In its two-decade-plus existence, San Francisco's prestigious City Arts & Lectures series has had a hard time finding more than one or two Bay Area writers a year who could fill up the 900-seat Herbst Theatre. San Francisco may be a town for writers and a town for readers, but to pack the house, series producer Sydney Goldstein usually has to fly in luminaries from the better-known literary hot spots: New York, London, Chicago. Dave Eggers, who was in the process of moving back in fall 2000 after making it huge in New York, was one of the thrilling exceptions. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, mostly set in the Bay Area, was the book of that year, topping the national best-seller list and just about every best-of list that mattered. Critics couldn't decide if he was the next J.D. Salinger, the next Jack Kerouac, or the next Jesus Christ, but he was certainly someone who could sell tickets. Goldstein signed him up.
A typical night at City Arts: A famous, or semifamous, author or intellectual reads from his or her latest book and answers respectful questions from the audience or from another semifamous interviewer (sometimes billed as a "conversation"). Even when everything clicks, the format is predictable, the spirit genteel NPR—exactly what Goldstein was expecting when she arranged to have Wendy Lesser, the cerebral editor of Berkeley's Threepenny Review and an admirer of Eggers, lead the discussion. But Goldstein didn't reckon on Eggers, who doesn't do interviews or readings—or anything, really—the expected way.
At other events, he had planted friends of his in the crowd to act as hecklers; once he'd hired a bus to take the whole audience at an East Village bookstore event to a bar in New Jersey. For the Herbst reading, in late October 2000, he wanted to bring half a dozen friends onstage with him, all decked out for Halloween, including his little brother, Toph, a major character in the memoir, who would be wearing a lion's costume. Lesser, an old-school intellectual in the sober New York Review of Books vein, may well have been the local literary figure least likely to appreciate sharing a stage with a six-foot-three teenager dressed like an extra from The Lion King. "I've lived through the sixties," she recalls telling Eggers. "And I don't want to do it again." But after trying to talk him out of the stunt, Lesser decided he was much stronger-willed than she was, and they reached a friendly compromise of sorts: They would first do the usual Q&A, then she would join the audience while he and his friends did their neo-Merry Prankster thing. The evening was, in Goldstein's diplomatic words, "kind of a challenge." Many in the audience seemed as flummoxed as she was. "It was stupid, man, and trying to be cute," recalls one aspiring writer who was 18 at the time. "I was looking for a role model, you know, a spokesman for my generation or whatever. And he wasn't it."
But to many young people, Eggers remained very much "it." So Goldstein brought him back a year later to be interviewed by her assistant, Mitch Goldman. This time, Eggers's affectations were more charming than annoying: He baked chocolate-chip cookies for the audience, and, upon learning that one questioner was a high school teacher, declared that he would give her his night's fee. According to Goldstein, he was upset when the young woman disappeared after the show, but Leah Garchik wrote up the incident in her Chronicle column, the teacher turned up, and Eggers delivered the check. By now completely smitten with "this very adorable young man," Goldstein was even more impressed when, at a dinner she hosted for Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, and several other rising stars, Eggers said he could get David Byrne, whom Goldstein had been trying to land for years, to do a City Arts gig. Eggers not only delivered but acted as host; he and Byrne brought along a karaoke box—another first for the lecture series—and invited audience members onstage to sing. The event sold out and cemented Goldstein's notion of Eggers as more than just another literary wunderkind-cult figure-poseur. He was someone who could be counted on.
This is not necessarily what Goldstein or anyone else in San Francisco's literary establishment expected to discover about Eggers. After all, "the patron saint of adolescence," as one colleague called him, was known, besides his memoir, mostly for his snidely hilarious magazine Might (1993-97), for his idiosyncratic quarterly McSweeney's, and for the bitch-slapping he gave reporters who crossed him in print. But since returning to the Bay Area, Eggers has delivered big-time—starting a free tutoring center at 826 Valencia, advocating for education, getting politically active, mentoring a number of promising writers, helping establish yet another influential literary magazine (the Believer), and publishing some really fine books. At 34, he has matured into one of the city's most prominent cultural leaders.
