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The Sweetest Decline

When now-suddenly-famous writer Dave Eggers was orphaned at age 21, he took custody of his 8-year-old brother, Toph, and lived to write about it. He wouldn't talk to us on the phone. We didn't really care.

by Caryn B. Brooks

Editor's note: Dave Eggers is the hottest thing to hit the non-fiction racks since Mars and Venus with his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The book is both heartbreaking and genius, as well as unlike most of our other non-fiction choices, given its fresh writing, ballsy wit, and staggering pathos. What's followed is a media storm, mostly full of praise but also full of derision, which Eggers may deserve, in some respects, since he is one of the founders of Might magazine and McSweeney's—both known for their lighthearted scorn of all things pop culture and media related.

Most of the world wants to talk to Eggers about his heartbreaking work. Most of the world can't. But you, dear reader, can—thanks to writer Caryn B. Brooks who reached Eggers the electronic way.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2000 9:30:10 AM
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]


FYI, I'm thinking of running a story on Dave Eggers. Remember Might magazine in the early 1990s? They nailed the media to the wall and sifted the zeitgeist of those insanely disaffected Gen-Xers. They ran cover stories about whether black people are cooler than white people, started this hilarious column rating people's gayness, and in one memorable issue colluded with Adam Rich, of Eight Is Enough fame, to fake his death and write an over-the-top memorial that was picked up by many, many news sources as fact.

Might fell victim to the thing that claims most energetic projects started by people in their 20s (lack of funds), and Eggers went to work at Esquire magazine. Of course he didn't like it there. Too much t&a and q&a and r&d etc. He then started a web site and literary mag called McSweeney's (bookmark this baby: that takes on some of the same issues as Might, but in a more composed, literary and altogether mature and interesting way (he gets people like Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace to contribute to the quarterly, but even the letters on the web site are compelling). One of my favorite features on the site is this series they did called The Service Industry that is just a recounting of dialogue and scenarios from various jobs, mostly media-related. There's also the series called The Top 10 Most Censored Press Releases and, of course, Interviews with Drivers of Lunch Trucks.

Now he's just released a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's a memoir of sorts. When Eggers was 21, both of his parents died of unrelated cancers within a five-week period, and he took over custody of his 8-year-old brother, Toph. But wait, there's more. Yes, you've got your loss, your love, your hope, your career, your family, as most of these tell-all books do. But Eggers is able to zoom in on the orphan in us all. He uses a lot of unconventional writing styles to engage you (he offers "rules and suggestions for enjoyment of this book" and often breaks out of a scene to speak directly to the reader). I know it sounds gimmicky, but it's effective in drawing you in. I haven't been this seduced by a book in quite a while. He's coming to Powell's. I am trying to get an interview, but apparently he's no longer doing phoners. I can get an e-mail interview, though; I'll let you know how it goes.



FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2000 11:53:30 AM
FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]

Hello Dave Eggers,

I was set up for a phone interview with you, but then I was told by your harried publicist that "Dave doesn't do phone interviews anymore," and that our only way to communicate was via e-mail.

I am pushing aside my fears that:

1) I am not really communicating with Dave but most likely a stand-in and the result of this media "experiment" might run on the McSweeney's site. Ha ha, hee hee.

2) You will not respond to my e-mail by the God-demanded time of 5 pm Pacific Standard Time this Saturday, Feb. 19, and I will be left with a huge, gaping hole in the paper where the interview was supposed to go.

3) Your refusal to answer my questions will make me not like you. I really want to like you because I think your book is fucking amazing.

Attached are the questions:

Thanks for your time, Dave.



SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2000 6:51:12 AM
[email protected]
TO: [email protected]


A few questions I skipped. Hope this is all okay.


In AHWOSG you do a lot of McSweeney's-style antics. You include a list of "rules and suggestions" for reading the book (for example, you tell readers they might want to skip a chunk of the middle of the book because it concerns "the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting..."). On the copyright page you list your physical attributes and rate your gayness. But the meat of the book is not really antic-filled; it's as if the antics were a moat to keep certain kinds of people away. Because really, most anyone could grab onto your book. This could be an Oprah book club selection. Maybe you didn't want that. Your thoughts?

