Dave Eggers: “The Freedom of the Artist Has to Be Absolute.”
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Dave Eggers is the guest. His new all-ages novel The Eyes and the Impossible, is available from McSweeney’s and Knopf Books for Young Readers. Illustrations by Shawn Harris.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: There’s an incredible diversity to the work that you’ve done as a writer and an artist through the years. You’ve obviously written adult fiction. You’ve written children’s books. This is an all ages book. You’ve done journalism work. A nonfiction book. Oral history. Screenwriting.
I’m curious to know about that part of it for you, because I think there is a school of thought that might posit that one should focus on something and just lock in and do that thing over and over again, which is what a lot of writers do. If they write literary fiction, they’re novelists. That’s it. They don’t even write story collections. They just do novels.
You have a more diversified output, and I’m wondering how you experience that. You must feel like it gives you something rather than takes something away. But I think there might be people out there who are like, is this a wise path? Is it distracting at times? Do you find yourself starting things and not finishing things? Do you ever feel like you’ve lost the thread and you’re overextended?
Dave Eggers: Well, I think that you’re talking about freedom, right? And this is the major theme of this book, is that if you are beholden as an artist to some perception of, well, what’s the right way to go through a short life in a universe perhaps without meaning, and if you’re going to say, well, the right way is to write variations on the same novel every four years until I’m dead, that’s a very sad, sad way to go through life.
And if that is someone’s way and they want to do it that way—and I do know artists that are very methodical and they’re very happy with their method, with it being every once a decade you put out a work of art, whether it’s a book or an opera or something. If that is your way and if that is the way that you feel most happy and—to use a terrible word—fulfilled, then great.
But when I hear or or feel like somebody is going through their life as an artist in a way because they think that that is the right way or that they will be perceived as having done it the right way or the most appropriate way for them, that is a tragedy. To be given the gift of writing or creating for a living and then to cage yourself within the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable is just the worst tragedy of all.
I feel every day so lucky to be able to do this, to be able to get up in the morning and create stuff and think about wooden covers for a book about a dog at a park. I mean, it’s just ludicrous luck. And I think that the best way to honor that luck is to do anything you want to do. And if it ends up being not a total success however you judge it, then that’s fine.
But in a short life—and I’m exquisitely aware of how short life can be—I want to do anything I want to do. So if tomorrow somebody pulled up in front of the office here at 849 Valencia and said, Hey, do you want to go on a cross-country trip in a car shaped like a banana, and we’re going to visit all of the national parks that have waterfalls and we’re going to adopt a bobcat and name them Steve—if I felt like doing that that day, then certainly I would. That’s such a weird example. I don’t know why I was thinking about that. Weirdly, my daughter and I were in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I went to school, and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and the Planters Peanut mobile were both on the same street at the same time, waiting one after another in traffic. It was the most incredible thing. So it’s on my mind.
But I do know what you’re saying. When I was a very young writer in my twenties, I did sometimes look at older artists and say, well, I love your prose, why are you writing screenplays? I don’t think that’s cool. But I think generally that is the mindset of very early twenties. There’s a certain amount of ignorance, there’s a certain amount of cynicism, there’s a certain amount of wrongheadedness. And I think that sort of self-enforced adherence to what’s cool or what’s acceptable is so contrary to the entire idea of being an artist, which is about living fully freely.
That’s when any kind of incursion into that freedom, any kind of encroachment of that freedom, is really upsetting to me. And we’re seeing more of it now, whether it’s banning books on the right or whether it’s censoring books on the left, like they did with Roald Dahl—these are all encroachments into freedom. And we have to remember that the freedom of the artist has to be absolute. Otherwise there’s no art, because then we’re just writing pamphlets or it’s state-sponsored creation. It’s the same thing as under the Soviets, where we’re in service to some political message. The artist must be absolutely untethered. And whether or not that art is good or bad or whatever, that’s fine. But there can be no rules about creation. We might not love every last thing that this artist does, but they have to be completely untethered.
Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including bestsellers The Every, The Monk of Mokha, The Circle, A Hologram for the King, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. His work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company based in San Francisco, and cofounder of 826 National, a network of educational centers around the country offering free tutoring to kids of all backgrounds. He lives in Northern California with his family.
Shawn Harris is the author/illustrator of Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, which won a Caldecott Honor Award. He is the illustrator of Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, which received seven starred reviews, was an Orbis Pictus Award Honor Book, an ALA Notable, and a PW Best Book of the Year. His other picture books include Eggers’s What Can a Citizen Do (a Time Magazine Best Children’s Book), Everyone’s Awake by Colin Meloy, and A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett.