This Dog’s Life

Writing fast and slow with Dave Eggers.

the eyes and the impossible, dave eggers, novel
Brecht von Maele

Dave Eggers has been thinking about a dog for over 20 years. Not just any dog, mind you, but one so free and so fast that when he runs, he can “pull at the earth and make it turn.”

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

“No one has seen me running because when I run human eyes are blind to me,” says Johannes, the exuberant, immodest canine narrator of Eggers’s new book, The Eyes & the Impossible. “I run like light.”

Eggers has written from the point of view of a fast, boastful dog before—in a short story he says may be the first he ever published. In “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” which appeared in Speaking with the Angel, a Nick Hornby–edited collection from 2000, the dog narrator brags, “I’m fast-fast. It’s true and I love being fast.”

“I’d had revisiting that voice in my head for 23 years because it was the most fun I’d had writing before or since,” Eggers told me recently. “The freedom he’s talking about is a lot of the freedom I felt as a writer.”

Freedom has been a leitmotif in Eggers’s writing and career since the debut of his wildly successful memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in 2000. That book was about the dizzying, unwanted kind that comes of watching one’s parents die and suddenly finding “oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.” The memoir’s release made Eggers a publishing phenom, and he was quickly hemmed in by critics and journalists who wanted to paint him—sometimes simplistically, other times darkly—as a hipster, a huckster, a heartthrob, or (shudder) his generation’s voice. Looking back at old articles about Eggers, you can see him (when he deigned to speak to reporters at all) chafing against every label and expectation put on him.

With the success of A Heartbreaking Work, Eggers freed himself. He started a journal called Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, then a magazine called the Believer, and began releasing most of his books through his own San Francisco–based publishing company, also called McSweeney’s.

In the decades since the memoir, Eggers has also freed himself of genre, ranging wildly from a fictionalized account of a real-life Sudanese refugee’s story, What Is the What; to book-length reportage in The Monk of Mokha; to the male-midlife-crisis novel A Hologram for the King; to a family story, Heroes of the Frontier. He’s collaborated on children’s books, like This Bridge Will Not Be Gray (with Tucker Nichols) and The Lights & Types of Ships at Night (with Annie Dills); created speculative worlds in his tech-skeptical novel The Circle and its sequel, The Every; and delivered broad political satire in The Captain and the Glory. He’s published his illustrations in It Is Right to Draw Their Fur and put out stuff that belongs to no known genre, like the series of weird educational volumes (cowritten with his younger brother, Toph) credited to Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-On-Whey.

His forays into screenwriting have featured characters who also shrug off their constraints: The expecting couple of Away We Go (cowritten with Eggers’s spouse, novelist Vendela Vida) are so unencumbered financially and geographically that they’re burdened with the decision of where to raise their child. The film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (cowritten with national treasure Maurice Sendak and director Spike Jonze) tells the story of a kid who escapes to a far-off land yet longs to be where “someone loved him best of all.”

Like the very fast dog he has thought about for decades, Eggers takes an idea and runs with it.

Two editions of The Eyes & the Impossible were released simultaneously: a hardcover (with illustrations by Shawn Harris) from Knopf Books for Young Readers and a deluxe version, with gold-edged pages and a laser-cut wood cover, put out by McSweeney’s.

The latter cover is the result of two years of research and development and seven iterations to get the laser-cut titling just right. Eggers admits he’s “a pain in the ass” when it comes to designing his books, but part of the fun for him, he says, is coming up with special editions like the one of The Eyes or the fur-covered The Wild Things, his YA adaptation of Jonze’s film.

For Eggers, all of these experiments in form are in service of the reader: “Obviously, what matters most is the story and the writing,” he says. “On top of that, you have the opportunity to make a beautiful object. If you don’t make the object beautiful, I don’t know, maybe you lose some readers who might not pick it up.”

This emphasis on the analog aspects of his books is of a piece with Eggers’s approach to writing them. He works for six-hour stretches four days a week in the cabin of a boat docked in Sausalito, typing on a 2002 MacBook that weighs a ton and has no internet connection. “To write, it’s a very solitary thing,” he says. “If it’s a writing day, I don’t answer the phone. I’m not online. I don’t do anything, and I’m unavailable.”

And while many of his contemporaries have succumbed to Twitter and Instagram, Eggers has stayed away. The distractions of alerts and incoming messages make him feel as though he’s “writing in the middle of a carnival.”

While he admits to looking at Twitter from time to time, Eggers saw early on that some of his funniest friends had invested their time in the platform, taking longer and longer to produce their work. “Instead of two years between books, it was four,” he says. “And I thought, That’s where all of your energy is going.”

“I’m not quick enough,” Eggers admits, suddenly sounding a lot more deliberative than his young dog in a hurry. “I write best when I can let something sit for two months and I can go back,” he says. Sometimes an idea needs to sit for 20 years before it really takes off.•

Matt Haber has previously worked as an editor at The Village Voice, The New York Observer, and The Atlantic.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Alta Newsletter