Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A heartbreaking audience with a staggering couple

OR Melbourne Writers' Festival 2007:
Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida in conversation with Louise Swinn

Dave Eggers’s genre-bending memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his quirky literary magazine McSweeneys (also the name of his publishing house) catapulted him into the limelight some years ago.


For the uninitiated, Heartbreaking Work is Dave’s story of life after his parents’ deaths (just 32 days apart), when he was aged 21. Dave’s brother, Toph, was just eight years old at the time, and Dave took custody of him, aided by his slightly older sister Beth, who acted much as an involved aunt or grandmother might: taking him for weekends and holidays, acting as de facto babysitter. The trio moved from suburban Chicago to San Francisco, where Beth attended Berkley. Dave became the cool parent you always dreamed of: frisbees, sock sliding and crap food.

So, there’s the ‘heartbreaking’.


The ‘staggering genius’ (which was, of course, supposed to be ironic when it was dreamed up) applies to the writing. Not only does Dave write wonderfully, juxtaposing humour and pathos but he also wildly experiments with form, particularly by including 37 pages of self-conscious notes before the beginning of the book.

He may not quite be a staggering genius, but he’s pretty fucking good.



Anyway, a trusted friend raved about the memoir to me about six years ago, and I didn’t read it. Just because everyone was raving about it to such an extent that it put me off.

Then, a few months ago, I read about his latest book, What is the What? and was too intrigued not to take the plunge.

Six years in the making, it’s the ‘fictional memoir’ of one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, Valentino Achak Deng. It opens with a violent robbery in his adopted home in Atlanta, and reflects back on his journey to this point in time, from his small village in remote Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopa and Kenya, and his struggle to make a new life for himself in America. It’s a gripping adventure tale, conventionally told, apart from the ‘fictional memoir’ thing. It brilliantly takes the reader inside the skin of a refugee, from the many obstacles on the way to a new land, to the fresh barrage that awaits the newcomer (language, prejudice, culture shock, homesickness, to name a few).



So, I read the books the wrong way round – latest first, The Big One second. But when I did finally make it to Heartbreaking Work, it sucked me in just as my friend had promised it would.


I missed Dave Eggers’ keynote address at the MWF. But I did manage to make it to his secondary event, an ‘in conversation’ with his wife and McSweeneys collaborator Vendela Vida (editor of The Believer, a monthly magazine) and local independent publisher Louise Swinn (director of Sleepers).


A bit of concerted Googling has allowed me to deduct that Eggers is around 38 years old. Onstage, he certainly doesn’t seem it. He sits before an open Mac laptop, alternately scratching at his ankle and his tamed corkscrew curls. He wears a muted floral shirt over a black t-shirt and blue jeans. He is slightly awkward at first, occasionally fumbling for the words to say what he means – despite years of public speaking. But when he gets passionate about his anecdote or opinion, as he frequently does, his words tumble out as if in a rush to be heard, with the breathless puppy-dog enthusiasm of a teenager.

As I listen to him speak, I hear the narrator of Heartbreaking Work, and can easily imagine him choosing rental properties based on their suitability for sock sliding.

Louise Swinn, resplendently funky in black trousers and waistcoat, speaking notes balanced on her knee, asks the pair how they ‘make independent publishing look so easy’.


They laugh and swiftly break the illusion, sharing the fact that McSweeneys was in danger of folding recently, after their distributor went broke and was unable to pay them some serious money owed.

The Mac laptop is not just here as a cool accessory. Dave has brought along a slideshow of McSweeneys covers and artwork (the books, the journal and The Believer), as he explains the theory behind the design. Long before he was a writer, he was a graphic designer, and it shows – not only in the quality of the design, but in the elaborately thought-out theory and loving attention to detail that underlies everything he does.

Sometimes, in the most unusual, seemingly counterproductive ways.


Dave is in the midst of an anecdote about a last-minute cover design that was completed on the plane to his printers’ in Iceland. The covers were often designed on that plane journey, apparently.

‘Iceland?’ asks Louise. ‘Your printer is in Iceland?’
‘It’s a long story.’

It goes something like this: he was looking at some pamphlets a friend had printed and noticed they were printed in Iceland. He thought ‘how cool, I want my journal to have ‘printed in Iceland’ on its imprint page’. So, he tracked down his friend’s Icelandic printer, liked them, and decided to use them.

‘Tell them about the suit’ urges Vendela.
Dave chuckles.
‘Ah, the suit ...’