The extent of this transformation was evident last fall, when Goldstein invited him to interview Joan Didion, who had just published her much-anticipated memoir, Where I Was From. Didion had always been one of Eggers's heroes, though he had once taken a swipe at her in Might for which he chastised himself publicly several years later in an LA Weekly article, calling his younger self "an asshole" and asking, "Who the fuck am I to take a jab at her?" But he had also done a piece in Salon that she remembered warmly; it was she who suggested that they share the stage. Goldstein was surprised. Didion was an icon, but in Goldstein's words, "She ain't no performer," and Eggers's shtick was a risky match for someone so reserved. Eggers, though, showed up exhaustively prepared and brought out the best in Didion; he even made her laugh. The event was "by far the most satisfying" of Didion's dozen or so City Arts appearances, Goldstein says, not to mention a sellout and a huge hit.
All of which explains why, starting next year, a major chunk of the proceeds from City Arts & Lectures events will be donated, not to the Friends of the S.F. Public Library as it has been for the past 23 years, but to 826 Valencia's college scholarship program. The change, announced in December, represents a huge shift in the city's cultural establishment, the triumph of grassroots good works over charity-circuit good intentions, Dave toppling Goliath. And it sounds like Goldstein is counting on Eggers to work his connections and infuse the lecture series with the same playful eclecticism and vitality that he has brought to all his endeavors. "It'll be a little hipper than what we're used to," she promises, "a little younger...and oh yes, there may be a rock star."
The story of how Dave Eggers came out West the first time is, of course, famous. When he was 20, his parents died of cancer within weeks of one another. He and his sister, Beth, moved from the Chicago suburbs to the Bay Area with seven-year-old Toph. They rented a house in the Berkeley hills with a couple of friends, and Eggers settled into a double role as "an orphan raising an orphan," as he would write in AHWOSG. After various adventures in San Francisco's preboom publishing wasteland, he headed to New York, where he had more publishing adventures, wrote his bighearted best seller about family and loss and feeling old in a way that one can feel only when one is very young, and became the kind of superendearing, hyper-self-conscious, voice-of-a-generation sensation that the New York Observer loves to shred into pieces and serve up as canapés over cocktails.
The story of what's happened since his return is no less dramatic. The San Francisco Eggers came back to three years ago was a deeply dispirited place, reeling as much from the dot-com boom as from its spectacular bust. Many artists and writers were forced out of the city during the greed years; many others sold out to pay their rent, becoming "web designers" and "content producers" and getting addicted to the prosaic thrill of dental insurance and tender fantasies of all the good they would do once they made their millions. Then it all went away, leaving a lot of unemployed writers and an enormous vacuum.
Reenter Eggers and his crowd of literary idealists and entrepreneurs (including writer and editor Vendela Vida, a native San Franciscan whom he married last year). Eggers had never sold out. Instead of splurging on a mansion in East Hampton, he'd used his AHWOSG earnings to bankroll his publishing ventures and writing gigs. He'd done a lot of traveling, a lot of soul-searching. Then, just when twenty- and thirtysomething San Francisco's self-esteem was at its most fragile, he returned, bustling with ideas, energy, and the means to make things happen. Eggers provided most of the money to get the 826 Valencia center off the ground, he teaches there a few times a week, and he's constantly raising funds and consciousness about the plight of teachers. "He's the most remarkably generous guy I know—with his time, with his money, with his affection," says mystery novelist Ayelet Waldman. Says Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket series for kids—and, with Eggers and Waldman's husband, Michael Chabon, among the most commercially successful of the region's young writers—"What I find very admirable about him is that he just sets his mind to something and does it."
Youth and optimism, cool rock-star friends, a social conscience tempered with a finely honed sense of the absurd: Is it any wonder that the city has developed a giant crush on him? Through the tutoring center, Eggers and his cohorts have built important bridges to San Francisco's powerful but sometimes hidebound philanthropic community and the fresh-faced and brash Newsom and Gonzalez generation of political leaders who have swept through City Hall.
But what he's mostly done is set Bay Area publishing on fire, boosting morale, encouraging collaboration, raising the city's national profile, and attracting hundreds of bright young things from around the country who want to be part of the action. This past spring, McSweeney's Books had two National Book Critics Circle award finalists—not bad for a five-year-old press. The Believer—which thoroughly reflects Eggers's spirit, though he has only written and designed for it (Vida is a founder and editor)—has managed in just one year to become required reading both for urban hipsters looking for a next-gen New York Review of Books and East Coast editors looking for the next big thing. The McSweeney's and Believer crowd "is strangely unself-conscious in its radicalness," says Chabon. "Being different just comes naturally." In New York, says the Chronicle's chief book critic, David Kipen, "it's like, ‘Who are these upstarts who have made such a splash in such a short time?' And to me, anything that can raise Manhattan eyebrows is all to the good."
In truth, this has always been a literary town, hospitable to penniless writers and seductive to established ones. People here buy more books per capita than in any other part of the country. In the last half-century the Bay Area has attracted and nourished the Beats, the Slam Poets, and the graphic novelists; literary journals like Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and Poetry Flash; prestigious writing centers like the Stegner program at Stanford and UC Berkeley's journalism department; and writing collectives like the Grotto. It has supported scrappy publishing houses, iconoclastic magazine start-ups, and too many bookstores to count. Genre fiction has thrived here: sci-fi, homoerotica, chick lit, and feminist mysteries, to name a few.
What has been lacking is a larger sense of community, and in recent years, a sense of purpose. The McSweeney's crowd has changed that. "Dave and Vendela love to do things as a group," Lesser says. "They get sustenance and interest from that." Unlike in New York, where literary stardom engenders much rivalry, jealousy, and boozy backstabbing, here Eggers, Chabon, and Handler have become close friends, professional collaborators, and frequent coconspirators in do-gooder projects (raising money for legal bills for a Colorado bookstore that refused to turn over a patron's book-buying history; leading a protest when an Academy of Art teacher was dropped and her student dismissed after the student wrote a violent short story for class). Says Handler, "He amasses an enormous esprit de corps among writers and people who care about writing."
Even people who are on the edges of their circle feel recharged. "Instead of belonging to a club of faded old fuddy-duddy types," says Lesser, "suddenly I'm part of a club that has this young feeling, this fresh viewpoint."
Dave Eggers was trained as a journalist, but he is also a talented graphic designer. This was a very useful skill set for an ambitious young man in early-nineties San Francisco. Soon after arriving here, he and his friends, frustrated with big media, seeking truth, dying to be heard—you know, in their early twenties—printed up 500 stickers to announce their new project:
Screw those idiots.
Might was a distant cousin of Spy, Creem, and early Rolling Stone, with a major dollop of Mad thrown in: wickedly funny when it wasn't juvenile and precious, self-confident to the verge of cockiness. It had several now-classic moments: convincing child star has-been Adam Rich (Eight Is Enough) to fake his own death, a cover story called "Black Like Me" that dared to ask, "Are Black People Cooler Than White People?" But within five years, the magazine folded, as much from its founders' exhaustion as from an inability to attract advertisers. (Its next-door neighbor, on the other hand—Wired—was a boom-era icon.) Like most editors at start-ups that are barely scraping by, Eggers had to make money somehow. He penned a comic strip for thenull SF Weekly called Smarter Feller and freelanced for Salon. Then, in 1998, he moved Toph out to Brooklyn, where Eggers was hired by Esquire, but—no surprise, considering he had once panned it under the headline "A Magazine for Bald, Overweight, Undersexed Men"—he lasted there less than a year. Meanwhile, he finished AHWOSG. If Eggers had written only the book, he would have been like other first-timers who sell hundreds of thousands of copies, make a movie deal, and get nominated for a clutch of prizes—publicly lionized, privately envied, then finally left alone.
But by the time AHWOSG was published, he had already founded McSweeney's (his mother's maiden name). This made him, not a first-time author, but a fledgling indie empire builder who was directly challenging the New York publishing status quo—and hence an extremely inviting target. After the first, almost uniformly rave reviews came the backlash. In May 2001, the New York Times' Judith Shulevitz drew her line in the sand, with a critical piece called, bluntly, "Too Cool for Words." "An air of aggressive innocence and chirpy bemusement has become the official armature of the American hipster," she insisted. "And has lost its power to put across a critique. It isn't even that cute anymore." As for the possibility that McSweeney's would be able to publish fiction and essays of lasting quality, she wasn't sure. But her guess was no.
Still, Eggers had succeeded in bucking the machine, and that was no small thing. "Young people have always complained about the doors to publishing being closed," says longtime critic John Leonard. "It just seems to be immensely shrewd to be in charge of the whole apparatus."
That apparatus had several distinct parts. There was a website featuring humor pieces only slightly less savage than what Might had showcased (in New York, the most avidly scrutinized was Eggers's ripping satire of his old foil Esquire. The visual design was clean and unadorned; the editorial voice somewhat less so. The articles ("Reviews of New Food," "Interviews with Drivers of Lunch Trucks") struck a tone that fans called irreverent and fresh and nonfans called cloying. The print version, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, was—despite its silly name—less slapdash and jokey, with an astounding roster of writers culled from Eggers's huge array of contacts. McSweeney's had innovative, sumptuous production values—one edition came as 14 individually bound booklets, another had three-color foldouts, a third included a CD—representing, in Lesser's words, "a reintroduction of the idea of a book as objet d'art." The book division published mostly first novels or experimental—and not-so-good—works by better-known writers, for which it paid a generous share of the profits, should there be any (advances were minuscule and rare). Ardent fans acted as if nothing else published in New York mattered; one contributor, Ben Greenman, was quoted as saying his McSweeney's readers thought his real job—at the New Yorker—was just something he did on the side. Eggers came closest to explaining (sort of) what McSweeney's was up to in an email interview with the Harvard Advocate in 2000: "We want to be interested in it. We want it to challenge us. We want it to be difficult. We want to reinvent the stupid thing every time."
In the same article, Eggers wrote that one should only trust reviews by people who had written books, and he went on to admonish his upstart Ivy League interlocutors, in a lecturing tone Might would have mocked: "Do not be critics, you people." Eggers seemed exhausted by the constant interviews, incensed by what he saw as mischaracterizations in the press, and deeply frustrated: He was no longer in control of his own life story. In March 2000, in an LA Weekly interview entitled, appropriately, "Dave Eggers Needs a Vacation," he complained that being famous "sucks shit.... You get burned by a couple people who are friendly and nice, and then they lie about you in print and turn things around in a way that is just appalling." A low point occurred when a 17-year-old blogger, who operated a website devoted to all things Eggers, first published an email from Beth listing a series of grievances against her brother, then permitted Harper's to reprint it. Eggers posted a heartfelt letter on his website, ending with this plea: "We are begging for less malice."
Nice is an important word in the Eggers lexicon, turning up in his bio for the second printing of AHWOSG, which announced aggressively that he used to be a "freelance angry writer" and "now edits a nice quarterly journal." But he was still capable of fury when the media—most notoriously Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, to whom he had reluctantly granted an email interview—did not behave in a way he considered "nice." Incensed that Kirkpatrick had broken his promise to let Eggers review all his quotes before publication, Eggers ran every sniveling, pissed-off email between them on the website. The breach of confidence was ballsy, serving as a warning to other journalists to be careful what they write and how they write it, because the knife can cut both ways. Somewhere in this difficult period, he and Vida returned to the Bay Area.
San Francisco has always been a supportive town, a nice person's town. People may be bitchy and hostile behind closed doors, in whispers, off the record, but publicly, we don't criticize or "judge"; we "share our thoughts." We don't tear each other down; we agree to disagree and then we change the subject—but not our minds.
"I personally came out here to get away from New York," says Tamara Straus, editor-in-chief of Zoetrope: All-Story, which was based in Manhattan until 2002. She ticks off the reasons: the weather, of course, and the fact that apartments here are bigger. Then there's the Bay Area's "culture of openness. There's less of a herd mentality, so people are working within their own minds and are less influenced by what's around them. Back East, there can be a lot of anxiety. Here you can focus more on the work itself. I think it's an extremely healthy place to be."
Lesser, as close to a New York intellectual as you'll find in these parts, though she is a native Californian, tends to agree. "That New York side of me is like a maniac. For me it's more comfortable to live here, where I'm the weird person who is ruder than average, than it is for me to be just one of many in New York, where I become a monster, screaming at all the waiters."
It's hard to imagine anyone associated with McSweeney's screaming at waiters, ever. But then it's hard to imagine that crowd hanging out at hip restaurants in the way of Manhattan lit stars, making vicious comments about the lit stars at the other tables. Here, Eggers and Vida have gone out of their way to cultivate community. Eggers babysits for Chabon and Waldman's four kids, the McSweeney's crowd plays softball with the folks at Zyzzyva and pals around with the staff of ReadyMade magazine in Berkeley. When the promising young Amanda Davis was killed in a plane crash last year while promoting her first novel, Eggers and Vida established a scholarship fund in her name. Vida edits the Believer's thorough and thoughtful interviews from an office at the Grotto, which used to be the most desirable literary address in town until 826 Valencia came along; Eggers has contributed to Zoetrope and Salon; and they've both attended the jam-packed monthly salon facilitated by Chronicle writer and Litquake impresario Jane Ganahl at Foreign Cinema. ("I can honestly say that there is zero jealousy among literary groups here," Ganahl insists. "We are all just so happy to get more people coming to literary events in general.") Asked to talk about their projects in the press—free publicity! for a worthy cause!—the two often demur, politely claiming (in apparent sincerity) that they don't want to hog the limelight from other worthy local writers, editors, or organizations. Can you imagine that happening in New York?
But compared to New York's literary world, San Francisco is a small and crowded pond, and Eggers is a big, sensitive, prickly fish, with what Zyzzyva's Howard Junker calls "an empire, with this huge conglomerate of stuff." "Dave might not like to look at it that way," says Ganahl, "but he, and Vendela, too, they're so powerful." Few want to offend Eggers, lest they bring ruin on themselves or friends who are now, or hope someday to be, published by him. A number of writers and editors contacted for this piece insisted on keeping their more trenchant comments off the record, some refused to talk at all. Meanwhile, almost everyone around Eggers flip-flopped over whether to talk, complete with off-the-record emails asking that their flip-flopping be kept off the record. (Not long ago, when the Times was trying to do an Eggers update, emails went out to the tutors asking them not to speak to any journalists.) Eggers and Vida may think that supportiveness and goodwill are what keeps everything and everyone around them so well-behaved. But David Kipen notes, "The thing about an empire is that it can run on fear rather than cooperation. I think a lot of people are afraid to say what they really think."
On the don't-touch list: the group's internal workings and Eggers and Vida as a romantic couple, a power couple, or a literary partnership. Also off-limits is Eggers's family (his sister committed suicide) and the subject of appearance. (Vida is disconcertingly pretty and has been subjected in the past to superficial judgments on the basis of her looks—but, hey, how awful is it to be called, with your husband, "the Brad and Jennifer" of American letters?)
The other thing people don't want to talk about critically—or just honestly—is the quality of the work itself. In this small town, anything less than unqualified praise is interpreted as a hatchet job. The truth: AHWOSG was brilliant but messy, propelled by its poignant true-life narrative, and a tough act to follow. Reviews of Eggers's next book, a novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, were deservedly mixed, and there's been a damning lack of buzz over his novel-in-progress, The Unforbidden Is Compulsory, on Salon. The consensus: Eggers, a great editor, needs better editing himself. When he gets it, he soars (a recent short story, edited by Tamara Straus for Zoetrope, was nominated for a National Magazine Award). Still, it's unclear whether he will mature into a true master like, say, Michael Chabon. His next books will be a short story collection and an oral history of one of the Sudanese "lost boys" he's been profiling for the Believer. Even Junker, who calls Eggers a "very powerful force," says, "I don't think we're looking forward to his next book. I don't think he's looking forward to his next book. I don't think Dave is a serious writer. He may be a serious something else, but I don't even know what that is."
Meanwhile, Vida, who has an impeccable literary pedigree—Middlebury College, Columbia's MFA program, the Bread Loaf writing program, the Paris Review—has the problem of being constantly and inevitably compared to Eggers. (Last year, for instance, the Chronicle ran a chart that called him, Chabon, and Handler the center of our literary universe and depicted Vida as Eggers's "moon.") She wrote an interesting first book about adolescent rites of passage, called Girls on the Verge. But her first novel, And Now You Can Go, the story of a young woman with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder that came out last year to mostly positive reviews, is too restrained and tasteful to make a lasting impression, like Joan Didion thinned out by three rinses in an MFA processor. It had moments of real power and emotion, though. Who can say what kind of writer she would be if she dropped her guard?
The reluctance to say anything not-nice is aided and abetted by the Believer, which celebrated its first birthday in March with a party so cool that Richard Gere attended (he was in town shooting a movie). The Believer—in its own words, "an amiable yet rigorous forum for writing about books [that]...stresses the interconnectivity of books to pop culture, politics, arts, and music"—"is based on a kind of idealism," Vida says. "Celebration of writers, encouraging people to write." If you are asked to review the type of book you don't care for, you should demur. "I just think you should say, ‘Well, I'd rather not, because it's not my cup of tea,'" she says. This philosophy was amplified in an infamous 9,000-word essay in the first issue by Maine-based coeditor Heidi Julavits, who urged critics to disengage from "snark"—the tendency to write simplistic, unnecessarily mean reviews to show off, get noticed, or satisfy a bloodthirsty public. The magazine even includes a "Snarkwatch," in which readers can wag their fingers at reviewers who they believe have treated writers unfairly.
Critics have reacted mostly with derision, interpreting Julavits's essay as a call to put on the kid gloves, but the Believer, she insists, has run several critical pieces. It's just that these were "respectful and rigorously argued, not disrespectful and lazily mocking—not, in a word, snarky."
The distinction between rigorous, respectful criticism and snarkyness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, or rather, the receiver. The novelist who sends her reviewer a note saying, "Why, thank you for so rigorously pointing out the flaws in my book" is about as rare as a mother thanking a stranger for pointing out the flaws in her child. But in spite of the sometimes forced celebratory note (Julavits's essay was entitled "Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!"), the magazine's range and voice have found a devoted young audience. Handler says, "They're not afraid of enthusiasm. The Believer says, you are smart, and yet you can like Sonic Youth."
Lesser concurs. "It's a very fresh-faced tone," she says. "It's not my tone—I come from an assumption that my readers have done a lot of reading. Theirs is one of discovery—‘Oh my God! Did you know so-and-so existed?'—which has enormous benefits, because it makes readers feel that something new is happening. You want magazines that are speaking to their age group. I respect that enormously."
Meanwhile, McSweeney's is also getting more respect these days. The press used to publish work that seemed more a reflection of Eggers's iconoclasm and connections than of his crystal-clear judgment. But the recent offerings are impressive indeed: Stephen Elliott's remarkable Happy Baby, told in Strunk and White prose, about a young man's painful childhood in group homes and juvenile facilities in Chicago; Nick Hornby's quirky Songbook, a collection of short essays inspired by songs he loves; and William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, a monumental (3,298-page, seven-volume) study of the history of violence.
Besides Eggers, the driving force behind McSweeney's is managing editor Eli Horowitz, who moved to San Francisco after college, drifted into a reading for McSweeney's, and decided to pitch in for lack of anything better to do. He soon found himself indispensable because, unlike many of the other volunteers, he knew how to hammer together two boards (he did carpentry by day). It was Horowitz who did much of the heavy lifting on the Vollmann book, living it, breathing it, and going to sleep with his laptop still open as he supervised a small army of volunteer fact-checkers. "So many other times," he says, "the question is ‘Will we get this book, or will Knopf get it?' But this was different: We had a sense that this book should have been out there and that it couldn't happen without us."
As former volunteers like Horowitz assume more responsibility, Eggers has been able to recede into McSweeney's background and focus on editing (Happy Baby) and other projects. (This month, Campo Santo will be performing Sacrament, a theatrical version of his novel, at Intersection for the Arts in the Mission.) "Stop telling me about all his ideas!" Sydney Goldstein says another City Arts speaker told her after befriending Eggers at a dinner. "It's too exhausting!"
These days, Dave Eggers answers questions mainly by email, if at all. To say he dodged my early requests to talk is an overstatement, since part of me doubts he ever saw them. Over the past six months I have gotten more and more frustrated: What is up with these people? I'm not one of the mean ones, am I? I remembered Slate's analysis of the Kirkpatrick beat-down, which ended with the question, "If you were a reporter, would you accept an assignment to interview [Dave Eggers]?" To which my response at the time had been, no way. And now here I am, lurking in the shadows at Eggers event after Eggers event, a stalker on a deadline. But then in late April—by now I'm a stalker way past deadline—an email from McSweeney's publisher Barb Bersche appears in my in-box. Dave has "a rare bit of downtime" this week, she says. Would I still like to meet?
The next day, Eggers and I are settling in at a coffee shop around the corner from 826 Valencia. He has an hour before his next class. We are double-checking the tape recorder (I brought two). He has not yet actually met my eye. He mumbles, trails off, loses his train of thought. A possible explanation for the no-interview policy: He's just really shy. So we talk about kids for a while (I work with teens as well, though not at 826 Valencia). Then he smiles sweetly. Suddenly I don't feel so paranoid anymore. Suddenly I want to protect him—from myself.
