Writing a contemporary novel? Dave Eggers, founder of publishing house McSweeney’s, says that you should shelve it – at least for now. Instead, focus on ridding the world of Trump and then search for utopia – in fact and fiction.
What has been your biggest lesson to take from the pandemic?
Before this happened, we weren’t at war, the economy was good and the actual results of Trump’s policies were most deeply felt at the border. Aside from people being deported, what it meant wasn’t felt by the broader swathe of the populace until now: why competence matters, [as well as] temperament and expertise. Everybody is hearkening back to the Blitz and I keep thinking of Hope and Glory, one of my favourite movies, directed by John Boorman. It’s about this family that is very happily muddling through that time and taking some pride in duty and fulfilling a small part of the overall effort. It’s a surprisingly upbeat, spirited and irreverent movie. I really recommend it; it’s maybe the best thing to see right now; it’s the opposite of Contagion, which will make you upset and scared. This makes you think about how we can pull together and find common purpose in this moment.
What’s the challenge of referring to current events for an author?
Everybody who is working on a contemporary novel has to rethink it. The human race has been fundamentally changed and we don’t know how permanently. Unless you’re writing about this exact moment as a journalist, everything else has to be completely recast. It’s very challenging; I’ve actually decided to not even think about it for the time being.
Instead, on the McSweeney’s site we have a series focusing on older Americans [telling their stories] called A Force Outside Myself, where anyone over the age of 60 is welcome to write an essay. We have another one with doctors and nurses. I’ve been working more as an editor. Anything set now or in the future you really have to put it on pause – you just don’t know where it will end up. I guess if you’re working on a historical novel that takes place in the 1500s, you’re set!
Are people now turning towards dystopian fantasy novels?
The reading trend, at least among everyone I know, has been towards very old books that have nothing to do with anything. That’s where I’ve turned: I’m reading a Korean War fighter-pilot novel called The Hunters by James Salter. Before that I was reading about the transition of California from Spanish landowners to becoming a US state. Everyone else is reading thrillers and murder mysteries. I keep hearing about people digging into Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith and more contemporary mystery writers – just wanting pure escapism and something that moves quickly because people’s attention spans are so short right now.
How do you think that coronavirus will leave its mark on literature?
Given that we’re on pause, we can start over to some extent. Here in the US we might be able to really map out a healthcare system in the next few years and ask what a better society would look like. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more utopian – rather than dystopian – books in some way. It’s a theme I’ve been obsessed with for 20 years: if you could start over, how would you build it?
Might the world emerge a better and more united place?
I’m an incurable optimist so I always think that we’re going to learn something. History does show that, whether or not we take one step back for every two steps forward, the arc of history bends towards justice – I definitely believe that that’s the truth. We do get better every year as a world and a society; we really do. There are just so many measurements that show we are better.
But we do have paroxysms of failure and awakening. This is one that I think will be a shock to the system – and I think it will be the undoing of Trump. The reasonable middle that gave him a shot has been radicalised and will do everything it can to ensure that he is not re-elected and that we don’t make this mistake again in our lifetimes. I’m saying that just to keep myself sane and to be able to sleep at night.
Will you miss writing about Trump and his actions if he loses in November?
God no. It’s been a horrifying obligation. I would so much prefer to be writing about anything else. I would write mysteries about lost cats; I would trade anything not to have had to go through this. I think it’s different than if you’re a writer for Saturday Night Live and the satire is so rich and that’s what you do for a living. But, for me, I would much rather focus on anything rather than give more space and more ink to one of the least among the human race.
Previously you didn’t have home internet and a smartphone. Is that still the case and how does that help in times of anxiety?
My children’s school gave all the kids a Chromebook laptop so now we have to have wi-fi, which is brand new to me. I haven’t had internet access at home since about 1995 and it’s a real shock. It just shows how undisciplined I am with it; I can’t stop checking things. I’ll check what’s happening in Ecuador and that’s an hour; and then Saudi Arabia and that’s another hour. It’s been proven that I can’t strike a balance with it in the house. That’s another reason why I’m not working much! But editing, I’ve been turning things around a lot quicker.
What’s your positive takeaway from living during the pandemic?
Because I’ve put so much time into trying to honour the teaching profession over the years – we did a book and a documentary [The 2011 film American Teacher, co-produced by Eggers,is based on the book Teachers Have It Easy, which he co-wrote] – one positive that is close to home is that finally people see how hard teachers are working and how exceedingly difficult it is to home-school your children. The respect for the profession has gone stratospheric. It’s so weird that it takes a pandemic for people to appreciate teachers, nurses, doctors, the cleaners working in hospitals – all the people that keep the fabric of society together.
About the interviewee: Eggers lives in the Bay Area, the first place in the US to implement a “shelter in place” lockdown. He is a writer and founder of independent publishing house McSweeney’s.