Writer Dave Eggers fought his own demons, now he prefers to focus on others

Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:11 PM

It would be hard to find a more big-hearted writer than Dave Eggers. At 28, he founded a journal that showcased writers rejected by mainstream publishers; McSweeney's went on to publish Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace and Michael Chabon. At 30, he produced his runaway bestseller, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," which described losing both his parents to cancer while he was still in college, then dropping out to raise his 8-year-old brother. At 32, he published "You Shall Know Our Velocity," a novel about two young men traveling the world, trying desperately to give away a windfall. By the time he turned 35, Time had named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Now 40, and having fought, as he puts it, "all my demons" in that first memoir, he prefers to focus on others. ("What Is the What" concerns the Lost Boys of Sudan; "Zeitoun" is about a Syrian American caught up in Hurricane Katrina.) But his real passion these days is spreading the love of writing to the young.

A staunch teachers' advocate, Eggers opened 826DC (www.826dc.org) in Washington this past fall. The "store" calls itself the Museum of Unnatural History and sells cans of Primordial Soup and packets of Resplendent Plumage. But its real purpose is in the back, where it houses a busy hive of youngsters who come in after school for free tutoring and to sharpen their writing skills. One of eight centers of its kind in the country, 826DC is staffed entirely by volunteers (writers, editors, poets, artists) and is dedicated to the proposition that all children deserve one-on-one attention. Eggers got the idea from friends - overworked inner-city schoolteachers - who felt their students would shine "if only I could clone myself!"

The center works in neighborhood schools, helps children with homework, even organizes field trips. "If we do it right," says Eggers, "we'll start when they're 6, follow them through middle school, then take them all the way to college." With lots of good will and a nice dose of funding, the place may be solvent within two years.

"I'm very lucky to be writing for a living," Eggers says. Like the young men of his first novel, he's trying desperately to give away that windfall.

-Marie Aranaaranam@washpost.com

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