A Few Reasons Why Dave Eggers Is a Great American


Editor's Note: Dave Eggers will be appearing Thursday eveningas part of the City Arts and Lectures series at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco to discuss his book Zeitounwith Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The event will be hosted by Wajahat Ali.

When I set my eyes on the horizon, seeking some hope for the future, there aren't so many great role models, and of course there are many factors that are downright depressing. Progressive unions are fighting each other for turf and numbers; too many elected officials are plainly dominated by corporate influence and nonprofit leaders find themselves compromised by funding and their efforts to be real players.

When I look around for bright hope for the future, for leaders, for creative forces who refuse to be discouraged by our terrible times, the writer, editor, publisher, organizer and teacher Dave Eggers stands out.

Eggers is already an icon for his generation with popular books -- most noteworthy among them his breakout memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He has a well-deserved reputation for social commitment, while his quirkiness endears him to his fellow hip Gen X'ers, mostly in urban areas around the country. But Eggers' fame and style can also stir up hostility, as happened with his screenwriting debut with his wife Vendela Vida, Away We Go. Some reviewers decided the characters were overly cute and stylized, not totally authentic or believable hipster parents.

Dave Eggers is less well-known in progressive political circles, where creativity and Gen X sensibilities have never quite come to terms with traditional progressive political organizing and activism. That's too bad, because there are some important lessons to be learned from Eggers' model, and perhaps vice-versa.

There is no denying that Eggers is one of the most productive and influential creative forces in America. His 826 reading and writing centers for young people, started in San Francisco at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District, have expanded to eight cities serving thousands of public school kids, and attracting writing talent and celebrity to the cause.

His magazine, The Believer, features up-and-coming writers as well as established literary voices. McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is a money-making publishing phenomenon, which comes in many forms, depending on what creative forces are at work on a particular edition. Eggers' latest version of McSweeney's isPanorama, a 320-page mega-newspaper, printed as a broadsheet (making it much bigger than the New York Times) and featuring a magazine, book review section, even sports and cartoons along with great reporting and writing by everyone from Stephen King to Junot Díaz and George Saunders. (You can buy it at independent bookstores and no, it is not online.)  The project, which was issue #33 of McSweeney's, cost $235,000. McSweeney's publishes books too -- by people like Nick Hornby, Art Spiegelman and, well, Dave Eggers. But the project that caught my attention is his Voice of Witness series, a compilation of oral histories on everything from Hurricane Katrina to the underground world of undocumented immigrants.

With Eggers, there is sometimes the feeling that many roads lead back to him. I've known Dave in a modest way going back to his Might magazine days in the 1990s when his team shared office space with AlterNet due to Eggers' friendship with Larry Smith, then managing editor of AlterNet (who has since gone on to fame with his Six-Word Memoirs).

Now quite a few years later, my Eggers connection came from 7,000 miles away after I received an e-mail from Zoe, a super-talented young writer and daughter of a dear friend, who was looking for fund-raising advice for a book focusing on interviews of refugees from Burma, people escaping the longest lasting and possibly most brutal civil war on Earth. After getting the e-mail, I called Mac McClelland, my resident Burma expert, whose book For Us, Surrender Is Out of the Question, about refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, was featured on AlterNet. McClelland said, "Oh, that must be connected to Dave Eggers' Voice of Witness series," which I hadn't yet heard about.

Sure enough, I'd missed a whole part of Eggers' creative oeuvre. He and his team have produced five Witness books, powerful presentations of oral history -- one about the unfairly convicted in America, another on Sudanese refugees in the U.S. But perhaps most compelling was the Katrina book, which included an interview with a man named Zeitoun, a successful Syrian Muslim handyman-turned-developer who was victimized by post-Katrina paranoia.

Zeitoun's story led Dave to write the stunning book of the same name, his latest. Zeitoun is a stirringly spare narrative of what happens when uncontrolled security forces, operating under lawless circumstances, act out all their prejudices and stereotypes. Many of those who were arrested and held in jails for weeks and months with no recourse, were in fact heroes and productive members of New Orleans society, rescuing those in distress and in danger of death from the monster flood.

AlterNet recently met up with Dave Eggers for a conversation at his offices on Valencia Street in SF.

AlterNet: How did the Voice of Witness series get started and how does it play out in Zeitoun?

Dave Eggers: The whole series was conceived since I went to Sudan with Valentino [the real-life protagonist of Eggers' fictionalized memoir What Is the What]. We thought, “We’ll do a series of Voice of Witness books on victims of human rights atrocities. And I thought it’d be mostly international ... but then Katrina hit and so we talked to friends we had down there in New Orleans, Houston, and that became Voices From the Storm. The second one is Underground America on undocumented immigrants. They show we have no dearth of human rights violations here. You don’t have to look far. If you start listening to stories of undocumented immigrants, detention centers....

