Dave Eggers on journalism’s virtues

Author Dave Eggers burst onto the literary scene with his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; his latest book, Zeitoun, is about the Homeland Security/FEMA ordeal suffered by a Syrian-American immigrant and his family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Eggers recently gave an interview to Jeff Gordinier for Creative Nonfiction (Spring 2010) in which he talked about the immersion journalism he undertook to report Zeitoun. He talked about the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song: he likewise used small sections, holding his writing to what he could prove, with line breaks between paragraphs full of implication, and the effect was a “certain spare, brutal rhythm.”

Eggers said that in addition to long periods of hanging out with his subjects he likes interview sessions of about three hours and records his interview subjects (he has the recordings transcribed). When he wasn’t interviewing the couple or other sources, he drove around New Orleans, taking photos and visiting places where events in the book take place. Eggers conducted more than two years of interviews for Zeitoun. Late in the process, as they were driving around New Orleans one day, his main character revealed that he’d been subjected to repeated humiliating strip searches when he was in custody as a suspected terrorist. “These revelations don’t arrive on schedule,” Eggers said, “and they don’t always arrive in the middle of a formal interview. You have to commit to a loose process that might take years.”

He writes at home, his office an eight-by-ten space in his backyard. Inside it, he’s got an Ikea couch and a coffee table and writes sitting on the couch, his feet on the table, typing on his laptop in his lap. He always listens to music, he said, a lot of Beethoven and Bach while writing Zeitoun, when his staple of Indie rock was throwing him off. He doesn’t have internet access at home and is usually on line only twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.

Eggers earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, and he credits that training along with his experience in daily journalism with giving him the tools to report real-life stories. “That first book of mine was written in a blur, over a very short time, and was a relatively uncensored version of my voice,” he told Creative Nonfiction. “But I’d trained as a journalist long before that book, and Zeitoun is a reflection of that training—the ability to get out of the way of the story when necessary.”

On immersion journalism and interviewing:

“You have to question every word, every adjective, and be able to prove everything. Not only that, you have to check with the subjects, Kathy and Abdulrahman, to make sure you’ve gotten it right. So it’s limiting in terms of whatever creative freedom you might seek or value as a writer. . . .

“I had to quiz Kathy so often about what happened this day and that day—she was in the dark for three weeks, and I wanted to know what each and every day was like. I kept asking Kathy how it felt to live with that kind of pressure, and it took some time to really get at her emotions from that period. . . . It was a lot of work trying to reconstruct those days. I asked Kathy so many mundane questions: What did you do each morning? Did you make breakfast? When did the kids start going to school? Did you stay at home most days, and in what room did you spend most of your time? She thought I was nuts for caring about the day-to-day details.”

On literary influences:

“The more I studied the writers who influenced me a lot—Mailer and Orwell and Didion among them—the more I realized they had different versions of their own style, adapted to whatever story they were telling. Didion’s fictional voice is very different form her journalistic voice, and even her nonfiction changed significantly over the course of her career.”

“Orwell was so good at channeling his rage into these wonderfully effective and disciplined vehicles. I think discipline is key. That’s where the training in journalism helps, I think. A war reporter’s job is to report the horrors and folly of war; if he does his job well, he can illuminate the effects of bungled foreign policy far better than, say, some rant on the op-ed page can (not that all op-ed commentaries are rants). I guess that’s the difference between showing and telling. An op-ed tells; a story shows.”

On teaching journalism and on getting newspaper experience:

“I recommend journalism courses and/or writing for newspapers to every young writer I meet. I  think there’s a discipline—that word again—that’s very valuable. And a humility. You learn to examine every last word—to be able to prove it and its worth—and to make every word count, because in newspapers you usually work within strict word limits. You learn about meeting deadlines. . . .

“One of the most important things about newspaper work is how it forces you out of the house and puts you in touch with actual people. As a novelist, you might see someone on the street and assume a lot about that person. But you interview that person and most of your assumptions are upended. When I teach writing to high schoolers, I send them out on the street the first day. I tell them to find someone about whom they might assume certain things and then interview that person for 20 minutes about his or her life and opinions. It works every time. The first time I did the assignment, one of the students interviewed a guy with a Mohawk, leather head-to-toe, etc. he assumed the guy would be a liberal anarchist with all kinds of radical views but, in 10 minutes, found out he was actually a staunch conservative, who lived at home with his mom.”

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2 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, honesty, immersion, journalism, teaching, education, working method

2 responses to “Dave Eggers on journalism’s virtues

  1. Scribbly Jane

    Richard,
    I too enjoyed Dave Egger’s ‘Zeitoun’. I was living out of the country during Katrina and Egger’s story brought the hardship to life for me.

    I find the only danger in such a strong journalistic background is a reportorial tendency that can be tedious at times if it isn’t developed as a strong creative nonfiction writer. What do you think?
    — Beth

  2. I agree, Beth. For personal nonfiction, especially for memoir, the narrator must be a rounded character. The goal of memoir is to render and to convey experience, and the way to do this seems to be with scenes and with a narrative persona we can understand and probably sympathize with.

    To tell others’ compelling stories, the writer can attempt to approximate this intimacy by using scenes and their points of view. But as Eggers’s interview comments show, it requires deep immersion in their lives and experiences.

    To me, this illustrates a difference between personal writing and compelling literary journalism. Eggers’s own memoir was an imaginative work—he had to re-imagine his past in order to re-experience it and to convey it. Zeitoun is an empathetic work, with its own deeply creative process, but he had to try to get the principals to remember and to re-imagine for him. I don’t think it’s lesser to do this, and it’s noble work, but brutally hard in its own way. I think this is why God created fiction. In fact, Eggers’s previous novel, What is the What, was to be nonfiction but he said his refugee subject was unable to recall his tumultuous experiences in enough detail for Eggers to recreate them.

    As for the narrator being a character, that can happen in a work like Zeitoun but is less common. The writer, in such cases, seems open to accusation of egotism and of getting in the way. So the omniscient narrator is often used successfully, as in fiction, whereas it usually spells doom in memoir for the main character—he or she who experiences—to be missing.

    Whether from my journalism background or a didactic tendency, I have had to fight against my own omniscient tendency in writing my memoir.