You pretty well got it. Obviously, the preface and acknowledgments sections are a sort of stalling. That sort of thing, where you inhabit some safe, even if unusual, context#151;like a copyright page or whatever#151;is easier than writing a straight-ahead linear narrative about your mother's slow death. So I stall with the gimmickry until I can't stall any more. But everything I do is about or as a result of stalling. McSweeney's came about as I was stalling on the book proposal (which I never actually completed). While I stall on McSweeney's I draw a lot. While I stall on the drawing I write silly things under pseudonyms. While I'm stalling on these things, usually very very late at night, I call friends in San Francisco and L.A.; anyone who's still awake. I pity my friends on your coast.

Might magazine tried to invert the media machine, often by using media celebs to make fun of themselves. I get a sense from your book that you now kind of regret some of those things, that eviscerating these people was the result of envy and bitterness. What made you change your mind? Has your own little bit of fame given you some clarity on the proceedings?

That's exactly it. The world of journalism is inhabited by both the good-hearted sort, who feel no need to bring down anyone simply because they're enjoying some success, and the bitter sort, who wish *they* were acting in movies or running for Senate or whatever, and thus sublimate their bitterness through cheap shots and sniping. We were definitely the latter type. We tore into famous people simply because they were famous and we were not. And that's what a lot of journalists do: they seek to even the playing field between themselves and whatever famous person du jour with little jabs and supposedly telling observations meant to embarrass their subject. No one wants to be an acolyte, or part of the chorus, so the writer who has something to prove must stand apart and say mean or speculative things, to make clear that they are apart from the pack, that they think independently.

For example, a while back, an interviewer from a daily newspaper talked to me, and we got along, and she very much liked my book, and all seemed well with the world. Well, she then talked to her editor there, and that editor, in the wake of some of the publicity the book had gotten, wanted to slant the piece in a new way; he no longer wanted the piece he had agreed upon, a normal piece about the book and McSweeney's. He now wanted coverage of the coverage, and he wanted it to be contrarian. Which is unsettling, because now editors are dictating the content, and the writer's interpretation of her subject, not according to the truth, but in reaction to whatever else is out there. Again, all things I've done as an editor and a writer, but hard to take being the subject.

What was the soundtrack for writing this book?

I'll talk about one song I listened to.

Every so often, I leave Brooklyn and rent a room in whatever motel I can find in central Connecticut—the usual no phones, no e-mail, get some work done goddamnit motivation. When I was really needing to finish this book, I stayed out there, at a motel on the highway frequented by prostitutes and their men, for about a week. Shortly after getting there, I realized that I had forgotten any kind of music-playing device, and my CDs. Which is a problem, because I listen to music every second I work, all played on a little Sony portable thing a friend left at my house a few years ago.

So after a day of losing my mind with the silence and sounds of porno playing in adjoining rooms—it came standard at this motel—I finally remembered that my computer has a built-in CD player. (I am always slow to come to such realizations). So I went out to the Wiz off the highway to buy a CD or two, and ended up getting Beth Orton's Central Reservation. Then I did what I always do, I latched onto a particular song, in this case "Sweetest Decline," and listened to that one song, on a continuous loop, for the next six days. No joke. I tend to try to wear a song out, to rid myself of it. But that song, I still haven't solved. I still listen to it for days on end.

I see that you reviewed Lorrie Moore's Birds of America for Salon. I see that you are a Lorrie Moore fan. I see some similarities between yourself and Moore, the way you both are able to plumb the souls of your "characters" and you both are (in your words) "funny and mean." Your thoughts?

Lorrie Moore was my first huge infatuation, writer-wise. I was in college when someone gave me Anagrams, and after that I devoured everything she wrote. For a while I was writing a lot like her, but soon enough realized that I couldn't write as carefully as she does—I'm too hyper and messy, I guess.

But the main thing I like about her is that she has, in interviews, made the case that any book without humor—and I'm paraphrasing horribly here—isn't really accurately reflecting human experience, because everyone laughs, all the time. Try going to the store to buy a newspaper without the clerk bantering with you. Or even in the saddest relationships, when someone slams a door and gets in her car, it's as likely as not that she's going to come back, because she forgot her keys, and you're both going to laugh, even when you want to kill each other. It's always there.

So when people point out Moore's sense of humor, and how very funny things happen in her very sad stories, it's not so much that she does what she does, but why don't others do it more often?

Would you ever want your book to be turned into a movie under any circumstances? If so, what would those circumstances be?

It's a really hard thing, that notion.

As you may know, there are people in Los Angeles willing to pay a great deal of money for this story. Enough money to make real a lot of McSweeney's's [how weird does that look?] dreams, chiefly the hope that we could make McSweeney's into a publishing company, producing a dozen or so books a year, on top of the quarterly. Beautiful, odd, uncommercial books that otherwise will never see the light of day. But then I'd have to live with this movie, and even if it's a good movie—and I am pretty sure, given who has expressed interest, that those making it would be good-movie-making people—Toph and I still have to walk around, forever, having been characters in a movie. It would be endlessly surreal, and I'm not sure it would be worth it.

But I haven't ruled it out. But I would hope, desperately, that they wouldn't try to make a faithful adaptation. There wouldn't be a way to do that well. So if someone made sort of a corollary work of art, taking the book as a starting-off point for something more strange and structurally odd, that might be good.

What are you reading right now?

Right now I'm doing a lot of research into the history of the fetus in medical drawings, so I have a lot of old books and anatomy manuals around.

Actual-book-wise, I'm in the middle of something called Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss, due out in the summer. It's a novel about the lives of the famous Siamese twins of the nineteenth century, and so far it's really great. Extremely vivid and evocative, but very funny, too. I mean, these men, who were repeatedly almost killed because of their freakdom, ended up living in North Carolina, married to sisters. The story gets weirder and weirder.

I love historical fiction, though I read too little of it. You know what else is great? Gore Vidal's 1876. I also recommend to everyone George Saunders's new book, Pastoralia. And Sarah Vowell's Take the Cannoli.

Does your social life revolve around McSweeney's?

No. My social life revolves around the same friends I've had since fifth grade, most of whom live out here or in San Francisco. I almost never do media-oriented events, because I get incredibly tired of talking about magazines and publishing. I like hearing about babies and football, which is what my longer-term friends like talking about. Very few of my best friends have any interest in any of this stuff. They roll their eyes.

Do you think boys will like your book more than girls, or do you think it might be an even draw?

So far it seems like a draw. The odd thing is that anyone likes it at all, I think. Older people, who I figured would hate it, have been very kind. It's all really confusing. I tried to make something ugly and I guess I failed.

Are you happy?

Yes. No. Yes.

What has been the response at readings you've done so far? I've read that you're kind of uncomfortable reading in public. Is that going away?

I had never read aloud before last week, in San Francisco, where I started the book tour. I don't come from that tradition, the creative-writing-class/seminar/school tradition, where you write and read aloud and are critiqued. So all this is new. But I have been to a ton of readings, and always found them a little unnecessarily boring, even when I've really liked the author reading. So I try to entertain a little, with guest speakers and audience participation.

For the first New York reading I had two go-go dancers, male and female, who danced on a table behind me while I read. I think that went over pretty well. Afterward, we chartered a bus and took about 50 attendees to a bar near the Newark airport. Everyone got blitzed, and some of the people, strangers before the bus, ended up hooking up at the bar. It was pretty great.

In San Francisco I had a fireman open the show, Lt. Fernando Juarez of the SFFD, who spoke for about ten minutes about fire safety in the home. When he said 'stop, drop and roll' I almost fainted. Maybe I'm just trying distract people from my own poor oratory skills. But he had brochures, too, and everyone likes a good brochure.

Are you interested in writing fiction next?

Yes. Fiction will save me from myself.

Some people kind of get off on creating a flurry of both positive and negative press. You seem to be able to use humor as a diversion for the rest of your life; why not now?

When I was in San Francisco, I had a cartoon for about five years that ran every week. I got lots of hate mail, lots of nice mail. And the hate mail rarely affected me. But for some reason—and I've talked to other writers who say the same thing—with certain projects you can become more sensitive, unwillingly. Maybe I'm just tired.

(This article originally appeared in Willamette Week.)

March 9, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 10