There was a time not so long ago when Dave Eggers didn’t do interviews. Or rather, he would only do them by email. This was after a row with a New York Times journalist that ended with Eggers calling him a ‘bitter little b-----d’. All of which makes me feel rather nervous as I wait outside the office at his British publishers, where Eggers is waiting.
He turns out to be a chunky, outdoorsy-looking man of 39, wearing hiking boots and with dark, curly hair that’s only partially tamed by a centre parting. But he seems in a thoroughly affable mood – even if this will later be punctured by long bursts of frowning introspection.
For all his affability, Eggers, you suspect, has a pretty dark side – which will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has read his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In the book, Eggers described how, aged 21, he brought up his eight-year-old brother Christopher – ‘Toph’. This was after their parents both died of cancer within weeks of one another.
Ten years after it was published, Eggers is a literary star. He’s written a novel, film scripts, two non-fiction novels and numerous short stories.
He’s also founded the most influential literary magazine in the United States, McSweeney’s. But childhood – his own childhood – still churns away inside him, which is why he teamed up with film director Spike Jonze to make the recent film version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. As well as writing the script, Eggers has also written a novel, The Wild Things, a kind of companion piece to the movie, but very different from it.
Eggers remembers first reading Where the Wild Things Are when he was five and being absolutely terrified. What scared him so much? ‘Argh…’ he says, throwing up his hands. ‘I just reacted with pure terror. But then I used to hide under the couch during The Wizard of Oz. I think what frightened me the most was that I couldn’t work out if the Wild Things were nice or nasty. There was a moral ambiguity to them which really disturbed me.’
His own upbringing was much less riven with uncertainty – at least on the surface. Eggers grew up in a prosperous Chicago suburb where his father was an attorney and his mother a schoolteacher. But behind the happy façade, all was not well: his father drank and spent long periods out of work.
‘I can remember very clearly being seven or eight, which is the age the boy, Max, is in the book. And when I was raising my brother, that started off when he was eight – so it’s a very vivid moment that I’ve thought about a lot. I can remember feeling responsible for my mother’s happiness. If she was sad, I would think: “Can I do my robot manoeuvre and make her happy?” And slowly you come to realise that there’s only so much you can do.’
Eggers’s childhood was also weirdly cloistered. In all the time he was growing up, his parents never went out in the evening. ‘Not once. Isn’t that extraordinary? But while mum and dad were incredibly caring, it was also a very chaotic household where everyone fought about everything. So I know what it’s like to internalise all that chaos.
'For years, I resisted keeping any kind of schedule. Because my parents were very rigid and everything happened at a set time every day, I really fought against that. I mean, I didn’t even have a wallet until I was 27.’
When Eggers wrote The Wild Things, he basically turned himself into Max – except that the young Dave Eggers was much, much wilder than his fictional counterpart. ‘I think I was pretty crazy, looking back. For instance, when I was a kid we used to do stuff like soaking tennis balls in kerosene and playing football with them. At the same time, though, I remember being quite good in school and also fairly docile. So there are all these weird contradictions that are hard to reconcile.’
But he probably wouldn’t have written the book had he not got a phone call from Sendak, now 81, the original creator of Where the Wild Things Are. ‘Maurice was very involved in the film and he told me that people had been talking about a novel based on the screenplay. He asked me if I’d do it. I had to think about it, but I thought it might be a good place to explore all those thoughts that I’ve had about childhood.’
Eggers has a breathy, laconic way of talking that gives everything he says a carefully measured air, a sense of being repeatedly pored over. He’s plainly pored over Where the Wild Things Are in microscopic detail – first as a terrified child and now as a father. He and his wife, the writer Vendela Vida, have two small children, a girl and a boy.
‘I wrote it between our two children being born. I wanted to write something that might have the same sort of effect on a kid as the books I read when I was young had on me. I can remember exactly where I sat when my teacher first read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It’s like the cement is still wet when you’re that age; every little mark can become permanent.’
