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Citizen Dave: DAVE EGGERS

Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest

Above: Dave Eggers / Illustration by CHARLES BURNS

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dave Eggers is the editor of McSweeney’s and the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity and How We Are Hungry, a book of short stories published in 2005. His most recent is What is the What, the story of a refugee in war-ravaged southern Sudan.

This past spring, Eggers sat down with STOP SMILING at his offices in San Francisco to talk about his Midwestern roots, some of his favorite writers and what projects he has coming up next.

The full 4,400-word interview is available in Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest. What follows is a brief excerpt

Interview by JC Gabel


Stop Smiling: Is it correct that Timothy McSweeney was someone who had the same last name as your mother’s maiden name, and was writing letters to your family saying, “I’m a relative.”

Dave Eggers: Yeah. My grandfather was an OB/GYN and he’d overseen the birth of this baby who was adopted by a different McSweeney family. My grandfather was named Daniel McSweeney. It was just a coincidence. There were a lot of McSweeney’s in Boston. Later on in life, this baby grew up and was looking for his birth parents and somehow thought my grandfather was his real father. My grandfather was dead at that point so Timothy looked for the next of kin, and that was my mom.

SS: It wasn’t some kind of Carl Solomon-type character. He was honestly looking for his parents?

DE: He was a troubled guy. He wrote his letters from institutions. He’s still institutionalized now. He was really hoping for his true family. When we named the magazine McSweeney’s, I didn’t think he was a real person. I didn’t know the backstory.

SS: You discovered it along the way?

DE: We discovered it when we had an intern named Ross McSweeney, who is Timothy’s nephew. Timothy McSweeney is a real person. Ross had started interning a week before and we were all out at a bar or something and he said, “I might be related in some way.” I said, “Yeah, we’re both from Boston. There are a lot of McSweeneys — maybe somewhere down the line, we’re related.” He said, “Well, yeah. Actually, I think that Timothy is my uncle.” He told the whole story. Timothy is his father’s brother. He’s seen him in the last few years. He’s still in a home somewhere; it’s very sad. He was very talented. He was an artist, went to Johns Hopkins, eventually taught there.

SS: Is there one writer you read in high school or college that you’ve clung on to?

DE: Lorrie Moore. I read her when I was interning at Chicago magazine. One of the older editors gave me one of her books. I was an editorial intern for the front section. The editor that was there, Richard Babcock, came on the same year I interned and he’s still there. I interned one summer. I liked magazines I guess. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I did research. I spent a lot of time researching an article called “Custom Made Chicago” — where in the city you could get custom chairs, shoes, clothes. It was a typical intern project, I guess. Later on, when I got really serious about writing, Saul Bellow was the person who I idolized more than anybody else. The writing I like best is by writers who capture the enormity of the experience of life, everything you can see and feel in life, everything all in one galloping sentence or paragraph. He does that on every page — everything from the emotional turmoil someone feels after being cuckolded by his wife, on the same page as him thinking about the entire history of Western thought on the same page as how his protagonist feels about the natural world while he’s holed up in a cabin. Bellow casts a net around all of life and makes you feel like that’s what it is to be alive. He’s describing it. It’s maximalist. It’s a lot more in tune with what I would want to read rather than something that’s real minimal and sparse and nihilistic.

SS: Which of his books is your favorite?

DE: Herzog. With Henderson the Rain King second, I guess. Augie March after that.

SS: Getting back to your books — you travel a lot promoting them. Do you still like doing book tours?

DE: I don’t always love getting up in front of a microphone. I’m not a performer by nature, but I love meeting readers. I could sit there and talk to people all day. Books are very personal. To meet somebody who’s spent all that time with what you’ve written — I’m affected by that, I’m moved by it. I’ll talk to anybody because I feel like they’ve given me a lot. I always feel a strong connection with any reader that bothers to read what I do and comes out to see me. It hits me hard. It’s just that as I get older I don’t like traveling as much.

SS: With the McSweeney’s Project, you had no idea it would grow into what it is, likewise with 826 Valencia. Did you ever outline on paper what you were thinking about doing?

DE: No. Nothing close. The scale of everything is so small. And they’re all sort of disconnected to each other in a natural way. It would be one thing if any given project made money, but these are all money-losing propositions, or they just barely break even. Every time we think about doing something like, “Let’s put out a monthly magazine,” the first thought is that it’s stupid. It’s insane. Then we think, “Well, what if we did it on a really small scale and we have one paid employee and everybody else is part time? Will it work?” So we do the math and think about how we can pull it off without losing money.

It’s always about scale. With McSweeney’s I thought the most we would ever do was four issues. After four we thought, “Okay, eight.” It was just an effort to experiment with the form. I had a lot of friends who couldn’t find a home for some of their work, so it was like, “Let’s try to make a vehicle where these unusual things could be published.” It was fun. People sort of liked it. Then we thought, “As long as it’s interesting, as long as we’re developing, as long as it’s challenging or if we’re reinventing it, we’ll keep going.” That went on longer than we thought. And the addition of Barb Bersche and Eli Horowitz and Jordan Bass and all the people who have helped along the way — they keep coming up with new ideas and that’s why it stays alive. We have a poetry issue coming out that’s all the work of a former intern. I couldn’t care less where the ideas come from. Who ever has the best idea or who ever has it and can follow through, should do it. I’ve always wanted it this way, but also we can’t afford to do it any other way.

The complete interview with Dave Eggers appears in Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest


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