Dave Eggers: ‘If you sell your soul to Amazon, you get better sales’

The American author is an active member of the technological resistance in his writing and his way of life: he works on a small boat with no internet, doesn’t own a smartphone and isn’t selling his new book on the e-commerce platform

Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers in Madrid.Elisa S. Fernández

Dave Eggers writes on a boat. “A boat as big as this table,” he explains in the Madrid hotel where the interview takes place. “Basically, it’s in a dock in the San Francisco Bay. I go there and I sit down with my computer, which is 20 years old and has never been connected to the internet, and I write.” Eggers has followed this routine ever since he had to go online at home during the pandemic. “I have two kids and we installed internet at home because they had to attend class and do their homework online. Our home is very different since.”

Eggers is in Spain with his 16-year-old daughter, who is in Madrid for a summer camp to learn Spanish. He is here to promote his new book, The Every, the second part of his 2013 novel The Circle, which tells the terrifying story of an idealistic worker at a company of the same name, an imaginary firm that is a combination of Facebook, Google and Apple. The Every becomes the new name of the company after it absorbs Amazon to become the biggest and most powerful organization in the world, and also the most sinister and controlling. In The Every, a 20-something woman called Delaney Wells gets a job at the company to attempt to bring it down from within.

However, to say Eggers hates the internet would be a falsehood. For example, his publishing company, McSweeney’s, has a website. What he hates is what he describes as the “perversity of the internet.” The fact that we spend 24 hours a day connected and that the big tech companies know our every move. “We did not make The Every available on Amazon in the US and it’s very hard because they are everywhere. They’re like an octopus. Everywhere. Printing, distribution, metadata… everything is controlled by Amazon. So, to avoid them, you have to be like a mouse through the labyrinth. And it’s really complicated. In the end we managed to sell it through 1,000 small bookstores in the US. You earn half the money. If you sell your soul to Amazon, you get better sales.”

It is these kinds of choices, the daily sacrifices that have to be made to avoid being controlled, that The Every really investigates. “I think it’s still possible that there will be a merger [of Amazon, Facebook and Apple] at some point because everything eventually merges. And I think people will be very happy. It’s so easy to give up any amount of freedom. To give up control for convenience. And so the question I ask myself is: will anyone care? Will anyone fight? Will anyone resist the convergence?”

Eggers considers himself part of the resistance: he does not own a smartphone, for example. “It’s not right because it’s not democratic, it’s not egalitarian, it’s not moral to have a $2,000 phone to participate in public life, you know. And increasingly in the US it’s very difficult to live in an analog way. I am a dinosaur. To go to, like, a baseball game, they want you have to your ticket on your phone. And if they want it, they get it. They don’t know what to do with a piece of paper. Maybe once a week, there’s some difficult moment because I don’t have a smartphone.” His dream is to witness a refoundation of the internet. “Make it more ethical. I know my books aren’t optimistic, my hope is to scare people into action. But in my life, I’m always optimistic. I think there’s an opportunity, it’s just up to people to make a choice.”

When Eggers first arrived on the scene in 2000, he was included in the new generation of postmodern, English-language literature, a school that wasn’t sure if it was revolutionary or simply playful and astounding, led by David Foster Wallace and which encompassed practically everything from Chuck Palahniuk to Zadie Smith, via Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Eggers’ calling card was what remains the most widely praised of his books, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an autobiographical account detailing how, after the death of his parents, he took care of his younger brother. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and was named book of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time.

 Dave Eggers: “It's so easy to give up any amount of freedom. To give up control for convenience.”
Dave Eggers: “It's so easy to give up any amount of freedom. To give up control for convenience.”Elisa S. Fernández

Eggers followed that up with You Shall Know Our Velocity, his first novel, which was published in three different versions with different titles and different narrators, and What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006), a book of protest in the form of a novelized biography centering on a Sudanese civil war refugee. Written in the first person, it was a social and editorial phenomenon at a time when Eggers was being talked about as the most influential young writer in the US. He was also editing two literary magazines, McSweeney’s and The Believer, which managed to catch the public’s attention in a country that has more than 100 top-end literary publications. He appeared to fall out of fashion after that but he remained a successful author with books including Zeitoun (2009), A Hologram for the King (2012) and The Circle.

