By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Author, philanthropist and literary entrepreneur Dave Eggers has become the youngest person ever to win one of the annual $250,000 awards from the Heinz Family Foundation.
Eggers, 37, used earnings from his autobiographical 2000 bestseller "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" to launch 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in San Francisco for children ages 6 to 18. Since then, the center has replicated itself in five other cities, with another branch scheduled to open this fall in Boston.
"I think of it as a validation of the work that 826 does," a grateful Eggers said in an interview. He said the $250,000 would be split evenly among the seven centers.
"Dave Eggers is not only an accomplished and versatile man of letters but the protagonist of a real-life story of generosity and inspiration," said Heinz Family Foundation Chairman Teresa Heinz in a statement announcing the award.
Among the other Heinz winners was David L. Heymann, assistant director general for communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, who also holds a public health professorship at George Washington University. Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders, and Susan Seacrest, founder of the Groundwater Foundation, shared an award in the environment category. Health care reformer Donald M. Berwick and biomechatronics pioneer Hugh Herr rounded out the list.
Eggers said he had known of the Heinz foundation's work, but not that a Heinz award "was anything I would be eligible for." Upon learning he had won, he looked up the list of past recipients and found them "an amazingly innovative group."
Eggers has proved himself an innovator as well, and his efforts to put his writing income to good use have not been confined to 826 Valencia. He has also started a small publishing house, McSweeney's, and a number of affiliated literary periodicals.
His most recent writing project was "What Is the What," in which he collaborated with Valentino Achak Deng, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, on a fictional retelling of Deng's life story. The book, published by McSweeney's, was both a critical and commercial success. Profits have gone to a foundation set up by Deng to build schools and community centers in southern Sudan.
Like all small publishers, McSweeney's has had cash-flow problems, and early this year it faced a full-fledged crisis. Its distributor went into bankruptcy, leaving it some $130,000 in the hole. Had the Heinz award come six months ago, one might have assumed that Eggers would have needed at least part of the money to shore up his publishing arm.
This is no longer necessary, Eggers said, because "our readers bailed us out" -- partly through an auction of various memorabilia, but mainly by responding to a plea to purchase books from the publisher's backlist. "We said, 'Hey, if you ever wanted to buy a McSweeney's book, now would be the time.' "
The Heinz awards were created by Teresa Heinz in 1993 in honor of her late husband, Sen. John Heinz.