Why are you talking to me? I finally ask. I have 57 other questions, but this seems the most obvious.
He rambles a bit more, explains that working with reporters takes time away from the work at the center, and he doesn't want to alienate anyone. And then he admits—twice—that he knows it's hard to write about people who won't talk to you, as a journalist, and that he felt for me.
Cool. We feel sorry for each other.
When I ask him a question that makes him uncomfortable—whether he thinks some of the 600 or so tutors at 826 Valencia might be there to get close to him—he tries to answer it and gets hopelessly lost. He calls the kiss-ass idea "an interesting thesis," and mentions that the SF Weekly once said something similar, catching him "completely off guard." "Tutoring at 826 has not made an ounce of difference in anyone's career. There's no one I've published, or assisted in any way, whose work I didn't already know."
He raises his fist, stops just short of pumping it on the table. "I hope, I hope that you know...and I'm counting on you that, even if someone said that...What the Weekly said was really mean. It hurts the tutors, so then it hurts the kids...it's...You have to figure out if there's any empirical evidence that anyone ever got anything out of it professionally."
One question down, 56 to go, and at this rate, we could be here till Christmas. Do I really have to know if he still hates the press, if he's looking forward to his next novel, what he and Vendela cook for dinner? Do you?
No. But what I do want to know is, why teaching? Why not a palazzo in Tuscany or a shiny new Lexus? Why a tutoring center?
Eggers's mother, sister, and several cousins were at some point teachers. He taught at a summer camp all through high school, and even during the Might days, he and his team brought in people from the YMCA. "Writing is not necessarily magic," he says. "That's what I learned in journalism school—discipline and humility. It's boot camp in a weird way. You don't have to be this gifted poet, wordsmith-type person. It's will and desire and tenacity—and that's the work ethic which I applied to teach writing."
He and Nínive Calegari, the tutoring center's executive director, are working with a Berkeley grad student to put out a book on why teachers' salaries need to be raised. It is an idea both have held dear for a long time.
He thinks every neighborhood should have a tutoring center. Indeed, he has lent his prestige and time to people trying to start similar centers around the country, including one in Brooklyn that opens this month.
I ask him whether he appreciates having so much power, not the ephemeral power of fame but the agency that comes from having an established reputation.
"Yes," he says. "That's what artists want, to have done things so people will have faith in them to create again. So that they will invest in what you do—financially as well as other ways."
I ask him why he came back, and he says it was his intention all along. "The first thing I ever fell in love with in this city," he says, extending his arms as if embracing San Francisco, "was the atmosphere, and the idea that everybody was pulling together, for good. And I know it sounds corny, but we came out here [in 1991] with the distinct and fervent and stated hope and expectation that we could make things better for everyone in our generation. It's true. We"—he and his Might friends—"learned quickly that we didn't have that power. We got a little cynical. We fell back on being sarcastic. We still published a lot of productive things. I think there's some funny stuff."
Well, I say, humor is fueled by rage.
"Yeah," he admits. "We were mad. But even so, everybody's heart was in the right place."
Later, he adds, "But my tolerance for rancor has greatly dissipated. Too much happened."
His tolerance for rancor? His intolerance for rancor is well documented, and frequently rancorous. Perhaps it's that his capacity for rancor has dissipated?
"You really want to try to contribute what you can," he continues, "and create something that makes people happy, and...it's so corny. I know it. But when you walk in that room, at 826, and it's full of kids, like it was today, it's so great."
Eggers has said and written many things that I would consider corny. But this isn't one of them.
"You know," he adds, coming back to why he loves San Francisco, "I was brought up thinking I was going to be a painter. Physical atmosphere is so important to me. That pink building over there..." He points to it through the window, one I pass by three or four times a week but have never noticed. "You know, I guess that's what makes me happy. Color."
"Kids and color," I say.
"Yeah," he says, "kids and color."
