Four years ago, author Dave Eggers — then 33, and already very famous thanks to his breakout 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — met Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee finally living in Atlanta after spending almost his entire childhood fleeing the civil war that raged in his home country for 22 years. Together they decided to tell the long story of Valentino’s life as a ”Lost Boy of Sudan,” and Eggers (for reasons he describes below) soon realized he’d have to fictionalize it, for fullest effect. The resulting novel, What Is the What (just out in paperback) — full of wild animal attacks and other wrenching misfortunes, all conveyed in Valentino’s convincingly rendered yet artful first-person voice — feels entirely authentic, and more vivid than nonfiction.
So chalk up another win for Eggers. Since Heartbreaking Work, he’s been on an extraordinary roll, doing the full-time work of two or three men — writing more books, running his odd little indie publishing outfit McSweeney’s, and setting up his nonprofit writing labs around the country. Last week we got him on the phone to talk about how this is the book of his he most wants people to read, why novels sometimes get the point across better than nonfiction, and what happened to the Heartbreaking Work movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Reading this book, I got the eye-opening sense that Americans don’t know what’s going on in the world when it comes to Sudan. Was that the point of your writing it?
DAVE EGGERS: I guess, yeah, it was one of them. The reason Valentino took me on as his biographer was to bring his story to an American and Western audience. And the goal really was to tell Valentino’s story and to explain both the Sudanese Civil War and what these guys had been through. And also what he and basically every other immigrant to the U.S., whether legal or not, is going through now.
Given the subject, do you want people to read this book more than some of your other ones? I know you’ve purposely published your past few hardcovers with McSweeney’s, with the idea that maybe your books shouldn’t be bestsellers. But do you also feel like there’s no reason to write What Is the What unless a lot of people read it?
Yeah! Oh, absolutely. Of anything I’ve done, by far, this is the book I would urge on people. And that’s hard for me to do. I don’t really urge anything on anybody. It’s always kind of embarrassing — I always know there are better books, and better things to do with one’s time than to read anything I’ve written. But this one, I do feel like it’s Valentino’s story, and I’m glad people can read about him. This is why Vintage is doing the paperback, because they can reach far more people than we can through McSweeney’s.
Did you think of publishing the hardcover with a big publisher like Random House instead of McSweeney’s, since they could’ve reached far more people that way too?
Yeah, I did. There are so many publishers I would’ve trusted with it. The only catch is their production schedules. At McSweeney’s, I finished the book in mid-August, and it was out in late September. With our books, we just finish them, copy-edit them, and send them to press. The bigger companies have a different system where it typically takes 13 months to get a book out. Valentino and I discussed it at length, and we thought to wait another year for it to come out would be painful, especially with Darfur going on.
The book is billed as both an autobiography and a novel. So how much of it is fact and how much is fiction?
Valentino was very, very young when so much of the book took place. If you or I were asked to write a very detailed memoir of our time when we were 6 or 7, in the middle of an ongoing war, it would be really hard. So when we did our interviews and I transcribed the tapes, I found that it didn’t bring us any closer to what we already knew. His memories were spotty. It didn’t transcend the human rights reports that were already out there, and I wanted this to have a deeper, wider scope, and I really wanted it to bring the country, and the town, and Valentino and his family, to life. As Valentino explains it, he’s not a writer, but I was. It’s just like how, if he wanted a film made of the book, he’d hire a filmmaker.
Do you think this digs deeper than a strictly nonfiction book would, then?
All these things in the book — the facts of the war, the movement of people and troops — are historically accurate, but what’s necessary to make a book compelling is shaping it in an artful way, with dialogue, and descriptions of a bird in a tree on a given day. Of course, you can’t do that unless you have a photo of it, or you’ve recorded it at the time, and you’re absolutely sure. That’s how I was trained as a journalist, and I’m a stickler about these things. But I wanted — and Valentino wanted — the book to come alive, and not be dry, so for all these reasons, we both decided the important thing was to tell the story well and bring an audience that might not otherwise come to it if we had written only what he could remember, and only what we could prove. Only maybe 433 people would’ve read that book. So we made it a novel.
Lately I’ve felt that we need movies and novels and artists to tell us about places like Africa, because the media and the government and the public aren’t really paying attention.
Yeah, novels lately have been bringing us stories from all parts of the world that we might not have known otherwise. And whereas your average book club in suburban New Jersey might not pick up a nonfiction account of the divisions [in] the SPLA [the Sudan People’s Liberation Army] in the mid-’80s, they might learn about these things through a novel. Same thing with everything Khaled Hosseini has written about Afghanistan. When you read [Hosseini’s] The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it makes it a lot more difficult to accept the casualties that we read about randomly on page 13 of the newspaper, because suddenly we know who these people are. I think that’s the unique ability of the novel in particular.
NEXT PAGE: Why Eggers says it’s ”no tragedy” the film option for Heartbreaking Work ran out