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Dossier: Dave Eggers, a Renaissance Man to the Max

By Julissa James

Author-activist Dave Eggers. (Donna Grethen)

Let’s just say you run into Dave Eggers at a coffee shop in the Mission District. Without knowing any better, you might easily just chalk him up as one of the Bay Area’s signature brand of cool, artsy, progressive dads who still have killer heads of hair. It’s an actual genre here. To be fair, Eggers is all those things — and not to blow his super-down-to-earth cover — but he’s also one of the most ambitiously prolific and distinct literary voices of our time. No biggie!

The longtime San Franciscan is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, best-selling author, editor, publisher, journalist, activist —hold on, we’re catching our breath — philanthropist, teacher, screenwriter and catalyst for new talent. Since breaking onto the scene in the new millennium with his postmodern memoir, A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Eggers has built an impressive body of work spanning multiple realms — none of which he flexes on social media because like any true indie guy, he doesn’t use it. Let’s review here, shall we?

It’s why his hair’s so big: It’s filled with ideas!

Eggers has a mile long list of accolades and awards, but what is arguably his most overlooked attribute sits not in his head, but on top of it: an indestructible mane of corkscrew curls. You’d think his time spent covering a 2016 Trump rally in Sacramento for the Guardian (which spawned 2019’s satirical jab at the Trump administration, The Captain and the Glory: An Entertainment) would have thinned it out a little — or at least dulled its shine — but alas, his vivacious coif holds on strong.

Staggering genius

The year is 2000. Eggers, peak curls, is a 29-year-old hipster who had just put out his first book, a lightly fictionalized memoir that chronicled his parents’ close, untimely deaths in the early ’90s, his move to the Bay Area from the Chicago suburbs, and stepping up to raise his 8-year-old brother while working in the world of indie magazines. It became an instant cult classic, regarded as an irony-tinged masterpiece.

Michiko Kakutani is a fan

If another great voice of our time, Carrie Bradshaw, taught us anything, it’s that a review from the legendary New York Times book critic could either make or break a writer. And with Kakutani bestowing her potent seal of approval on Eggers’ debut, dubbing the young writer “staggeringly talented,” he shot straight to the top.

Passion project

A crucial part of Eggers’ persona is “philanthropist-activist.” In 2002, he and educator Nínive Calegari co-founded 826 Valencia, a world-renowned nonprofit that offers free creative-writing workshops for local kids behind a wonderfully quirky storefront (three words: pirate supply shop). It now has three centers in the City: its Mission location, the Tenderloin and Mission Bay. The model also spawned 826 National, a separate organization that helps other cities launch similar writing centers. There are nine others so far.

Dave Eggers co-founded the nonprofit, 826 Valencia, which offers creative-writing workshops. (Donna Grethen)

Married another super-successful writer

Do you ever wonder how partners with such prosperous careers in the same field make it work? According to Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida, a San Francisco native, award-winning author and editor in her own right, “Being married to another writer is easy. You share a love of books and an understanding that you don’t want to linger over dinner,” she told the Guardian in 2011. The pair met in the City in 1998, have been married since 2003, and have two children.

McSweeney’s

Eggers burnished his alt-literary dude image in 1998 by establishing McSweeney’s, an indie publishing house and quarterly magazine. It still churns out unique, cutting-edge works with a big focus on supporting talent. The Believer, the beloved literary glossy co-founded by his wife, Vida, with the writers Heidi Julavits and Ed Park, was published by McSweeney’s from 2003 to 2015.

What’s the opposite of a one-hit wonder?

Eggers’ work ethic should be scientifically studied, bottled and sold. (I’d buy it.) His latest — of countless books — are insightful observations of American culture today: The Circle (2013), a critique of the tech world set in a dystopian Silicon Valley-esque place, was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson; The Monk of Mokha (2018) is an immigrant tale about a Yemeni San Franciscan who is trying to revive the coffee of his culture; The Parade (2019) is a suspenseful story of the role that two foreigners play in a nation’s peace.

Authors supporting auteurs

“When I read Boots’ script, I’d just published The Circle and it struck me that we were both picking up on changes we’ve seen in the Bay Area,” Eggers told the New York Times of Oakland filmmaker Boots Riley’s award-winning film Sorry to Bother You, the screenplay of which was first published in McSweeney’s. “There’s this strangely sinister cast to life here sometimes, where it’s still idyllic and free and open but also there’s a sense of consolidation of power, of wealth and of control that was never part of the Bay before.”

Obama-approved

The Obama Foundation tapped Eggers in 2018 to interview Barack Obama about their mutual city of Chicago, social change and our responsibilities to engage as American citizens. During their conversation, our former POTUS called Eggers’ writing and his work with 826 National “an exercise of power.”

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