On Saturday morning at Miami Dade College, author Dave Eggers told a packed room that Miami Book Fair International was "the one festival nobody says no to." He then added, mostly because of the weather. Though Eggers had a short time in the spotlight at the festival, he managed to charm the audience and talk to every one of the scores of people clamoring for his autograph.
The crowd looked much older than whom one might imagine flipping through a McSweeney's at an independent bookstore. It was apparent though that everyone was there to see Eggers. Of the author's many successes are the McSweeney's publishing kingdom, which includes the popular literary quarterly by the same name, the video journal Wholphin, the 826 Valencia writing center, and emotionally and politically charged novels like What is the What. With all of his creative accomplishments, it is truly hard to imagine that Eggers has anytime to nap or even go to the bathroom.
Instead of heavily promoting his newest book, Zeitoun, Eggers spoke extensively about 826 Valencia, the literary art center he co-founded to assist students ages 6-18 with their writing skills. He said he knew lots of writers with time on their hands that were "brooding, self-loathing and self-obsessive." Those friends became the program's teachers. The space at 826 Valencia in San Francisco was zoned for retail, so their landlord told them that they had to sell something. So, of course, they opened a pirate supply shop. At the store, they sell such items as single use planks (mostly made of balsa), eye patches, and other basic and creative pirate gear. The store became a hit, and sales ended up paying all of the rent. A sweet break for a nonprofit. As other centers opened up around the country, so did other stores. The Brooklyn center took the basic model and created the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., for a noble cause, to help fight crime.
Eggers switched gears by noting that this year has been particularly tough for public school teachers. The audience agreed. And that led into a discussion about his collaboration with two other writers on a documentary which discuses the importance of teachers. The Teacher Salary Project will be out next spring.
To complement a collection of letters to President Obama published a few years ago and written by young authors from 826 Valencia called Thanks for Running the Country, Eggers read from a new anthology of letters to Michelle Obama. The hilarious, thoughtful, and touching letters included more than one reference to dogs (their own, and the first lady's), a girl's parent's divorce, and one boy who would like a statue of himself placed in Echo Park, and a new Mustang. Seems fair enough.
Eggers did get around to talking about his newest book Zeitoun, which explores an injustice that took place in our own backyard and is part of the Voice of Witness series, which uses oral history to eliminate human rights violations. The book is about Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company in New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who sent his family to Baton Rouge while he stayed behind during Hurricane Katrina to watch over their house and properties. After the storm, he realized that he could be helpful in assisting people and animals who were stranded, abandoned, and starving (not only by the storm, but also by the U.S. government). He took a canoe bought years earlier and never used and moved in ever widening circles around the city, rescuing people and feeding dogs with thawed meat from his freezer.
Eggers noted that Zeitoun is a man of faith who felt he was placed in a position to help by God. It was his destiny, so he had to do it. Of course, the plot thickens when Zeitoun is detained as a suspected terrorist. How's that for a warped war on Terror.
Eggers didn't read from the book; he didn't want to spoil it, but let everyone know that the family is reunited and still working in New Orleans (in case you need your house in the French Quarter painted). After the book was published, the Zeitoun family received many letters of support, most of them read, "On behalf of all of America, we're sorry." His advice to Zeitoun on reading reviews online, don't look at the comments, "the comment section is the playground for the insane."
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Before Eggers was forced off stage due to time constraints, he spoke briefly about the effort put into making the actual books the McSweeney's literary empire produces. He believes the high quality of the printed books make them more likely to be passed on and read, he said, "a little more effort into the craft preserves the words within." Watching him engage with every person on the line to get their books signed, it was clear that Dave Eggers values quality in all things, not just the covers of his books.
Buy a copy of Zeitoun at Books and Books. Proceeds go to help rebuild New Orleans.
Liz Tracy has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has written for publications such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Ocean Drive. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.