Up Lifting: A Talk With Dave Eggers
I’ve been thinking about people I’ve interviewed over the years, both in person and on this blog. Generally, the in-person interviews are where the big names come out to play. Your Neil Patrick Harrises. Your Art Spiegelman / Francoise Moulys. Your Katherine Paterson/Lois Lowry/ Rebecca Stead / R.L. Stine mash-ups (not the mix you were expecting, eh?). On the blog I interview authors and illustrators that dwell almost exclusively in the children’s book publishing world. Good folks. Smart folks. Good smart clever folks that occasionally wield lightsabers and clone themselves. It is rare that I interview someone big from outside the children’s book world on this site. But Dave Eggers . . . is he really from outside the children’s book world? After all, he’s been deeply invested in the 826 institutions, tutoring kids and turning them into writers, for years. He wrote that novel version of Where the Wild Things Are too. It was furry! Like a grown-up version of The Little Fur Family or something. And then there are his picture books. Last year he sort of won 2018 with Her Right Foot, a book that I still cannot read without tearing up. Which is weird when you consider that I have nothing inside my chest but a shriveled little vinegar-smelling nub where a heart used to be. In any case, when I was offered the chance to interview the man I felt a bit intimidated. It appears that he has a children’s novel out right now called The Lifters. The plot? Here, I’ll let the publisher spell it out for you:
When Gran and his family move to Carousel, he has no idea that the town is built atop a secret. Little does he suspect, as he walks his sister to school or casually eats a banana, that mysterious forces lurk mere inches beneath his feet, tearing up the earth like mini-hurricanes and causing the town to slowly but surely sink.
When Gran’s friend, the difficult-to-impress Catalina Catalan, presses a silver handle into a hillside and opens a doorway to underground, he knows that she is extraordinary and brave, and that he will have no choice but to follow wherever she leads. With luck on their side, and some discarded hockey sticks for good measure, Gran and Catalina might just find a way to lift their town–and the known world–out of danger.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s do this thing.
Betsy Bird: We’ll start with a generalization for kicks. At this point in time you’ve written three recent books for children in the last two years. The first two were picture books that examined those grandiose structures The Statue of Liberty (Her Right Foot) and the Golden Gate Bridge (This Bridge Will Not Be Gray). Your first middle grade novel is about the very structure of a town collapsing into the earth. What is the benefit to asking kids to question and observe closely the seemingly safe and sturdy world that exists around them?
Dave Eggers: Wow, good question. Now that you put it that way, I do think there must be some subconscious thread between these three books. Well, there’s the obvious thread involving iconic American structures in the first two, but I think you just deftly found the common thread with The Lifters, too. Maybe at a time when so many people live so much of their lives in the virtual world, it’s important to continually remind young readers of the importance of — and the relentlessly fascinating stories of — the physical world. With The Lifters, much of it was written in uncertain times, so there’s that jittery feeling throughout, that the ground beneath us might not be rock-solid. And that it might be up to kids to see it clearly and save all humans.
BB: Technically you’ve done work with kids for years, dating back to the creation of 826 Valencia with Nínive Calegari back in 2002. Since then it has become a national institution. I think we all thought you might start churning out the children’s books then, but aside from the occasional short story in McSweeney’s it was not forthcoming. Why have you chosen to write for kids now? And has your work with 826 influenced how you write for younger readers in any way?
DE: You know, I was always trying to get back to writing for young readers. We did an issue of McSweeney’s dedicated to parables for kids; that was back in 2007, I think. In 2009 or 2010 I wrote The Wild Things, an all-ages chapter book based on Sendak’s picture book, and that really whetted my appetite. Around then, Alessandro Barricco asked me to reimagine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and that was a blast. I’d never had more fun as a writer. Then, like many adults, I suppose, when I had kids and began reading to them, ideas for picture books started coming a bit faster, and there was that urgency to finish a story or two so I might be able to read my own picture books to my own kids before they grew up.
In terms of the influence of 826 National, in the last 16 years I’ve learned so much from the kids in all the centers around the country. Mac Barnett and Jory John came through 826, too, and I think we all learned a lot about how kids read and what they respond to. I even had a committee of 826 students who read The Lifters in manuscript form to give me feedback. As editors, young people are very sincere, and they will not pull punches in telling you what’s working and what’s not. But they are also the purest and most patient readers. They want to love a book. I’ve seen this over the life of 826: kids truly want to love the books they pick up, and because they are so new to books, each one they get through leaves an indelible mark on their psyche.
