Nautical disaster and the American Disconnect; an interview with author Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers is an award winning author, best known for his work A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and for founding the literary magazine McSweeney’s. Amid his work running nonprofits and churning out books, he’s been touring the country in the last year, hitting up as many Trump supporter rallies as he can. He’s trying to get to the heart of… what’s going on out there.
Stemming from this period in his career, Eggers has released a new new book called The Captain and the Glory: An Entertainment. It’s the tale of a ship’s fould captain who has no knowledge of how to command a ship, but takes on the job out of a mixture of spite and a need to shake things up. The ship, named The Glory, embarks on a dangerous journey wherein the only people who seem to profit are The Captain’s incompetent and corrupt cronies.
This book may not be just about maritime life. Who’s to say?
We sat down with Dave Eggers for a discussion about the place of literature in the modern age, the dream of moving his business to KC, and where to find optimism when it is in perilously short supply.
Dave Eggers: How are things in Kansas City? Are you a Chiefs fan?
If I wasn’t, they’d run me out of town.
Eggers: Yeah, I have a good friend who is the biggest Chiefs fan. He’s in New York these days, so I have to hear about it every time you win. But my 49ers are going to be meeting you guys very soon, I think. I think it’s a collision course. Nothing standing in the way. They would be drastically different offenses, but to see our defense against Mahomes would be fascinating.
Well, speaking of people leading a team … The Captain and the Glory. I think that you must be tired, at this point, of answering people’s jokes about, “Is there a metaphor here?” Why did you choose to tell the story this way, and why did you think now was the time to tell it?
Eggers: If you’re anybody in the arts at all, you’re trying to figure out how to respond to this time. Ever since the campaign of 2016, I was so shocked and bewildered and disappointed and confused by what was going on, and what I saw as a real radical shift in the level of public discourse, civility, and decency in politics—not that politics has been this bastion of decency since the birth of the Republic, but I think that we expect some higher level of discourse. We had that for eight years.
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that Barack Obama was a very decent human, and I think he showed our children that this is how a decent adult behaves. When that changed radically, you wonder how to respond, what an appropriate way to talk about the era is.
I’ve done a lot of journalism since the campaign of 2016, and covered Trump rallies and the effect of his policies on immigrants in particular. During all of that, I felt like I was getting a sober and reasonable set of truths from the era. None of that necessarily reflected the absurd, heightened bizarre-ness of the time. So I went to fiction and I went back to satire, and I thought that maybe this is a way to get near the cartoonish level of crazy that we live in.
Using allegory, setting everything on a cruise ship—which is sort of inherently comical—and reducing the cast of characters a bit, having a smaller world with its own set of rules, it trained me to get at some deeper truths and put things in starker relief. I found some of the more essential takeaways of the time. Setting a satire in contemporary D.C. with characters that are closer to the ones we know in real life would be harder and less interesting or even funny.
Reality is outstripping the power of satire every day. But changing the venue and changing the rules of the universe a little bit sort of was cathartic for me to write, and I think it will be cathartic for people to read and laugh a bit, and I think the biggest catharsis or comfort is that this book has an ending. That’s the beauty of fiction or storytelling in general: you can contain the chaos of life within two covers. Here’s the beginning, here’s the middle, here’s the end. Whether that’s false comfort or not, at least for a moment, it gives us a way out. It finishes this chapter in American history.
Before I cracked the book, just in reading the description, there was a part of me that worried—this is tethered to a very specific time and I wonder about how it will age. By the time I finished the book, I shared your belief that this was the best manner in which to capture the absurdity of our time. This is the closest thing I’ve read to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. That’s a period I obviously didn’t live through, but I can live through the absurdity via that text, and that’s what carries on. And unfortunately finds new meaning later. That’s why your book is an important book. It feels like it will both always be anchored in this era, but that it explains our national disconnect in a way that no textbook ever could.
Eggers: I re-read Animal Farm, maybe once a year, and that was of his time in a time when communism and capitalism were battling for the souls of humanity in a way that’s not really at play as much right now. If it read in its time, I think it had a different meaning. I think readers then would’ve read different things into it, would’ve read different parallels to their time. And now, we can see it with a cold analytical eye, as more of a timeless allegory. But I don’t know if you ever read It Can’t Happen Here, the Sinclair Lewis book. When Trump was elected, It Can’t Happen Here and 1984 went back on the bestseller list. I hadn’t read it, but he had gone and interviewed dozens of people who were living through the rise of fascism in the 1930s in Europe. He sort of, as the title implies, he’s trying to apply what happened in Europe to the west, and how easily it can occur. That book, again—you’d think that it’s so specific to a time and a place, but the book is phenomenally readable, applicable, entertaining, and terrifying, with a few twists. It could all happen now, too.