It turns out that the staff at the printers all wore navy blue boiler suits (‘like Oompah Loompahs’ says Dave) and they got him his very own suit to wear. His face lights up with the thought of it. Vendela watches him with affectionate amusement , as you might a treasured child.

The boat from Iceland (which shipped all their stock to suppliers) only left once every two months, so the books and journals would often arrive late in stores.

‘Every issue is a near disaster,’ Dave reflects, shaking his head.

McSweeneys no longer prints in Iceland, however. Even Dave Eggers, with his love of the eccentric detail, couldn’t countenance paying three times the market rate, which it had grown to become with the rise of Icelandic currency against the US dollar.

‘I hope we can print in Iceland again someday’ he says sadly.



Vendela Vida is disconcertingly pretty. Her beauty is the fresh-faced, natural, ‘apple-pie American’ kind. I don’t know what I’d expected, but she was not it.

Dressed in a snug black t-shirt and black pants, vaguely unkempt blonde hair brushing past her shoulders, she had the air of a woman who has more important things to think about than her looks (while looking pretty damn good nonetheless). With a young child, a man-child husband and a busy career co-editing a monthly magazine and writing her own books (and helping to manage a business), I guess she does.

Composed and articulate, she is every bit the serious artist, and the straight (wo)man to Dave’s joker. She sits quite still, her arms folded and her legs neatly crossed.

‘We like nothing more than publishing writers for the first time’ announces Dave.
‘Hmmm, that’s McSweeneys’ she says. ‘What I really like doing in The Believer is publishing works in translation.’ She talks about her excitement at recently publishing renowned Spanish writer Javier Marias.



‘Most people we publish for the first time go on to another publisher’ says Eggers. ‘But that’s cool.’
He talks about the meagre advances that McSweeneys (which has apparently never made a profit, only greater or lesser degrees of loss) can afford, as opposed to the major publishers.

‘If any of our friends who are writers offer us their books, I say: “Are you NUTS? Try to get an advance and feed your family first. THEN come back.”’



McSweeney is Eggers’s mother’s maiden name. When Eggers was a child, they used to get frequent postcards from a Timothy McSweeney who swore he was a distant relation and wanted to meet. They were always addressed to Eggers and his mother.

The journal was named after Timothy McSweeney.

Eggers hired an intern with the surname McSweeney. (‘Did you hire him because that was his surname?’ asks Louise. ‘Of course!’ he happily admits.)

It turned out that he was a relative (a nephew I think) of the original Timothy McSweeney, who had deteriorated since his postcard-mailing days and now lived in an asylum. Intern McSweeney visited Timothy, who no longer really knew who he or anyone else was, after the coincidence. Oddly, Timothy talked to the nephew he didn’t recognise (unprompted) about Dave and his mother, who he had never met.



McSweeneys now has a managing editor, Eli Horowitz, allowing Dave the time to concentrate on other ventures. In typical McSweeneys fashion, Eli rose to the post after initially being hired as a carpenter (presumably, with more minor editorial duties in between).

‘He was working as our carpenter, and then I realised that he would be a really good editor’ says Eggers. He doesn’t immediately let us in on the fact that Eli also had a literature degree from Yale.



He talks about his love of details. The issue held together by rubber bands. The three books held together in one cover with magnets (he demonstrates).

‘If you can do something weird and new with the packaging, people are more likely to keep that book, so they’re more likely to read it’ he enthuses.

‘It took two years to find the right magnet.’

For the issue with the comb (included in a pocket inside the cover), they tested eight different combs before they found the right one. He takes it out of the pocket and holds it up for us to see.

‘It’s a sturdy, masculine comb.’

Why a comb?

‘My editor said the issue needed a comb. I don’t know why, but he said he wanted one.’



Handicapped by meagre funds, McSweeneys sometimes has to get creative to persuade well-known writers to contribute stories or articles for a motive other than money. Of course, one can assume that many of these writers are drawn to the company by Eggers’ literary fame, and the hip cachet that goes with inclusion in McSweeneys or The Believer.

It’s a method that dates back to long before he had any measure of fame, though, and a time when the small magazine he ran (Might) was better known by friends and local hipsters than the literary world.

‘You knew [William T.] Vollman from your Might days, didn’t you?’ prompts Vendela.

Vollman was asked to contribute his ‘predictions for the year’ as part of a feature that also included the thoughts of window cleaners and ‘beverage analysts’.

Vollman writes back, in crayon, on the other side of the letter, indicating that he’d like to contribute, but would like to be compensated. Because we have never paid anyone for anything, and have less money now than ever before, we ask if there’s anything nonmonetary we can do. He says okay, this is what he wants: a) One box of .45 caliber Gold Sabre bullets; b) Two hours, in a warm, well-lit room, with two naked women, to paint them, in watercolour.
(Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)

The young editors of Might managed to find both the bullets and two willing women – though they made sure to hand over the bullets after the painting session.

