Conversations: Dave Eggers - 'Books Are My Home -- They Always Will Be'

Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers (Tim Mosenfelder - Getty Images)

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Instead of coasting on the acclaim and Gen X-ish cred that followed his 2000 memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers one-upped himself by founding 826 Valencia, a nationwide chain of student writing workshops, and the McSweeney's mini-empire to publish emerging novelists, oral histories of human rights crises, and his own books, from which he often donates his royalties. We talked to Eggers about "Zeitoun," his new nonfiction title about an unusual Hurricane Katrina refugee.

-- Justin Moyer

"Zeitoun" is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American Muslim living in New Orleans who was incarcerated with no due process in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the majority of folks affected by Katrina were African American. Why did you choose this story?

Before Katrina, there were 10,000 Muslims in New Orleans, so it's not so rare. Coverage of Katrina has rightfully focused on the effect of negligence and inaction and the latent effects of systemic neglect and racism that gave rise to what happened to the largely black population of New Orleans, [but] I hope that there are dozens more [books] that represent the city and its mosaic.

Unlike "What Is the What" -- your novelized "autobiography" of a Sudanese refugee -- you present "Zeitoun" as journalism and wrote it "with the full participation of the Zeitoun family." Did you feel like you were writing with one hand tied behind your back?

Not any more than any journalist is beholden to the truth. I studied the literary journalists -- Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer. [Mailer's] book "The Executioner's Song" had a big impression on me. As I tried to do with "Zeitoun," the power of that book is that he lets the events and the characters speak for themselves as opposed to inserting his commentary or opinion. . . .

Zeitoun's story is so recent -- there is a lot at stake, challenging the way our government reacted to this disaster, how we treat those imprisoned, how we are going to deal with the next crisis. . . . Are we going to allow mass suspension of habeas corpus just because there is a suspension of state services? Making that fiction wouldn't have been appropriate.

Though it's a tough time for newspapers, I've heard that McSweeney's Quarterly is releasing one issue as a newspaper. What's the scoop?

The newspaper will be out in October. We're giving a lot of writers huge amounts of room to work with, no word limits, trying to present a forum for enterprise journalism. I started out at newspapers and lament the shrinking news hole. If, instead of retreating, we advance and use beauty of print, maybe that will stanch the bleeding and bring people back into the fold [and] remind the powers that be of what can happen if they give their journalists and artists more space.

You co-wrote the movie "Away We Go" and collaborated with Spike Jonze on a film version of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" -- decidedly more pop than Katrina memoirs. Is it difficult to change gears?

I did a few brief forays into screenwriting, and I haven't done any since. Books are my home -- they always will be.


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