You see the blueprint. Some of the best fiction has a specificity of time and place, but also a timelessness that we all search for. You can’t try to write a timeless book, you know? It won’t have any teeth, the specificity is the key. But ideally, there’s lessons for all of time. I think, with what we’re living through, we’re seeing that success, charisma and disruption is all very inclined toward self-harm. We think of elections as a protest or as an act of vandalism, or an act of gleeful disruption, sticking it to the establishment.
It’s a very strange impulse that we have.
Again and again, you don’t take our vote all that seriously, and you don’t take our president all that seriously, and we again and again elect people who we would not hire in our companies or our businesses. We hire stable, steady, honest, stalwart, true fellow humans to work with us and handle our finances and unclog our toilets. But when it comes to the presidency, we throw all of that reason to the wind, and we’re willing to roll the dice on someone who—regardless of his policies, is very erratic, very disrespectful, unpredictable, crude, ungenerous, punitive, immature, and grammatically challenged.
So history, maybe it’s always been this way, but certainly we will get to a place where we take elections more seriously. That was an odd time in the clowniest clown of all could be elected to lead a story and, in so many ways, admirable glorious nation. We’d elect what everybody would consider one of the strangest and most unreliable humans among them. That’s a weird thing for a sociologist to study, you know? Very strange. In every ancient society back to the Neanderthals, I’m sure there’s the wise elder who rules judiciously. With all of this experience, they go to this person because they are wise, cautious, thoughtful and they draw on all of their experience and they quietly issue a ruling that is acceptable to all. They go to the most stable and wisdom-filled of society. But we’ve almost done the opposite here, which is just very interesting from an anthropological perspective.
Thinking of politics as self-harm, that strikes a big chord in me because I know I would be much happier if I didn’t spend all day every day with a phone in my hand, switching between news apps and social media and then watching news in front of me on the TV at the same time. I probably am not affecting anything except making myself miserable for the last three years.
Eggers: I try to get my politics in gulps. I think we all have to find ways to live in this time because you know, yesterday, the president, a man who is—I think he’s 70? He retweeted a doctored photo of two of his political opponents wearing traditional Muslim clothing in an effort to somehow shame or insult them with this association that he considers undesirable. Also, he somehow tries to conflate them—there’s no way to even explain what he did in a way that makes sense or is acceptable or isn’t outrageous and completely unprecedented.
We spent so long waiting for an impeachable crime, when I think something as even comparatively minor as that—if we do take ourselves seriously, and we do have a sense of decency, and we have respect for the office of the presidency and the honor of the White House, or we attach honor to it, that act alone of insulting and trying to slander one’s political enemies through association with a military leader of Iran, that itself is an impeachable act. That is a misdemeanor and a high crime, too. That is completely beyond the pale.
But we’ve come to expect so little of Trump, and we have such low expectations for his behavior and thus the behavior of any president, that we’ve completely lost our way. We’ve lost the scale, the proportionality, we’ve lost the sense of decency, and what is decent and who we are in relation to that. We can’t recognize it anymore. That one act would have led to the downfall of any other sitting president, I really think so. But because we’re the frogs, and we’ve been in this boiling water for so long, we don’t know anymore the signs of our own boiling in a bubbling cauldron of insanity.
As the author of The Circle, you might have an opinion on this, but do you think that it’s possible that social media is dividing us?
Eggers: There’s so few places where everyone comes together to get one set of news. Social media has made it insanely easy to put oneself in an echo chamber where you only hear the same voices again and again, and they’re heightened and they’re outraged and they’re hyper-partisan. If you look at the numbers for any one newscast, whether it’s MSNBC or CNN or Fox News or whatever, they are so much smaller in terms of viewership than it used to be when you were watching Cronkite or you had a few other choices, and all of those newscasters were, I think, somewhat centrist and moderate and everybody was sharing one conversation.
