, is to find a sustainable model for newsgathering on the web and on paper. There are probably workable models out there for both, and we’re going to be concentrating on the newspaper side of things. We’re not making any claims beyond that.

Rumpus: So that comes out in the fall, the McSweeney’s newspaper prototype?

Eggers: We’ve been working on it for about five months and will spend the rest of the summer on it. Then it’ll come out one day, ideally in September.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →