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FEBRUARY 23, 2000
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Due to the Monday President's Day holiday, National Dave Eggers week got off to a delayed, though none-the-less dizzying start in Boston this past Tuesday. Appearing on The Connection radio show, along with simultaneous pieces in Salon, the Boston Globe, and Slate, Eggers proved he was a master of the media. And he has a great PR agent.

But enough of this fawning, let's get to the point.

For those who don't know, Dave Eggers, editor of the literary quarterly Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, has written a book titled "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Nice title. It tells the story of how at the age of 22, Eggers became both an orphan and guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Toph. But enough about the book, because I haven't even finished reading it yet (even though I'm sending in for my $5 today1.)

What really caught my attention was his interview on The Connection where he said that when writing he had to see how the piece would appear on the page; had to see the font and the page breaks2. That got my attention. And the fact that he publishes a magazine. And everywhere I turned that day (except in the help wanted's) I found references to Dave Eggers. Hell, he was even going to be reading at Wordsworth that night.

So I went. I got there about half an hour before the start and all the good seats were already taken. While it wasn't a large reading space, there was probably ten times as many people present as had been at the last book reading I attended (Entering Space : Creating a Space-Faring Civilization by Robert Zubrin, an enthusiastic book that advocates the human race moving out into space, like, now. But I digress.)

A bookstore employee gave a short introduction to someone who wasn't Eggers, who then stood up to introduce Eggers. When Eggers finally stood he was even younger than he looks in his pictures, with a shock of curly black hair plastered to his head and seemingly shorter than his claimed 5 foot 11 inches. Eyes: blue.3

He began by talking about McSweeney's, the literary quarterly, and showing the latest edition which comes--proudly--in a cardboard box. No small achievement he explained as it was printed in Iceland and they don't have much cardboard there because... no trees.

In answer to a question, Eggers said that existing subscribers--some of whom paid only $20--would get this issue, even though it was being sold at retail for $22. Then he allowed that they were losing money on subscriptions and they really needed a bookkeeper. "Any bookkeepers in the audience?" he deadpanned, "you'd have to live in Brooklyn though. No?"

Next came a reading of a poem that a seven-year-old relative of his named Isabel had written for him that day. I think the title was "Dave, you are a baby."

This was followed by a piece he wrote under the pseudonym Lucy Thomas about a man with a prosthetic limb. "I'm retiring that pseudonym" he adds.

And then he apologized because they usually have plants in the audience to ask him to read something, but that they hadn't been able to do that for Boston as he didn't know that many people. He said that he had a section in mind to read, or if someone had something they wanted him to read...

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"Page 43" someone called.

For a moment Eggers looked startled by the request, but he quickly recovered. "Ah, oh, the page numbers I have will be different, I don't have a copy of the book..." he pauses, "In this form." He corrects himself. "Can I borrow that?" he asks the person and borrows the book while continuing to talk, "The thing is, I'm still editing this, I mark up the pages sometimes.." he turns to the owner of the book, "is that okay?"

He scans the section and says "I've never read this before, so bear with me.." then he pauses briefly, "I mean, I've read it before." He pauses again, "Oh, this involves singing, so I won't do that."

"We could sing with you" calls someone from the audience.

"You're going to sing it?" he asks.

"No, we could sing with you," repeats the audience member.

"No. Why don't you come up?" Eggers replies, and waits for the guy to come up. I'm surprised that without much proding the guy walks up to join Eggers at the podium.

Eggers studies him, asks him how old he is, then his eyes fall on the ring through the man's lip and asks: "Does that hurt?" Then on to more important things, he asks "Do you know Journey?" and they briefly go through the section they are to read. Eggers starts reading, the passage is about traveling by car out to California with his brother, and listening to the radio and how he is singing:

She was alone
She never knew...

Eggers stops him. "That's not it," he says in an exasperated tone, "I thought you said you knew it?" There's a hurried discussion, and then the reader tries again, but only really gets the song when the refrain comes at the end. "Ah, we should have started with the chorus," Eggers suggests.

They continue, with the person reading the Toph parts, but even then Eggers can't resist criticizing him for looking at his own copy of the book while there's a copy on the podium they can both use.

"You don't do the 'he says' part, just the part in quotes," he admonishes, then to the audience, "this is why we use plants." Responding to an audience comment he adds,"No this guy wasn't a plant."

The entire passage ends with a three word sentence from Toph "I just couldn't." "More inflection on that" suggests Eggers after the line is read. The reader tries again and gets it. The humor and good natured ribbing constitute a performance in themselves, almost overshadowing the piece itself. Still, the reading goes well.

In listening to Eggers, his voice reminds me a bit of George Carlin, but then he goes off on a riff and it sounds like a Spalding Gray monologue (which reminds me, Gray is coming to Boston and I have to get tickets.) A young George Carlin reading a young Spalding Gray monologue. Yeah, maybe.

Then someone asks him to read the copyright page, and the questions turn to how he writes.

"I wrote the book in 7-8 months. I write really quickly, then edit really slowly. I'm still making changes, so the paperback will be very different," he says.

Have you read the whole book someone asks. He said he'd read it early on, but "I haven't read it through since. It's kind of scary to read it once it's in place because you can't really change it."

With his constant desire to rewrite, and his need to see how the page is formatted, I start to wonder if he's not some anal retentive bastard who fights all the time with his editors. And I still don't know, because he actually talked about how book publishers do very little editing these days, and how that's a bad thing. But he'd also alluded to disagreements with the editor during his interview on The Connection. Yet he also said that he had a big fight with an author over a piece for McSweeney's. So he appreciates editing. Other people's stuff at least. But he also likes to see the paragraph breaks...

Someone asks if he uses any other pseudonyms. "Ahh..." he pauses for effect, "yes." Then he adds, "Many of the people who write for McSweeney's...I haven't met. So I don't know...they may all be one guy."

Here's this brash, confident guy, full of irony--or is it cynicism?--yet mostly he seems intent on having fun and seeing the humor in everything. What's not to like? But he really endears himself to me when he starts talking about how he writes, and how important procrastination is to the writing process.

"I can only do stuff under deadline," he says, "I have to do it late at night, on caffeine, and in a lot of pain. I need about eight hours of fiddling around for every 1 hour of productive work. But that's the way it is. It doesn't seem worth it if you're writing during the day. It's so safe. Because without the pain, is it art?" He continues on to justify his procrastination. "Procrastination is the creation of an exciting life by manufacturing tension, because suddenly you're off on this great adventure."

I think Dave Eggers is now my personal hero.

He's on a roll, but it's time to move on to the contest that's being provided because he didn't have a guest speaker or a bus at this event. So thanks to the Germans, who paid too much for the German rights, he tells us that McSweeney's is going to publish books, and he is offering a chance for everyone present to enter a competition to have a short book published. He then reads a list of possible subjects that the book should be about, including: caves; balloons; balloons stuck in caves, and unhappy about it; talking animals who only speak Spanish; chairs that are too big; clouds that appear in bedrooms, over beds, during sleep. Just write your name, phone number, email address and a short description on a piece of paper and enter it right there he says.

So I write a short submission4, and get my book signed. He draws a plank of wood on the page. I don't ask why. He tells me he uses Quark Xpress for page layout, switching back and forth between Microsoft Word and Xpress. He says he doesn't have anyone handling publicity.

But can I really believe that?

  1. He has several offers associated with the book. Send $5 and you can get a chart that maps out the entire book (you will not be disappointed says the book) and if you are one of the first 200 to send in proof that you read the book you will get $5.
  2. He didn't really say that. I made up this, and all of the quotes. He said something like that, but I didn't write it down verbatim.
  3. This information, along with his place on the sexual-orientation scale can be found in the Copyright notice of his book.
  4. I used a pseudonym.


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Copyright (C) 2000 Michael D. Murie