After the publication of his 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, critics labeled Dave Eggers the voice of a new generation. English majors adored him. The Pulitzer committee nominated him. But Eggers seemed relatively unaffected by his newfound fame. He launched a successful independent publishing house, McSweeney's, started an after-school tutoring center and went on to write a series of books that ranged from the wholly fictional (You Shall Know Our Velocity) to the almost entirely true (What Is the What). Now he has entered new literary territory with a thoroughly researched, completely factual account of one man's struggles during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That man is Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced Zay-tune), a Syrian immigrant who stays in New Orleans after the hurricane hit to look after his property and is arrested on suspicion of looting. Eggers talks to TIME about Zeitoun the book, Zeitoun the man, and why his story is worth telling.
How did you meet Zeitoun?
At the end of 2003 I was in Sudan with Valentino Deng, the protagonist of What Is the What. We met a number of women who had been abducted and enslaved as young girls. Their stories had only been told in brief accounts on human-rights reports, and I thought they needed to have a voice of some kind. A few months later I met Lola Vollen, a physician who was working with wrongfully convicted men and women in the U.S., and she said that the books out there about exonerated prisoners hadn't told the whole story. So we started a program called Voices of Witness, and the first book we put out was about exonerated prisoners. Then Katrina hit and that became the subject of our second book. We sent volunteers to Houston and Knoxville and New Orleans to interview people about their stories. Zeitoun was one of them.
What about his story made you say, "I want to write a whole book about this man"?
His family's story presents a very unique intersection of what happened during one of the worst natural disasters in American history and the problematic tendrils of the war on terror. The dysfunctional criminal-justice system, a terrorism-focused military, the Bush years I think that what happened to Zeitoun could only have happened with the intersection of all of these forces. Wrongful incarceration is an interest of mine, so it touched me on a personal level.
The first half of the book is heartwarming, though, as Zeitoun paddles around in a canoe saving people. It was unlike any depiction of Katrina I saw on the news when it happened.
The media depictions of Katrina were so skewed, and they were aided and abetted by a lot of people on the ground. Everyone painted this picture of a city divulging into utter chaos. Most of these rumors proved unfounded. Neighborhoods experienced the storm differently. The Zeitouns live in Uptown, where for most of the time it was quite peaceful; Zeitoun talks about this incredible quiet, with the only noise coming from helicopters above. I was fascinated to know just how many people remained, even in a neighborhood like Uptown where most of the people have cars and the means to leave. There was such a high rate of death among the elderly in all neighborhoods because so many of them stayed.
What Is the What was a true story marketed as fiction. Zeitoun is listed as nonfiction. Why did you make this one nonfiction, and what was the difference?
I started on the book in 2006, only a year after Katrina. Very few of Zeitoun's memories had faded. We made a master calendar when the water came up, when he was arrested, when he was transferred to the prison. For the most part we were able to independently corroborate all the dates and places and measurements. If Zeitoun said he saw a downed helicopter, I could find out online or through other journalists which helicopter that was. That made working in a strictly nonfiction environment much easier than it would have been for the war in southern Sudan, where for many years there was no news coming out of the area at all.
There's a school of thought among creative writers that journalism is not "real" writing, that only fiction or creative nonfiction is art. Do you agree?
Well, my background is journalism. I don't have any creative-writing experience except for one class I took as a sophomore in college. I worked at magazines for over 10 years before I even thought of writing a book. When I teach kids at [my tutoring center] 826 Valencia, the first thing I do is I send them out to report. They sign up for a class that they think is going to be creative writing, and I send them out to interview people. I think it's very important to know how to engage the world. If you want to write about people, you can make it up. But if you spend time talking to someone and examining what it is you want to write about, you discover a level of detail that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise.
It's been nine years since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came out, and you went from being unknown to being heralded as the voice of Generation X. What was it like when that book came out?
It was really unnerving and it shook me up a lot. I thought only a few people would ever read it. The first print run was only 8,000 or 9,000, and the publishers really thought they'd lose money on it. I also hadn't prepared for an older audience, but people with gray hair were reading it. That was unsettling because of all the cursing in the book. I was like, "Oh no, Uncle Fred is going to know I swear!" But I can't complain. I did warn Zeitoun, though. I said, "You have to know what you're getting into. This book might be huge, or it might go nowhere at all. You just never know."