‘For Dennis Johnson, we said we’d do anything’ recalls Dave now, on stage. ‘He said, “one of you has to come out to Idaho one summer and help us build a deck”. For a long time, it didn’t happen. But then eventually Eli did it.’

Vendela tells the story of Michel Houllebecq’s rider. He wanted to drive down the California coast in a convertible with two women. Curious, Vendela asked one of the women later whether the writer had enjoyed the trip. Apparently, he was asleep the whole time.



‘It’s not that popular’ says Vendela, talking about The Believer. ‘If we were more popular, everyone would be getting paid better.’

Vendela herself has recently taken a pay cut: she now works for free.

The monthly magazine’s ‘honest readership’ is 15,000, while the quarterly McSweeneys is 30,000.

(As someone who has worked in magazine publishing, I appreciate her wording.)

‘It pays for everything – for all the other books’ says Dave. ‘It’s the one consistent thing we can count on for money.’


Vendela mentions an interview in The Believer with Dave Hickey.

Eggers snickers. She either doesn’t notice, or pretends not to.



‘Deadlines help a lot with writing and editing’ says Vendela, in answer to a question about how she manages to do so much – edit a monthly magazine, write her novels, look after a young child.

‘I give my writers fake deadlines.’

‘I need fake deadlines’ says Dave. He tells us about how he instructed Eli, the manager editor at McSweeneys (who publishes his books in the US), to give him fake deadlines. (‘You gotta trick me ...’)

‘I don’t know how he manages to do it but he does.’ He shakes his head in admiration. ‘I fall for it every time. I’m really dumb.’



Vendela writes 1000 words a day.

‘For stretches,’ Dave interjects. She looks at him. ‘I don’t want you to get too ... for those of us who can’t make 1000 words a day.’ He trails off into a self-effacing chuckle.

‘I do recommend a schedule though,’ he continues.



An audience member asks about writing memoirs, and Dave gives some advice that is quite different from what you’d generally hear from a respected man of letters. He thinks that writing a memoir is something everyone should do (even if it’s not for publication, I hasten to add).

‘I would kill to hear my parents’ story’ he says, and his voice is heavy with the unsaid.

‘I urge you to write it down.’

And how long, asks Louise Swinn, will Vendela and Dave keep going with their adventures in publishing?

‘As long as we’re allowed to keep doing it.’

* The sub-headings will make sense if you’ve read the memoir. And yeah, they may not be that funny, but they made me laugh and seeing as it’s a blog, and it’s not paid, surely that’s enough.

[To be] cross-posted at the paper drunkards


eleanor bloom said...

That was wonderful Ariel. Thanks so much for sharing, I almost felt like I was there!

I've heard of both those books but didn't realise they were by the same guy. I saw an interview with Deng not long ago, what a story. I believe they actually downplayed a lot as some stuff was too unbelievable for fiction (ie. how many boys were taken by lions).

I will make an effort to purchase and read them now. Do you think it was best reading the latter first as you did?

Ariel said...

Glad you liked it!

Yes, Deng's story is amazing, and proves the whole 'truth is stranger than fiction' thing.

I think the books are so different from one another that it doesn't much matter what you read first if you come to them now. But I do know that some others were disappointed by 'What is the What?' because they were expecting a more creative approach to form from Eggers, having read his other work. Of course, the form of writing someone else's life story as fiction is pretty damn creative, but the storytelling style is quite traditional, as befits such an extraordinary sotry.

lucy tartan said...

Yeah, that was terrific Ariel, really enjoyed it.

redcap said...

Wow. I wish I'd been there, but like Ms Bloom, I almost feel like I was. I adore writers' events. (Are you coming over for Writers' Week next year? Huh? Huh?)

Glad you're cross-posting, too :D

Ariel said...

Thanks Lucy!

And you too, Redcap. I am DEFINITELY coming for Writers Week next year. With bells on. We should hang out on the lawns ...

Yeah, I wanted to wait for the short-view posts before I cross-post, so I don't hog all the scroll space (you see the origin of my comment now!)

redcap said...

It's a date, missy! Now I just have to work out how to get a week off for Writers' Week and three weeks to go to Africa again when I'll only have three weeks' holidays oweing... Oh, I know! Flexi-time!

gigglewick said...

Yay! Another McSweeney's lover....

Dave Eggers is AWESOME.

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