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Putting on the clown suit

Dave Eggers isn't finished with fiction just yet.

You'll have to imagine Dave Eggers. He tells me, in the interview that we conduct through one exchange of emails, that he is answering my questions in a parking lot where he poaches internet access. He should be in his shed, where he spends eight hours a day in order to get 45 minutes of writing done, but, to avoid eating into that precious near-hour of industry, he prefers to be interrogated in his own time, in the privacy of his car. It's a strange way of interviewing someone: you throw the questions out like fishing lines, hoping something will bite.

Eggers - author of fiction, campaigning journalist, founder of charities, publishing houses and magazines - has been described as the "conscience of America" and a world-changing "visionary". It's a heavy mantle, and one that has gained weight as his work has become ever more ethical in dimension. Recent books have included Zeitoun, about a Muslim family's experiences in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and What Is the What (2006), which tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a young refugee from Sudan. But his writing doesn't rest on the page - it fuels action. "Most of the time," he says, "it's just a logical next step. After What Is the What, it just made sense that there would be something tangible to come out of it, so Valentino took the funds and built a school."

That a school can be born of a book might not seem logical to everyone. But Eggers is that rare thing, a writer-organiser. Where most people are lured to the writing life by a vision of seclusion, Eggers wants to play a part in the world. He says he once spent a year "only writing, ten hours a day, day after day", and found that he wasn't suited to such a narrow existence. "I think I'll always be doing other things to keep the writing fresh."

Those other things pile up fast. Even before he produced his first book, Eggers started the satirical magazine Might. Then, in 1998, he founded McSweeney's, publisher of a quarterly magazine, monthly journal (the Believer), DVD magazine (Wholphin) and books (publishing Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby and Michael Chabon, among others).

He is compulsively entrepreneurial, and the energy does not limit itself to publishing. In 2002, he co-founded 826 Valencia, an educational charity in San Francisco which now has seven outlets across the United States. Students aged between six and 18 come to the centres after school for tutoring, writing workshops and eccentric field trips. Each branch of 826 is disguised by a shopfront, from pirate supplies in San Francisco to stores for superheroes, robots, time travel and spies (Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, LA and Chicago).

This is good works blended with mischief. Its success has won plaudits and prizes, including a Heinz award worth $250,000, all of which Eggers has ploughed back into the scheme. He plays down his role: "826 National came about pretty organically, without any masterplan. Public school teachers needed help and I knew a lot of people who could volunteer in the schools. After that, it's about handing the reins to people a lot better organised than I."

His resistance to accepting credit is, perhaps, the sign of someone who feels that he has been over-praised and over-rewarded, singled out because of his writerly fame at the expense of unsung grafters, anonymous teachers, editors and volunteers. When I suggest that he seems to be an instinctive innovator and leader, he is quick to dismiss the assumption.

“I'm not naturally good at any of those things. The one thing I'm good at, I think, is finding really good people to run things. McSweeney's is full, top to bottom, with gifted and hardworking people who make it work; 826 Valencia was a pretty unfocused idea before Nínive Calegari came aboard and made it all work. And the directors of all the 826 centres are each perfectly suited and they work tirelessly."

Eggers wants you to know that he's not the star of the show, that it's not about him. It wasn't always thus. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was all about him. AHWOSG was published in 2000 when he was not quite 30. A part-fictionalised memoir that encompassed the death of both his parents from cancer, the book led to him being heralded as the successor to J D Salinger, a precocious, prodigious talent, and the future of American letters.

Eggers was 21 when his parents died, within 32 days of each other, at their home in a suburb of Chicago. His elder brother and sister were preoccupied by work and study, so he took over most of the care of the youngest child in the family, Toph, then aged eight. They were orphans, tragic by definition and at the mercy of pitying strangers. He responded with knowing humour, teasing nosy sympathisers by inventing dramatic causes of their parents' deaths - "plane crash, train crash, terrorists, wolves".

He's knowing about everything in AHWOSG, even his own knowingness. But it works, the arch twist on raw grief, and the book sold and sold, making Eggers wealthy. In the follow-up, his first novel, You Shall Know Your Own Velocity, he wrote about a young man trying to get rid of a lot of money he felt he didn't deserve. By the end, the main character is flinging handfuls of banknotes out of a car window in Latvia. It was a bit like a pop star making his second album about the miseries of fame.

In both form and style, AHWOSG is wired with quirks - a tongue-in-cheek pre-preface entitled "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book"; there's an upside-down epilogue, "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making"; footnotes, endnotes, musical notes, segments of play scripts and an unexplained drawing of a stapler. Compare that trickery to Zeitoun, published almost ten years later, in 2009.

The story of Syrian-born Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the book describes his wrongful imprisonment in New Orleans in 2005 after Katrina. It offers a harsh assessment of the Bush government, the New Orleans police force and a state justice system that allowed innocent men to languish in a Guantanamo-style outdoor prison. Zeitoun does not have rules, footnotes or upside-down endings. Instead it starts with a statement explaining that all proceeds from the book will go towards the Zeitoun Foundation, "dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and promoting interfaith understanding", and ends with a detailed list of NGOs that the foundation will fund.

AHWOSG is a long and ironic pirouette, a writer trying out all the tricks in the box; Zeitoun is a work of steady, serious journalism, in which the writer's job, Eggers tells me, "was to get out of the way". The same author who, ten years earlier, had spent nearly 500 pages cartwheeling around his own consciousness does not once mention himself.
There are many reasons why he might have wanted to slip out of sight. He grew up, had children - with his fellow novelist Vendela Vida - and became more interested in the world. There was also a literary reason for the shift, however. In his recent book Reality Hunger, the academic David Shields quotes from an interview Eggers gave around the time AHWOSG was published: "I've always had a hard time writing fiction," he said. "It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You're going somewhere, but you're in costume, and you're not really fooling anybody. You're the guy in costume, and everybody's supposed to forget that and go along with you."

Back then, he was more interested in manipulating his own life for narrative effect than creating alternate worlds. Yet if you flip to Shields's footnotes, you find a telling insertion: "Eggers reminds me that he said this ten years ago in a conversation about semi-autobiographical fiction, and that he no longer subscribes to the sentiment expressed here."
It's written in tiny print, an afterthought, but it is unambiguously an earnest rejection of an earlier creed. When I ask him what he is working on now he replies, with a hint of that old nudge-wink style: "I'm trying to finish a novel. I need help. Can you help me, please? I need help in the middle." A novel: he's putting on the clown suit again.

When I ask which tests he uses to select work to publish through McSweeney's Eggers agrees he made a volte-face. "There was a time when we looked, first and foremost, for successful or at least interesting experiments in form. But that was about ten years ago. Now we're really looking for plain old good writing . . . If there's one thing I hope they're teaching in creative writing classes, it's that a story should tell a story. It sounds weird to say that, but too many stories we're sent actually don't have a story in there. Nothing happens. After living for a while, and knowing that things do happen in this world, I look for novels and short stories to reflect that."

Again, it's "ten years ago" - ten years since AHWOSG, since he believed that fiction was a cheap fake, since he was most interested in experiments with form. In a decade, Eggers has shed that irony-soaked, tongue-in-cheek Young Turk and become a writer who wants to record the most intractable social problems and injustices in stories with a beginning, middle and end. He has developed a sober zeal, and that probably saddens some of his early fans.

When I ask about his relationship with the late David Foster Wallace, a master manipulator of form, he denies that Wallace was a specific influence. "A lot of people thought I was a user of footnotes, too, when I've only used one or two footnotes in all of my books," he insists. Instead, the greatest bond between him and Wallace, who was a good friend, is a nostalgic one: both spent their childhood in Illinois. "I like to think that means something," he says, "to grow up amid corn and cows."

It is obvious that Eggers is, or has become, a traditionalist, and not just from the change in his writing or the attachment he feels to the landscape of his youth. He is an advocate for what some might see as old-fashioned publishing values, speaking up for the material book and the beauty of paper. McSweeney's Quarterly, every issue of which is a bespoke design, recently ran in a one-off newspaper format - the bestselling issue yet. "So it shows, I think, that people still like to luxuriate in printed matter," he says. "Our existence still depends on selling physical books in brick-and-mortar stores. And we're hell-bent on proving that it can be done."

He also refutes the notion that writers must engage with technology as a subject. "I don't think a writer has to reflect the technological state of things. I don't think many readers want to open up a novel and drown in references to Facebook and Twitter. They live in that world, and novels are supposed to transport them to somewhere else. Well, not always. But I guess that's what I look for in a book."

There's more to it than a sentimental objection to a transforming, digital world. His faith in story, books, in the potential of the imagination, stems from his faith in people - the people who work in 826, the Abdulrahman Zeitouns, the Valentino Achak Dengs. At the end of our exchange, he describes a high-school class that he teaches, made up of teenagers who, he says, have grown up in the "sea" of modern technology and social networking but seem just as capable of engaging deeply and emotionally with each other, and with literature.

“They don't check their phones every few minutes. We sit and talk about contemporary writing for hours at a time," he says. He points out the perennial terror we fragile and insecure human beings feel that our world is falling apart, that we are losing something sacred. "There will always be the so-called trends and fears of elemental change in the way humans are and what we do, and then there will be the way humans are and what they do," Eggers says. "And the humans I know are still pretty OK." l

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special