Portrait

What does McSweeney’s founder and editor Dave Eggers have in common with Buffy the Vampire Slayer? By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Best-selling US author Dave Eggers does Literary Vaudeville

The Dave Eggers I first encounter is elusive – crouched in the shadows of his 2006 book What Is the What. It is a work of painstaking literary ventriloquism. Using years of recorded material, the Chicago-raised author channels lost boy Valentino Achak Deng, trekking him barefoot and bloodied across the harsh terrain of war-torn Sudan. Eggers’ writing leaves me breathless, in that all-consuming way great tale-tellers lock on and drag you under. 

Days later, I follow an enthusiastic librarian around the ceiling-high mahogany shelves of the city library. “You’re about a decade late to the Dave Eggers party,” she jokes, pulling a hefty paperback off one shelf, a stack of journals from another. I work through Eggers’ Pulitzer-nominated memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; gorge on the wry, introspective prose collated by Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the literary journal published by Eggers’ small-but-mighty San Francisco publishing house McSweeney’s. I devour Eggers’ nonfiction book about a Syrian-American man riding out the aftermath of hurricane Katrina (Zeitoun); move on to his tech-lit novel (The Circle). Eggers’ career is an exhausting catch-me-if-you-can proliferation of ventures and publications that defies his 45 years.

Cyberspace collates the author into cult figuredom. The co-written screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The 2005 listing as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The Once Upon a School TED wish, in which he wrings nervous hands while advocating for writing centres for marginalised kids, variations on his own 826 Valencia. The ScholarMatch program he founded that links donors with prospective college students in need of financial assistance. The decade-old appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, in which Eggers admits to sabotaging his own readings by hiring exotic dancers to flank him, or convincing rowdy friends to interrupt.

“He will be exactly like Angel the good-bad vampire from Buffy…” a friend gushes down the phone, when she hears I’m going to meet Eggers. “Brooding. Sharp. Funny. Complicated.” She lowers her voice dreamily. “But quintessentially a force for good.” 

When we meet, it’s backstage at Brisbane Powerhouse for an event called Literary Vaudeville, which we’re both performing in. Eggers cruises in on a lazy-casual gait. Dark denim jeans. Crumpled charcoal shirt. Tired brown maybe-suede jacket. Wavy hair flicked back from face. Thin-lipped could-be-thinking-anything grin.

The writer says hello, digs out a small stack of books. No way. I scrunch my eyes into a cringe. He is NOT going to hand out copies of his own books. Eggers makes his way over to me. He can’t be. “Would you sign this for me?” he says, in his nonchalant slightly Napoleon-Dynamitesque monotone. He holds out a battered copy of my book. The page edges are wrinkled. Several diagonal creases are indented across the front cover. I’m suddenly disorientated. I smile. I nod. I smile again. I fish around in my bag for a pen. “I really enjoyed reading it,” Eggers says, as if it’s not a big thing. “So classic. And magisterial.” I open my mouth. I close it again. Close up, he looks exactly like Angel the good-bad vampire from Buffy.

Eggers walks slowly on stage from where the rest of the Literary Vaudeville cast are peering from the wings, wanders uncertainly towards the mic, as if maybe somebody made a mistake inviting him in the first place. He flashes an apologetic half-smile to the packed audience. He announces that he’ll be reading “a series of letters sent to the chief executives of 20 Fortune 500 companies, written from the point of view of a dog named Steven”. The letters are hilarious by virtue of their banality. Steven the dog tells the Fortune 500 CEOs how he likes to bark all night; how it feels to run around trees. “Hoooo!” says Steven the dog to the Fortune 500 CEOs. “I have walked streets!” declares Steven the dog proudly. “I’m going to find a hole.” The Powerhouse audience is a tittering mess. Eggers reads deadpan, occasionally fighting a smirk.

At the post-show signing table, eager young writers grill Eggers about whether he thinks writing degrees are necessary, about how best they might break into the industry. Between patient fan-chat, the author entreats me to visit San Francisco when I’m next in the United States. “I don’t have a US publisher yet,” I laugh. “Why don’t you let me help with that?” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a crumpled piece of paper, writes some details on it, passes it over. “Email me in a couple weeks. When I’m back in the States.”

Later that evening, I look closely at the individually printed childlike letters. I turn the crumpled paper over. It’s a receipt for an $11 gin double at an airport in Virginia. “Of course it fucking is!” my friend yells when I tell her this. “HE’S DAVE EGGERS!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "No ordinary Angel". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.