Who says print isn’t dead? Dave Eggers, of course


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Eggers the innovator?

It seems too charmingly quirky when Dave Eggers says he only checks his e-mail twice a day — in his car outside of a carpet store. “I did have Internet access [at home] for four months once,” he said.

But charmingly quirky is Eggers, who spoke with L.A. Times Book Editor David Ulin at the Festival of Books on Saturday afternoon. Egger’s appearance at the festival comes the day after he was awarded the current-interest prize for his most recent book, “Zeitoun,” as well as the inaugural innovator’s award at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.


From all appearances, he’s out to push the boundaries of publishing, but “I’m actually quite a traditionalist,” he says. At McSweeney’s, the self-declared offbeat independent press Eggers founded, “We’re trying to make the business model rational, scalable, reasonable,” he says with a shrug.

By adopting a ‘how-hard-can-it-be’ attitude, McSweeney’s has tackled projects that other publishers won’t touch, like its acquisition of John Sayles’ most recent (rather hefty) novel. “Thirteen hundred pages of Sayles! Can you imagine!” said Eggers, burrowing his fists into his temples, googly-eyed at the prospect of so much quality writing.
It’s this undiminished excitement that makes Eggers innovative. At a time when most major publishers are enveloped in doom and gloom, Eggers’ faith in the power of the printed word sets him apart.

“It’s the best time in the history of the printed word to be a publisher or a writer,” he said. “People want to declare the death of the printed word. It’s always our tendency to assume something is dying. It’s a fun thing to do, but it doesn’t always make sense.”
Although Eggers is perhaps most well-known for his bestselling memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (Simon & Schuster, 2000), in the last year he wrote the screenplay and subsequent novel adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are”; published a nonfiction account of an immigrant’s experience after Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun” (McSweeney’s, 2009); and led the team that produced the 300-page onetime newspaper experiment, Panorama.

This is the guy who checks his e-mail outside a carpet store?

Yup. It’s also the same person who founded 826 National, an after-school tutoring and writing workshop for kids ages 6 to 18 based in eight cities around the U.S. Students respond to prompts such as “10 ways to make your parents cool” and “what to do when your tail falls off,” and each 826 chapter publishes an array of books featuring the students’ work.

“If they can exist in a book, have their name typeset, have it bound and put on a shelf, that gives a sense of permanence, dignity. They have a platform, and they’ve been heard,” said Eggers. “Even if their stories are rather silly.”
The same could be said for Eggers. His irreverent, whimsical approach to publishing, writing and teaching doesn’t diminish its powerful result. “I’m a book guy, so we try to use the book as a tool for self-empowerment,” said Eggers, the writer and publisher who still believes in the future of the tactile, ink-on-paper, heavy-in-your-hands kind of book. How innovative.

— Megan Kimble