If you arrive at 826 Valencia expecting to find a classroom, you will be confused. Instead you will find a pirate-supply store, complete with glass eyes, trapdoors, and a tub of lard. (Why? Because pirates need lard.) The lighting is dark, like a ship's galley or a spooky treehouse. Drawers beg to be opened; a rope dangles enticingly. Pull! Don't pull! You do, of course, and a sea of mop heads dumps from the ceiling. Suddenly the juvenile whimsy that's so easy to dismiss in McSweeney's and the Believer seems wonderfully appropriate. From a child's point of view—no, from an adult's, too—the storefront is irresistible, even glamorous. If they could just fit in a wardrobe full of moth-eaten fur coats, you could almost push your way back into Narnia.
The storefront (zoning laws required the center to have some kind of store) is what lures you in, but what makes you stay is the writing lab, behind a chain strung with a pirate flag, in the back. This is where tutoring sessions and workshops, mostly on writing, but on other subjects, too, are held up to six days a week, for kids from eight to eighteen. The walls are papered with pages of drafts of books by authors like Amy Tan and Zadie Smith, covered with scribbled revisions and notes, to show the kids that writing is a process, and frequently a painful one, even if you're famous. This isn't just an abstract point: Students have worked on a number of actual books, including a series co-edited by Eggers called Best American NonRequired Reading. Says Jesse Madway, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High in Bayview-Hunters Point, whose students are working with the center on a book about peace, due out last month, "They have treated the kids like real writers, from the point where the kids thought they had their final drafts in to the point where they became final. The kid force themselves to write because they really want to be heard."
Since its opening in 2002, the tutoring center has been a boon for a school district strained by the state budget's free fall. Besides Eggers, Vida, and their crew, the tutors include many underemployed writers and editors from around the Bay Area as well as many normal people who like kids and care about education. In addition to teaching writing at the center, tutors also travel to schools, host field trips, teach ESL, prep teens for the SATs, and so forth.
826 Valencia has been a boon for literary San Francisco, too, becoming a social and intellectual center. Until recently, McSweeney's was based there (it has moved to its own space next door). There are frequent benefits, monthly adult seminars, even a Valentine's Day singles party. "826 has become an important part of my life," says Happy Baby's Stephen Elliot. "It's where I do my volunteering, it's where I publish most of my writing; some of their events I bartend. It's something positive, and it's all right there."
This enthusiasm is one of many things that has impressed Lori Barra, Isabel Allende's daughter-in-law, who runs the foundation that the internationally best-selling author established to honor her daughter, a social worker. The foundation's Espíritu Awards, created to further world peace, has given $10,000 to Eggers and his crew to publish the peace book. "They work their guts out," Barra says. "Their motivation is contagious. Their commitment to the kids is just amazing."
The fruits of that commitment are on display in Madway's classroom, where four kids who contributed to the peace book have given up their lunch hour to talk about the project: how much work it was, how many edits they had to go through with the different tutors, how much they procrastinated. Thurgood Marshall was once one of the most respected magnet schools in the city, but now things are so bad that it's in danger of being taken over by the state. Last year it was raided by police, in a traumatizing afternoon that the kids remember as a "riot." Exposure to violence has given them unique insights into peace.
None of these kids has read Eggers's books. All are delightful, and thoughtful, and have things to say about their school and their lives that the world needs to hear. But one writer especially stands out, a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl, Eli Gualip. Tiny, with a shy smile and glossy black hair done up in a loose ponytail, she's wearing what looks like pajama bottoms, a gray Thurgood Marshall sweatshirt, and flip-flops with socks. For the first 45 minutes, she barely speaks, but once she starts, she can't stop. Her piece was painful to write, she says, because she was revealing stories about a close relative's abuse and her own self-destructiveness that even her mother didn't know. All through junior high school she "didn't talk to nobody," not until a teacher introduced her to poetry. Then she started writing all the time.
"I couldn't stop," she says. "I wrote on the walls! It was like I had all this stuff in me, and it was coming out."
Eli ended up deciding not to reveal some of her darkest secrets in the final essay, which she called "The Real Me." Like all memoirists, like Eggers himself, she had to wrestle with the dilemma of, on the one hand, showing too much, hurting people, exposing the most private parts of herself to the public, and on the other hand, of not telling her truth.
No one asks her what it was she decided to keep to herself, but a few minutes later, she volunteers the information anyway. Her new revelations are intensely personal, and intensely moving. "And you know what?" she says. "It's kind of a trip, but I wish I'd written that now, even though I was scared to. I want the world to know how I feel."