BB: It’s interesting to think about how an author shifts gears between writing for adults and writing for kids. Do you write for children and adults simultaneously or do you compartmentalize, finishing one project first before proceeding on to another?
DE: I’m usually working on different things at the same time, in part because it’s important to let a manuscript cool off a bit between drafts. I usually write a draft of a story or a novel and then let it sit for a few months, so I can get a cold read on it later. In the meantime, I might push forward on a different book. In the case of picture books, the process really is conducive to working on multiple stories at the same time. If I write the text to a picture book, it will take the illustrator upwards of a year to do the artwork — which is really an unfair advantage we writers have — and in the meantime I can get going on something else. So in a way, it involves compartmentalization, but the compartments are not airtight.
BB: I sometimes think that authors who have sacrificed the proper small animals to the illustration gods reap the rewards later. In your case it must have been quite the fine fat goose indeed to not only receive interior art from noted graphic novelist Aaron Renier, but also cover art from the Fan brothers. Did you have any input on the art during the creation of this book? How did it line up with the images already in your head?
DE: In the case of The Lifters, I had a notion of what the cover might look like, so I did the crudest sketch imaginable, and the Fan Bros took it from there, and made the spectacular image on the cover. They really are extraordinary.
For the interior, I wanted the book to appeal to reluctant readers, like the reader I was as a kid, so I knew a certain frequency of images was crucial. I’ve seen so many readers, boys in particular, tune out if there’s no imagery on a given spread. It’s a weird phenomenon, but it’s true, and I know that was essential for me when I was a young reader: If I flipped through a book and there wasn’t the right ratio of text to pictures, I would put it down.
Because I wanted some kind of imagery on every spread, I asked Aaron Renier if he’d be willing. I knew he could create very mysterious and moody worlds like he did with Walker Bean, and I knew — because he illustrates for kids at 826 Chicago— that he was fast. Because we needed to do so many images on a somewhat tight schedule, the publisher let me and Aaron handle the process, communicating directly. The conversation was open and free and ridiculously fun all the way through.
BB: If The Lifters owes its style, pacing, or ideas to any other beloved children’s books, what would those books be?
DE: I really set out to write an all-ages book that I would have wanted to read as a kid, but that wouldn’t bore an adult who might be reading it aloud to a class or child at bedtime. So to that end I re-read a bunch of classics from my own youth, but I can’t say any of them helped me in this case. The one author who helped show me the way was Kate DiCamillo. Her book The Tiger Rising demonstrated the mix of naturalism and magical realism that I wanted to achieve. I wanted The Lifters to represent a world that was very familiar to a young reader, with schools and homes and streets and hills, but then it has this pulsing mystery just beneath the surface.
BB: Will we be seeing more children’s books from you in the future?
DE: There are a bunch more in various stages of production. Shawn Harris is finishing the art for a book called What Can a Citizen Do? and the great Laura Park is illustrating a silly picture book called Abner and Ian Get Right-side Up.
I was able to do an event for The Lifters yesterday, and met a bunch of young readers, a few of whom had already read it, even though it came out a week ago. That was really trippy, and led to a very great conversation with a 9-year-old named Rena. Every time I meet a young reader who’s read something I wrote, it just knocks me flat.
As you probably know, I grew up down the road from Evanston, and went to high school with Amy Krouse Rosenthal. We got to know each other as adults, and when she started writing for young people — and this has happened with Mac and Jory, too — I saw the profound effect their work had on kids in general, and on my kids in particular. Kids are so open and impressionable, and so appreciative of the goofy and absurd, that writing for them, trying to delight and edify them, is the most enjoyable thing I think a human can do. And these authors, starting with Amy, seemed just aglow at all times, surrounded and buoyed by the purest readers there are. Now I’ve been able to live in this world for a while, I can say there’s no better place to be.
Huh! He’s right, you know. He grew up in Lake Forest, IL, which is a mere sixteen miles from my beloved Evanston. Well, many thanks to the folks at Random House Children’s Books for the chance to Q and A.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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