In terms of Voices From the Storm, we worked with a lot of people, one a death penalty lawyer, Billy Sothern. He had read a little blog entry on nola.com written by Kathy Zeitoun during their lawsuit. He interviewed Kathy and Zeitoun and that became 10 pages in Voices From the Storm and when I saw that story I was really intrigued. I went to New Orleans to speak at a high school there a few months after we published, and went and visited the family and wanted to maybe learn a little bit more. In that first hour there was so much more in that story that hadn’t been told. It intrigued me on so many levels -- wrongful incarceration, ripple effects, the intersection of this natural disaster and the war on terror. This was the height, in 2006, when I started researching the effects of all Bush policies... I was interested in that mentality, that trickle-down -- from the war on terror -- the lack of interest in the rule of law, courts, human rights, how much that could trickle down and affect the day-to-day law enforcement or how they would carry out what should have been a humanitarian reaction to Katrina and was [turned out to be] largely a military one.

AlterNet: Wasn't it incredible how FEMA was able to build the prison they took Zeitoun to so efficiently while everyone else needed help?

DE: In a perfect world, they’re saving people, feeding people, providing for the Superdome, and providing a place for where prisoners go. But they didn’t do anything well. A prisoner I know -- Dan Bright [in Voices From the Storm] had to break himself out. The jail was flooded and the guards left them. They had to break out -- that’s when they found guards with shotguns on them who put them on Highway 10. We still hear from Dan a lot, he’s still in all kinds of trouble, he and a lot of others were just in jail for petty crimes and then the storm hits... Zeitoun did three weeks or so... a lot of other guys did so much more. “Katrina time” is what they call it. No one knows where they are, they were fanned out all over the state. Public defender’s office was funded by parking tickets, and there were none!

It was as if there had been a war. You hear that during the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, but all of these provisions were enacted because of this storm... there weren’t judges working, public defender’s all but closed... Zeitoun got out in a relatively timely fashion because he was relatively wealthy and Kathy was working on it constantly but these other guys who didn’t have the funds or influence didn’t.

AlterNet:Why a Muslim family?

DE: The two stories [in Voices From the Storm] that fascinated me most were Dan Bright’s and Zeitoun’s. Nobody knows anything about the Muslim population in New Orleans.

This whole idea of Camp Greyhound [where Zeitoun and others were incarcerated] was so fascinating... I was really interested in the rank and file guards and National Guardsmen and cops who arrested Zeitoun and kept him in jail; in how frequently he was visited by Homeland Security or called Taliban or al-Qaeda... to think that this was a priority at the time. Then I found that red cell document predicting how terrorists would exploit a hurricane. I had a [film] director friend who was invited to [DHS] brainstorm meetings where they had to come up with sci-fi possibilities almost. The priorities had gotten so skewed.

Clinton built a really efficient FEMA, but under Republican leadership, all the way back to Nixon it’s turned back into a doomsday operation -- preparing for the end of the world. And Reagan did the same, so the agency was reshaped each time it changed hands. And then of course Bush folded it into Homeland Security and made it all about anti-terrorism measures. A town in Iowa had to build a dam but needed anti-terrorism measures put into it so they could get a grant.

So I was getting to know the Zeitouns and initially thought it was only going to be about Zeitoun himself... But then I thought, well, I am pretty aware and well-read but I don’t know much about Muslim families, especially Muslim families in the American South. There are 15,000 Muslim Americans in New Orleans. Maybe that’s something that needs to be part of this ... in Voices of Witness we try to tell the story before we tell about the human rights violations or turning point. [In Zeitoun], the whole first chunk of the book is showing what they’re like normally, how their lives are exactly the same as their neighbors who are Jewish, Christian or anything else.

The goal was to depict without any punditry or over-analysis what Muslim life is in America.

AlterNet: What was it like to write in the raw, spare style of someone else’s voice?

DE: I wrote What Is the What with a literary approximation of Valentino’s voice. You write some books in one voice and then it’s time to do something else. The idea is to get out of the story. I was trained as a journalist. It’s really old-school newspaper reporting, where they don’t encourage you to get too fancy with your language. I still think it’s the best training for a writer. Deadline-oriented, story-focused reporting. I had that training and I had gotten away from it here and there but with What Is the What and Zeitoun, I tried to think what was the form that would best serve the story. With What Is the What I got out of the way completely and put it in his voice so no one thought about me and what I thought. I think it worked that way, anyhow.

