It’s getting late, dark and empty in Campbell Hall, and white-hot writer-publisher Dave Eggers takes ample time signing and drawing in each of his fans’ books. After waiting hours to get so close, a thirtyish intelligent-looking woman walks away from Egger’s desk with an autograph, a big smile and many nice things to say about the polite, 31-year-old best-selling author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
In person as in print, Eggers disarms and wryly charms. Monday night’s audience giggled through over an hour of loose-format reading featuring the unpredictable Eggers’ quirkiness. Props included a full-body tiger costume, chicken-head mask, and a deck of cards. Near the end, 20 student volunteers slow-danced and hesitantly kissed as part of an enactment of Eggers’ unreleased “fiction.”
“Come on UCSB,” Eggers said when the volunteers were less enthusiastic about tonguing each other like the characters in the reading, “I’ve heard stories about this school.”
Eggers teased diehard fans with screen shots of pages from his new book, flashing through the blurry and small pages, commenting, “This is when I discovered adjectives. Some of my friends told me that people really like those.” [Flick]
“Ooh! This is some dialogue. People were saying that I should put people talking in the new book, so I did the thing with the little line things to show people talking.”
In some circles, the unpublished rough drafts are worth more than the Dead Sea scrolls, so no cameras were allowed. Eggers was shocked when a woman shot her hand up and commented on a possible inaccuracy in one of the paragraphs.
“Oh my god, she proofed that page in less than a minute!” he said. “I knew it, we need to make the pages smaller.”
To say Eggers is media-shy ignores the tsunami of hype heaped on the critically raved memoir writer. Eggers was introduced in jest Monday night as the “Joyce of a new generation,” but it’s exactly that kind of hyperbolic label that makes him edgy around reporter’s notebooks. He asks me politely to put away mine and says we can talk so long as I ask “people questions.”
We talk of McSweeney’s.net, Eggers’ online collection of literate eclectica that goes heavy on lists and wry, smart humor. McSweeney’s also prints a luscious quarterly, as well as farming authors for books. McSweeney’s first novel, the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, sold through its 12,000-book run and the authors of McSweeney’s two newest books – Ben Greenman, and Lydia Davis – also started with Pollack publishing free on the web site.
McSweeney’s’ unique, low overhead, anti-hype business model stresses Internet sales, limited bookstore availability and control for the author. Pollack retained the rights to his hit anthology, made all the profits after printing costs, and sold the paperback rights to Harper Collins for a 2003 run.
Eggers is beyond busy these days and says he’s been so wrapped up with McSweeney’s that he does little side readings, save the online Onion. He’ll publish his second book through McSweeney’s in a very small run compared to the towering Barnes and Noble stacks of A Heartbreaking Work. Eggers said self-publishing is prohibitively expensive, and only worth it for small runs. He also mumbled something about too many copies of the last book and too many people reading it – one of the life-perils of writing a smash-hit memoir.
No doubt, Eggers Part Deux will undergo heavy critical scrutiny regardless of print run, though it may be impossible for Eggers not to sell all of them. Whether Eggers has calculated such a diminutive second effort to thwart the sophomore jinx, or avoid the mega-hype that engulfed him, or both – I didn’t ask. It wasn’t a people question, and he’s so damn polite that I felt bad for keeping him after his mammoth book-signing effort.
I asked for an autograph, thanked him, and left Eggers with the cleanup crew in the desolate hall. America’s Great White Hope simply sat onstage alone in his drab T-shirt and pants, holding a thick black pen and looking rather comfortable in the silence after all the genuine applause.