Fatherhood has brought other changes, too. When Eggers first started writing, he used to do so between midnight and 5am – always in what he calls a desperate, over-caffeinated, blood-strewn, tear-your-own-ear-off sort of way. ‘I had this romantic idea that I had to be at the end of my rope. But now with kids, I have to work bankers’ hours. Believe me, it’s hard to think of anything less romantic – or more sedentary.’
Given the success Eggers has had – President Barack Obama recently recommended his 2006 book, What is the What, to his cabinet – it comes as quite a surprise to hear him say that he’s never had any confidence in his work.
‘Even now, when I start something, I never think I’ll ever be able to get to the end, or that it will make any sense,’ he says. ‘Actually, The Wild Things is the first book I’ve ever written where I enjoyed it. Normally, there’ll be about one day a month where I think: “Wow, I had a good time today.” But with this, I just sat there chortling away.’
Eggers was in his mid-twenties when he started on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and if his confidence remains shaky now, it was in a far worse state then. ‘I remember turning in some chapters to an editor and when he said he liked them, I said: “What are you talking about?” I even accused him of not doing his job properly.
'Then when it came out, I felt so conflicted – partly because the title was so ironic. I just thought it would be funny to give the book this grandiose title when, of course, it’s a disaster. I thought about three people would read it and that would be the end of it.’
Except it didn’t quite work out like that. Even now, Eggers says, barely a day goes by without someone coming up and saying how much the book means to them. Not that this makes him feel much better.
‘I’ve had a really complicated relationship with it for some years. In a lot of ways the guy in it is me, but also he isn’t. We were very private people, my family, and that kind of self-revelation is something that was not in any way native to them. In a lot of ways, writing it was an act of rebellion.’
One of the reasons Eggers feels so ambivalent about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is because of what subsequently happened to his sister, Beth. When the book was published, she accused him of downplaying her role in their brother’s upbringing and beefing up his own. She later recanted saying she’d made a dreadful mistake – ‘I’m so embarrassed. I was having a terrible LaToya Jackson moment.’ Then, in November 2001, Beth Eggers committed suicide.
Eggers has never talked about his sister’s death. But it seems telling that he’s opted to write two books since in which trust has played the key role. In both What is the What and Zeitoun – out here next March – he is telling someone else’s story.
What is the What is the autobiography – albeit written by Eggers – of a real life Sudanese refugee who was separated from his parents, trekked across large swathes of Sudan and eventually came to the US.
Zeitoun is the story of a Muslim family from Syria. Abdulrahman Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, after which he saved the lives of several survivors, only to be interned as a suspected terrorist.
‘As far as I was concerned, I was there to tell their stories,’ Eggers says. ‘But if there was something they didn’t want in, then obviously I’d respect that. I suppose the most important thing with both books was to do no harm – unless it was harm to the Bush administration, which I was absolutely fine with.’
When he’s not sitting on his couch being sedentary, Eggers leads an extremely busy life. He’s the founder of 826 Valencia, a tutoring centre in San Francisco where children between the ages of six and 18 can go to develop their writing skills. He also has a shop in San Francisco that sells nothing but pirate gear.
Then there’s McSweeney’s, which publishes a quarterly literary magazine, a website, a monthly magazine called The Believer and a quarterly DVD magazine, Wholphin. All Eggers’s proceeds from What is the What went to Sudanese refugees in the US, while those from Zeitoun are going to the Zeitoun Foundation, which is helping in the rebuilding of New Orleans.
Eggers has also become a tireless campaigner for the power of the printed word in an internet age. His magazines aren’t afraid of publishing novella-length stories and his books luxuriate in the kind of playful design that could never be reproduced on a screen.
To hammer the point home, Eggers recently published the San Francisco Panorama, a 320-page, full-colour broadsheet newspaper; it sold out immediately.
He’s clearly seeking to do as much good as possible and I wondered how much his faith in human nature fluctuates between optimism and despair. ‘I think I’m far too hopeful and trusting. That’s something I got from my mum. Because I grew up with this naïve expectation of people doing right, I get shocked by every little violation. But however naïve I might be, I do feel that books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: “Let’s not forget this.”’
He breaks off. Our time is up. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m babbling again. That’s the thing with me, you see. I never end tidily. I just kind of trail off…'