With Zeitoun even though it’s in third-person, it’s third-person close. And we stay close to the minds of the family. The less of me the better. That’s why it’s really stripped-down -- it’s hard to write that way because I am more of a maximalist, and this is very minimal but I had to only write about what I could prove or knew from Kathy or Zeitoun, so even if I had an idea of what the water looked like, it shimmered like this or whatever, would Zeitoun be thinking of how it did? The water was dark or light, would be more accurate. I didn’t want the reader to ever be jarred away from his perspective or Kathy’s perspective. It’s hard to not insert oneself... it’s better just to show it.

Most readers get really angry during the reading of this. You don’t need to do any work. It’s right there. I benefited too from some amazing journalism -- dispassionate writing -- about Camp Greyhound.

AlterNet:Tell us about this huge newspaper project, Panorama. Is this what it takes to make a great paper?

DE: The first run made money, second run will do better, even. We wanted to prove you don’t have to lose your shirt doing this. Our quarterly, McSweeney's, is the cash cow. We’re a for-profit but we don’t turn a profit, really. I love print journalism. As much as I love everything on the Web, I get most of my news from print, still. I can’t have wireless at home because I get too distracted so I’m really old-school that way. I sit there with the coffee and read.

Panorama is not online, nor is McSweeney's [print content] because we don’t give it away. Our readership is pretty young. I tell kids they have to pay for investigative journalism. Pay a buck, same as you do with NPR. See a donation button and ideally people are seeing the connection between a government held accountable and the donation. Personally, there’s something so tidy about the physical thing, online the connection is harder. I’ve seen that since my Salon days.

The whole McSweeney's operation exists because we sell physical books. With Panorama we thought, let’s try to think of everything a paper can do that the Web can't do. It would be nice if we kept print alive, too. Let’s highlight and luxuriate in everything a print product can do. Most papers sort of east of Germany are all broadsheets and are giant -- doing really well. In Asia, Russia, India these papers are growing each year. Ad revenue is up, everything is up.

We were collecting them and being inspired by them... What did newspapers used to do that they don’t do anymore? Full color, full-page graphics, all these different things that a paper can do maybe uniquely well. Too many times newspapers look just like the Web.

The other thing is in length -- some people will read a certain amount of things online. Or they go print it out. We decided let’s go long as you possibly can, let’s not cut for length. One story was 17,000 words. So we ran the entire thing -- five pages of broadsheet. The Bay Bridge [cover story] was 18,000 words.

We used a mixture of a lot of big-name people and first-timers. The idea was that the [San Francisco] Chronicle or any other paper would do maybe we could do a little bit of that.

AlterNet:What about Might magazine, does a lot of your work have its roots there? Just think: if Might hadn't folded because it got some big funding, much of what you have done since then might not have happened.

DE: If Might hadn’t folded, we might still be doing it. Our priorities shifted a little bit too much. It started off as purely idealistic -- we’ll be Rolling Stone! And then it just got less political each time and a little more jokey as each issue went along. Panorama was the first time since then that I’ve had a chance to assign 100 articles. Not that I want to do it every day but I just loved it.

AlterNet:Do you have any strong opinions on the future of journalism?

DE: I would like it if, well, look: I think it’s fine if non-profits want to start newspapers. I think it’s great if entrepreneurs go in for it, too. If a band of people come together you can start a paper with very little money, one issue to the next. We were trying to demonstrate that so, say, a group in Seattle who’d been laid off at the [Post-Intelligencer] could get together and do something. There certainly have to be more reasonable expectations of return-on-investments in newspapers.

AlterNet:Let's talk about Zeitoun. Is Zeitoun hopeful about New Orleans?

DE: Zeitoun is just an absolutely no-nonsense guy. He cannot be chased away from anything. His father was a famous seaman who repeatedly had his boats sunk by everything from German fighter pilots in WWII to big sailors, so he’s got this lineage that says they’re no wimps, they’re not going to chased away by a storm, by a hurricane, by the local police, the U.S. government. It would seem to them like the bad guys had won if they didn’t come back. I built this house and I’m going to show them -- just like he did for 20 years. He showed that he could build a business, work hard, become a wealthy man, send his kids to private school and live the American dream. If he packed up and moved to Canada or Syria that would mean he lost and they’d won. His temporary episode of insanity in American history would have defeated him. He can’t have that.

AlterNet:Are you hopeful about New Orleans, too?

DE: You know, Zeitoun and I get along really well. He can look at a building and see how he’s gonna fix it and he does it. I think there’s a solution to any given problem. I’m not a theoretical guy. He gets in and does the work. And I am fascinated by guys like that. He’s always cheaper than his competitors and gets the work done faster.

Immediately after the storm he bought up all these buildings. It’s not "woe is me," it’s "I’m going to take this opportunity and make some money." He’s an entrepreneur -- that's what the city needs! Another 10,000 entrepreneurs. Not that they want to run anyone out of their property -- which isn’t want he wants to do, but he’s like, "I’m going to build this city." He's redone at least 150 homes. He doesn’t over-think it.

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