Over time, Eggers’ style has become ever more traditional. There are no conventional adventures, but he retains his finely tuned humor. “The absurdity of it and the comedy of it have to be there. First is the darkness and the nightmare of things. But my favorite books have this comedic surface, whether it’s Don Quixote or Catch 22. And the horror is right there, right below. That’s the best combination because that’s the way the world is and that’s the way day-to-day life is in the US: horror and beauty are right next to each other at all times and in any moment. It’s a beautiful place, a great place in so many ways. But we are a barbarian society.”

In 2019, Eggers and his family spent a few months living in Spain’s Canary Islands – “trying to get away from Donald Trump for a bit” – and the writer was taken aback by the contrast with his home country. “Spain is the most evolved country in the world. There’s no violence. Democracy is relaxed, even though you have activist groups like [far-right party] Vox or whatever. There are people like that anywhere. But in terms of day-to-day life, it’s saner and more civilized. And it was such a relief. I came away so calm. People would ask me: ‘How was it in Spain?’ Everything here is rational while the US is not fully evolved. On a scale of social evolution, the US is below France and above everywhere else is Spain.”

When he is told that most Spaniards do not share that perception, that Spanish democracy is perceived as being imperfect, Eggers responds: “Well I say it all the time: this is not the United States. I say all the time that we’re not evolved and we’re going backward. And right now, we are becoming a Christian theocracy. Groups that seem like Christian Taliban are taking over in many cities in the country.”

He gives an example to back his theory. In May, he found out that The Circle had been removed from reading lists at a high school in Rapid City, a town of 67,000 inhabitants in South Dakota. It was one of five books – four novels and a memoir – that were considered unsuitable reading for high school seniors. Eggers decided to go and see for himself how such a thing could be possible. “I went there and a bunch of Christian fundamentalists had taken over the school board, and that was the reason why. They banned the book because of two pages of sex. Two! All of the books that they banned only had a few pages that talked about sex. But the whole board were people from the church. They have no kids at the school. Not one. But they want to control the cultural conversation by controlling the school board and saying: ‘These books are not acceptable.’ You cannot talk about LGBTQ issues. You cannot talk about local politics. You cannot talk about the legacy of slavery. We’re going to have a white Christian narrative. And this is happening all across the country. It’s happening. More books are being banned now than ever before. A thousand a year all over the country. But, you know, I think it’s solvable. I think we can get out of this one. We got rid of Trump and he started of all of this. I mean, he woke us all up.”

There has been speculation that The Every will be turned into an HBO series scripted by Rachel Axler, who has previously worked on The Daily Show, How I Met Your Mother and Veep. Until now, only two of Eggers’ novels have been adapted for the screen, A Hologram for the King and The Circle. In both, Tom Hanks plays the lead. “It’s not a coincidence,” says Eggers. “They were related because it was during filming for Hologram in Morocco that he read the script for The Circle. I was visiting the set for two days and we talked about it then. And he has a production company and they produced both movies to some extent. It’s very easy to work with Hanks.”

In the movie version of The Circle, the ending is different. Less sinister. “I think that the ending is still dark, but not as dark as the book, that’s true,” says the author. “To be honest, I’ve tried never to get involved too deeply [with the movies]. I’ve been writing and promoting the book for two years and then the movie takes another two years, so I don’t want to be involved in one story for four years. I think: you make the movie and I show up on set for a day or two. And there’s only so much I can do. What’s weird about a movie is that you can have a really nice time making it, and then the movie is not so good. You never know. So much of it is up to chance and it’s so hard to make a good movie. It’s so much harder than you think. I can say they tried a lot of different endings for The Circle but none of them worked. I prefer a quiet life.”

Quiet, except when Eggers gets caught up in sketches like the one concerning The Believer. “A few years ago, we sold it to the University of Nevada. They bought it for a non-profit organization that is affiliated with the university. And there was a small scandal during the pandemic: a man working for the magazine did a zoom call naked from the waist down. Really crazy. And then they wanted to sell it to restore the university’s good name. A pornography site bought it. That makes no sense. And everybody was so upset. All the writers who had been published on there wrote to the owner. People donated money. We talked to him and he said, okay, I’ll give it back to you. He donated it. So it was all fine and it worked out fine, but it was just bizarre series of events. Now we have to start it up again,” Eggers says, in a way that suggests it will be a mammoth task. “I mean, it might be fun, but it’s been years since it belonged to us. It’s weird to start doing something again when you haven’t done it for so long. What I really like doing is getting up and reading for three hours every morning and going to my boat to write with birds, fishermen and sea lions all around me, and maybe taking a small nap.” He spends so much time on his boat, has he ever considered buying a bigger one? “No, no, it’s perfect. Just the right size. Only room for one person.”

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