I like the democratization of the media landscape. I like that I can create a blog or a social media venue that has potentially unlimited readership or listenership. I think it’s a good thing. But at the same time, it had this unexpected consequence. People are no longer interested in a central, moderate conversation, but more feeding on—engorging on the most extreme, self-replicating opinions. I think it does create a hyper-partisanship. If you only read one left-leaning news site every day, and that news site demonizes even the middle, where Biden is considered a Republican, etc, etc, then I think it’s inevitable that you lose sight of the nuances of a political debate and the rationality.
You lose interest in the middle ground, you lose interest in the humanity of every part of the political spectrum, and you really stop listening to the other side. I don’t know how many venues or opportunities there are just to meet and listen to people with different political beliefs.
It’s one of the reasons I started going to Trump rallies. I could not understand why fellow rational adults could support this clearly unqualified person. Then, when I met the people, I almost invariably liked everyone I met, right when the articles of impeachment were handed down. I met so many people that I liked. We had all of these reasonable conversations and debates with people were willing to listen. I listened, they listened, and it became almost invariably that we found ourselves inches away in terms of differences. I think that almost everybody I met would be convince-able that there may be a better way. I really do think—I’ve never met an unchangeable mind, actually. Maybe I just get lucky in the people I meet.
I do find everybody to be very reasonable and malleable. In the aggregate of these rallies, it can look mindless and sometimes scary. But individually, I think voters can be convinced. But we do have a lot of education to do, from kindergarten on I’d say, that democracy is serious and sober, governing matters, and people that occupy every office from the city council to the presidency should be the best among us. You know? We should be always electing not the flashiest, loudest person, but the most reasonable, most empathetic and in some cases, not necessarily the most charismatic among us.
It ties into something that makes politics in the midwest for us very tricky. It’s difficult to be left-leaning here because, as difficult as the conversations are across the aisle, there’s also a sort of dismissive tone about being a flyover state. Everyone out here in a state that went to Trump is therefore a Trump supporter. It creates a complicated box that trickles down to making the language of big ideas fall apart.
Eggers: You know, that blue-red designation is only, what, twenty years old? Wasn’t it from 1998 election, I think? It’s very new. It was done by one of the networks just to kind of indicate on the electoral map which way a state had voted. That quirk of one producer’s idea on a network broadcast has further divided us.
I’m from Illinois, I grew up in a farm region of central Illinois. So my older brother was a Republican who worked for the George Bush Foundation, etc. So I’ve always been intimately aware of and in constant conversation with conservatives, and I’m always able to have productive conversations with them. The history of bipartisanship in this country when both sides are acting in the public interest…I love these bipartisan anecdotes and pieces of legislation. The McCain-Lieberman bill comes to mind. So many pieces of legislation that relied on a spirit of compromise.
In Congress, when you’ve been elected to do something, you’ve no choice but to get it done. This has changed quite a bit, there are so few examples. It’s become difficult to compromise in the eyes of politicians, and voters, too. I don’t think that they’re aware necessarily of what it means to pass legislation and how it’s done and that there are two sides.
So I’m obsessed with the educational part of all of this. We’ve got to do better with educating ourselves and our kids of the countless examples of bipartisan cooperation that led to every good thing that we have in this country. Neither side is going away. We’re not going to be—one of the two parties is not going to disappear, so we have no choice but to cooperate with each other and stop villain-izing each other. I think the blue, red- purple, all of these colors, they oversimplify all of these political beliefs. They make it seem intractable and unchangeable, how a state could vote.
I can’t stand the term “flyover state,” it’s just one of the most offensive things I’ve ever heard. The fact that it persists and you hear rational people say it, it’s toweringly offensive. I grew up in what you would call a flyover state, but also grouping all of the complexities of any given state together because at the end of the day, the electoral votes went one way and not the other, is dangerously simplistic. Anything simplified becomes easier to pretend to understand in a few moments. All of that can become dehumanizing and leads to a dark path. If we just assume that we are all purple, that not only within the state you’ll find every kind of voter, but in each human there’s complexity and convince-ability.
The last guy I interviewed at this Hershey rally was wearing a Trump Santa hat that said, “Make America Great” on it, and he said every last thing that, normally, a Trump supporter would say about Biden, about the Clintons, but he also revealed that he had voted for Obama twice and even volunteered for him in 2008. That was shocking to me, because he seemed to fit into the stereotype of a Trump voter. But minds change. They can be drawn to one person or cause, and then be drawn to what would seem to be the polar opposite a few years later. I think that should give us all hope, especially in this election. I think Trump’s bloc is going to flex and try to get to a vision of a better America.
