Sunday, April 17, 2011

Books and Bucaneers: authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida discuss the writing life

Authors and philanthropists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida describe their '826 Valencia' writing and tutoring center's pirate supply shop, located in San Francisco, as "for the working buccaneer." At first, people were puzzled by the storefront and its purpose. But, given time, both volunteers and the children they were to serve, came streaming in.

photo courtesy of
Ten years later, whether purchasing pirate hook protectors or getting free one-on-one support with their writing in the center, everyone feels at home. In the back, recycled church pews face a fish tank "theater" where even breast-feeding mothers can congregate.

In conversation with Davia Nelson, one of the two Kitchen Sisters from a National Public Radio program Hidden Kitchens, the married couple spoke to an audience of over 300 in Sonoma Country Day School's Jackson Theater in Santa Rosa, California recently as part of its Contemporary Issues Series.

Eggers, in jeans and brown blazer, and Vida, wearing a striped dress with beige cardigan, spoke  candidly about their literary lives, including running an independent publishing house, and creating nonprofits and foundations.

 "I had an unbroken stream of dedicated teachers," said Eggers, the author of seven books. His early experience prompted him to "bolster and enrich the public education system" where 40% of teachers leave by their 5th year. This year, 1700 volunteers tutored kids at the 826 site or in its school programs.

Vida, who has taught college essay writing, made sure to extend those services to local high school students, many who will be the first in their families to attend college.

"The help they need is startling," said Eggers, who added that it's important to "level the playing field."

Vida, author of the non-fiction book Girls on the Verge, about girls' ritual initiations, as well as several novels, said that working with girls at 826 reaffirms her commitment to creating realistic female characters. Her most recent novel, The Lovers, takes place in Turkey.

Before they had three kids, the couple used to take summer writing vacations to countries like Iceland and Croatia that were cheap and without the Internet as distraction. Though she didn't intend to, Vida returned to Turkey to take notes after she found herself writing about the country.

"I almost lost my mind," said Eggers about the year, early on in their relationship, when they went away with one suitcase to write. "I felt ungrounded, unneeded. There was nothing important to do but think your important thoughts and move words around." Needing balance between the solitary writing life and making an impact within a community, tutoring became one way he felt useful.

Now, with little time to spare, the couple keeps "his and her" writing sheds in the backyard. Eggers said the hardest thing about the writing life is discipline: "the need to think deeply about one thing and be pulled by something else." Cutting out television or high speed web access, he writes for eight hours at a stretch, with an occasional knock on Vida's shed for feedback. 

"Even if you write 1,000 words a day, it doesn't mean you'll keep them," said Vida, who recommended setting a daily word count, "but hopefully they'll add up to something bigger."

Both she and her husband have thrown away one novel. But she was able to salvage eight pages, which she placed at the beginning of Now You Can Go. She finished a rough draft of that novel in just a few months. But other heavily researched projects can take much longer.

Even in the midst of writing their own novels, the couple worked together on the screenplay of "Away We Go," working out the characters and dialogue in their living room. "A screenplay is a skeletal form and counts on collaboration," said Eggers. The film was directed over two years later, in 2009, by Sam Mendes.

Eggers, who was told "brutally" in college that he should not be writing at all, posted proofs of famous writers' drafts all over 826 Valencia to remind students that being successful requires "humility, discipline, doing the work and lots of drafts." Especially when it comes to heavily researched books like Zeitoun, the 2010 San Francisco One City One Book selection that emerged out of a series of oral history projects from the Voice of Witness series.

Eggers is also the founder of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house that produces a literary journal of the same title, books, and a quarterly DVD of short film and documentaries. Its monthly magazine, The Believer, was founded and edited by Vida.

The  literary journal may come packaged uniquely as a cigar box, a newspaper Sunday edition or a bundle of mail. Eggers showed off an elaborate foil stamped book cover they commissioned from Thomson-Shore, a family business in Michigan, which also printed the Autobiography of Mark Twain. Tempted to get it done more cheaply in China, they instead chose to keep a small family printer, with its craft and expertise, in business.

Eggers has come a long way from the books he made when he was young--each bound with yarn, tape or big metal rings. But these early books, which he has kept, serve as inspiration for 826 where kids can collaborate on writing and editing a book in just two hours.

A typist projects their writing onto a screen while the invisible voice of publisher "Mr. Blue" booms down from the rafters: "Are you going to give me a page or what?" Finally, his blue hand reaches out from behind the curtain to receive the manuscript, which is copied and collated by interns and staff in the back room.

"Kids buy into the theatricality of it," said Eggers. "Fear gives them motivation," he joked while the audience laughed for the hundredth time. Though eclipsed a bit by her more gregarious husband, Vida, with a quieter sensibility, was just as funny, smart and articulate.

When it comes down to it, the isolation of the writing life is "what makes writing really lonely," said Vida, who advocates joining a writing group. Connecting with others, she is convinced, "makes you feel larger than your small self in a shed."


rosaria said...

What a joy reading this post! It is both revelatory and inspirational. Yes! Yes! This is what writers do, think, get involved in.
I'm grateful to you for posting this.
With your permission, I will link to you today. Thanks in advance.

(p.s. in other words, if you say no, I will remove the link.)

Nicole R. Zimmerman said...

I'm happy to have anyone link to my blog posts! Thank you for being my most avid reader, Rosaria.

soulyluna said...

rejoice! i've been waiting for this piece to be revealed, and well worth the wait it was.

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