Dave Eggers on ''What Is the What''

Image credit: Beowulf Sheehan / Retna

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read another interview where you said that a reason you wrote this book was because maybe you'd said enough of what you wanted to say for a while, and maybe it was time to say something larger.
DAVE EGGERS: I guess that answer probably had something to do with someone asking about the erasure of my voice from this book. And certainly that was a welcome change for me. When anybody starts out with a memoir, you get the impulse to tell your own story with your own voice, and you get all that out in one fell swoop sometimes. So I feel like I was ready to disappear, and not have my voice be a part of the book.

For a lot of people who read you, your voice is pretty distinctive by now. How hard was it to get rid of?
Yeah, there were two distinct steps. One was getting to know Valentino well enough where I knew the rhythms of his speech, and his outlook. So after four years of he and I doing interviews and doing research and going back to Sudan, we had a shorthand. Now I know his life story better than I know anybody else's but my own, probably, and I thought I knew his voice well enough to write a version of it in the book. The other step was showing the book to 10 or 12 friends, and having them all edit it as brutally as possible to make sure that nothing, not even one adjective choice, sounded like me.

Your schedule — with your own books and McSweeney's and 826 Valencia — sounds booked. Are you running yourself ragged, or it is not that bad?
It depends on the month, I guess. Fall is busy, because we've got a couple new 826's opening this fall. The travel is what makes it really hard sometimes. And Valentino is in college now, but we have to be at Ohio State soon because the freshmen are reading the book. And we're happy to do it, but it's a little bit of a strain sometimes.

You're giving all the money from this book to Valentino. What do you do for money? How do you support yourself and your various philanthropic stuff? Was Heartbreaking Work that successful?
For a while it was. That ran out a while ago, that money, because I was only able to start the first couple of 826's with it, and then it ran dry. But it was hard for a couple of years there, because I wasn't taking any money from Val's book, and I worked four years on it, so it was a little bit of a pinch in the middle, where I wasn't able to provide for the 826's in the way that I planned or wanted to. It was a little bit of a squeeze, so thank God for the Heinz Foundation [which last month awarded Eggers its $250,000 Heinz Award for his writing-center work; he spread the money out among his seven different 826 chapters]. But even so, it never feels like enough. Having seven chapters is just like having seven children. Are they all eating regularly? Are they clothed?

How's McSweeney's doing? Everything better after your fire sale this summer?
It's good! The readers bailed us out, so everything is fine. There's six of us here, so it's not like an incredibly burgeoning business, but things are okay. We're paying the bills. But the most incredible thing was knowing that in just a few weeks the readers stepped up and bought from the back catalog and bailed us out of that hole.

What's the status of the Heartbreaking Work movie that's been in the works forever? And your second book, You Shall Know Our Velocity, just got a movie deal too, right, with Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl's Miguel Arteta set to direct?
With the Velocity movie, we're talking very, very small numbers. It's a small independent production company [Process Media, which bought the rights]. And the other one is not likely to, uh, see the light of day. [Laughs]

The Heartbreaking Work movie is gone now?
Yeah, which is no tragedy for me. The option ran out. So that will probably be the end of that. In the meantime, the 826's were born out of the generosity of the New Line film company. I think everybody sees it that way, and those guys know that they gave birth to that nonprofit, and helped fund it, so I think that everybody should feel good.

You don't seem like a guy who was desperate to cast himself in the movie version of his own life.
[Laughs] Oh, man! It was good news when that option ran out.

Originally posted Oct 25, 2007

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