In terms of changing minds, we’ve identified that this is a period of terrible data and instant news and flawed echo chambers and so on, and so forth. Do you see that there’s a purpose for literature in modern politics? What do you think that the role is of the books that you write right now? Do you think that somebody might pick up The Captain and the Glory and have their minds changed?
Eggers: There’s a role for books. They can get to a level of complexity that the news can’t necessarily get at. Books are so valuable to really get at the nuance of the country and tell complicated stories about individuals, we’re all worthy of that. Even if we can’t do that, we can at least give every human the benefit of the doubt and know that that complexity exists.
We can display all of these colors if we can allow for the fact that we do not know somebody by what they wear or anything like that. It would certainly work to lower the volume and lower the tension. I think that we are becoming more and more judgmental and quick to punish and dismiss society. Inherently, we’re a punitive society. We implicitly support the criminal justice system, that’s part of our DNA. But maybe we can alter it to be more empathetic.
Your last book was a children’s book called The Lifters, which was about finding hope. In the process of writing that, did you burn through all of your optimism for the year?
Eggers: [laughter] I think that Lifters was based, in part, on a town that I spent some time in, in rural Pennsylvania, a steel town. Pennsylvania’s a state that I love and am fascinated by, it’s so beautiful and so complex. It’s got all of these beautiful little towns that have fallen on hard times, and I thought that that would be a good setting for a story that I already had in mind: kids being tasked with being the only ones who know how to hold up life in a collapsing town. I saw that as only vaguely timely or topical, but obviously there are parallels. I started it before the 2016 election, but it might have been published after and took on a new meaning as everything does.
But I’m always optimistic, weirdly. Even though I’m outraged and despairing all the time, more than anything I’m bewildered because everyone I met at that rally were good people. I was in line at the parking lot, in the rain, it was about 30 degrees, for three and a half hours. I was just waiting in line, I wasn’t sitting in the press pool or anything—
Well, who would sit in the press pool at a Trump rally? That’s the Splash Zone.
Eggers: Yeah, that’s a whole other story. So moving among people and chatting and sharing food under umbrellas, everything is calm and there’s nobody—these are not rallies of racism and hate. They just aren’t. Even though Trump blows a dog whistle and stirs up so much prejudice and hate himself, the people that come to the rallies are families and working people and farmers. People you could talk to, are decent, and trustworthy. That’s what’s so confusing to me: why would they put their faith in and vote for somebody who is not any of these things.
That’s what I was trying to get at here (with The Captain and the Glory), you try and take all of these people who coexist on a ship for so long and have respect for each other despite their differences, and suddenly one half of them put control of their lives in the hands of somebody that previously had never been taken seriously, who had just been taking upskirt photos. That’s how bizarre it is, and I think that’s the sense of betrayal that has bewildered them. So many of us mix every day with everybody from every part of the political spectrum. I think that there’s a weird sense that we just can’t quite understand how reckless our fellow humans can be with democracy. I despair that. I don’t despair the essential goodness of the country. We need to self-educate ourselves and our children. It’s an incredibly heavy responsibility we have to choose the very best among us. That’s the only thing I think we’ve gotta get right.
Finally, any big memories of your time in Kansas City you’d like to share?
Eggers: A good friend of mine who is the editor of The Believer had a great wedding in Kansas City, and we got to explore the city deeper. We had a moment when all of us at The Believer and McSweeney’s came back to San Francisco and were like, “Why don’t we move everything to Kansas City?” We’d get more space, there wouldn’t be incredibly towering rents that we have living here, and we could start over and maybe occupy one of the beautiful buildings downtown. You still have views and sloping hills, you just have to deal with the snow. The whole staff, ten, fifteen years ago, everybody went to this wedding for a few days. It was too logistically complicated to do that, but I do think that it’s a beautiful place. I’m an admirer of that era of downtown architecture that not all cities preserved. Cities like Albany and Buffalo, some towns have still preserved some of their best architecture from the 20s on. I haven’t been there in a bit, so maybe I’ll head over there.
Anyway, we’ll see you guys at the Superbowl.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Captain and the Glory is available now wherever books are sold.