Dave Eggers
“It was more fun, more joyful than any other writing I've done,” says Eggers. (Photo: Courtesy Brecht von Maele)

Dave Eggers Is 99 Percent Animal

Dave Eggers

There’s a reason the acclaimed author wrote his latest book in the voice of a dog: it enabled him to run free all over an imagined seaside park. Eggers has always been a writer compelled to break boundaries, and in The Eyes and the Impossible he’s at it again, crafting an all-ages story about a brave mutt named Johannes and his crew of committed friends: a seagull, a pelican, a racoon, and a one-eyed squirrel. Together they hatch a plan to free the park’s bison from their pens so that they, too, can roam where they will. For Eggers, who writes on a sailboat in San Francisco Bay and has a passion for unique flying experiences (old planes, ultralights, jet packs), the book was a chance to delight in a simple and pure kind of adventure storytelling.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Dave Eggers: I'm not the first or the millionth person to say it: that we were incomplete when we don't have access to the outdoors. And if we don't take that bath in the natural world regularly, there's something wrong. 

I think it's very rare to find people feeling stressed or ill at ease or like overwhelmed when they do regularly get out there and do something unchained in the woods.

If you can just like unleash and tap into that kind of primal side of yourself that's supposed to interact in an almost reckless way with the natural world. Then you come back and you can be a human again.

Michael: That's author Dave Eggers, about halfway through our recent conversation about his new book, The Eyes and the Impossible. What's curious here is that Dave is talking about how engaging with the outdoors makes us feel fully human, and yet, there are almost no humans in The Eyes and the Impossible. The book is told from the perspective of a dog. And all the other main characters are also animals: a seagull, a pelican, raccoons, a one-eyed squirrel, several bison.

The dog's name is Johannes, and he lives in a vast park within a city on the coast. He loves to eat pupusas. And he runs so fast that when he pulls on the earth, he makes it turn. At least, that's what he thinks.

If you're familiar with Dave Eggers, you know that he is a daring and extraordinarily talented writer who is compelled to break boundaries. In 2000, he published his first book, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

I'm Michael Roberts, and I remember well reading that book in my twenties, and coming upon a page early on where Dave had somewhat randomly drawn a picture of a stapler. I was like, Wait, what's going on here? For me, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a huge lesson in daring creativity—and also how to really go for it with a title.

It wasn't long after becoming famous that Dave published what was kinda sorta a predecessor to The Eyes and the Impossible.

Dave: The voice of this book I had experimented with in a short story like 20 years ago. A story called "After I Was Thrown into the River and Before I Died," which sounds pretty grim. It's actually not as grim as it sounds, but I loved writing from the perspective of a dog that exalted in his speed and everything vital about himself and sort of electric with life.

I always wanted to get back to it. And then I just, it took me that long to kind of find my way elliptically back.

Michael: It's no surprise that it took him a while: Dave, who is 53, has been busy over the last couple decades. He's written 11 novels, plus a number of short stories, children's books, and screenplays. He founded the independent publishing house McSweeney's in San Francisco's Mission District and, directly across the street, co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting under-resourced students with their writing skills.

Along the way, he's contributed pieces of journalism to a number of outlets, including a report for The Guardian from a Trump rally, a feature for The New Yorker on California's wildfires, and an 11,000-word story about the Ukraine war for The Believer, a magazine he co-created two decades ago.

All of this, it turns out, really put him in the mood to write in the voice of a dog again.

Dave: That's actually the fun of toggling between non-fiction nonfiction is that non-fiction can be a real grind. The fact-checking process and, and making sure you get it right, and that weight is so great I think.

It makes the writing not a lot of fun, you know? But so when you can kind of completely unleash yourself, I keep making that bad  pun. So some of the, the speed and the light and the writing is just me feeling free. 

Writing prose, I'm always trying to get to that place where you feel totally liberated, where the prose is flowing, freely and you're not second guessing and self-censoring and stuck. And whenever I wrote from this point of view, it just flowed like, without any interruption, without any self-doubt. It was more fun, more joyful than any other writing I've done.

Michael: Let me stop here and address something you might be wondering: If The Eyes and the Impossible is told by a dog and is all about his adventures with his animal friends, is it a kid's book? The answer is no. And yes.

Dave:  When I sat down to write it, I decided to throw away the categories and sort of write it pretty much exactly as I thought it should be and not worry about audience. 

I'm on a mini crusade to kind of make us adults feel welcome to so-called all ages or children's or middle grade books or chapter books. Again, because there is kind of a pure storytelling delight in them that is very refreshing, given sometimes the leaded-ness or depressing nature of some contemporary fiction for our own audience, you know?

Michael: So you didn't, you didn't find yourself when you were writing, feeling like, wait a minute, oh, this section, like, uh, kid's never gonna get this. I blew it. 

Dave Eggers: No, I don't think so. I mean, maybe there was some very subliminal kind of voice in me you know, steering it away from dog adultery or something like that. I don't know.

Michael: One of Dave's best-known projects is his 2009 film adaptation of the iconic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Dave co-wrote the screenplay with director Spike Jones. That film wasn't just for kids, either. And actually, neither was the book. Sendak has famously insisted that he didn't write for children.

For Eggers, The Eyes and The Impossible is an attempt, in his own stylistic way, to craft a similar kind of simple and pure narrative.

Dave: It's always stayed with me, that that type of storytelling that used to be done around the fire and could be remembered or, or could be incorporated into song or was made into epic poetry, or could be recited by heart from religious texts, or. All of them are somewhat similar in that the language is clear and memorable and not overly complex. The heroes and villains were relatively clear and issues of courage and bravery and honor and responsibility and freedom and captivity, all of these things were all very clear. It's like drinking like a clear cold glass of water sometimes when you can get that kind of storytelling. When you read Charlotte's Web or when you read Shel Silverstein or something, and I think as part of our reading diet, I think it's very nourishing.

Michael: When I sat down with Dave on a creaky leather couch in the basement of McSweeney's small office to talk about The Eyes and the Impossible, the biggest surprise I got was that he doesn't even qualify as a bonafide dog guy.

You don't own a dog and yet you wrote a book from the perspective of a dog. I'm curious what led you to, to dog if, I mean, it's, it's kind of hysterical that you don't own one. 

Dave: I write on a boat, so I, my boat is on the bay and I see sea lions and seals all day. So those are the dogs I see all day. And they live the same way. They got nothing to do. They've got no job, they've got no responsibilities. Takes them an hour a day to eat whatever they need to eat and the rest of the time they play. And that informs my sense of sort of animal consciousness, probably as much as any other animal.

But I do love dogs. It's just a weird quirk that I've never had one. I grew up with cats. We had a few attempts at having dogs that didn't work out, and then we got two cats during COVID.

And we lost one of them. Started with two, one of them died a few months in, and the other one, that was his brother, was just grieving, plainly, crying every night trying to get our attention coming up in our face and meowing, saying like, where is he? Go look. Go look for my brother. You know, it was so complicated and so evident that he understood everything just as much as we would and grieved and thought and was in the same kind of pain a human would've been.

And, um, took him, you know, months to get over it. It teaches you that you really just don't even have to guess so much or go so far into the realm of fantasy to imagine the complexity of their souls.

You know, there's a dog upstairs that just joined our office about a week ago. And I've only known 'em a few days, but it's so clear, like you can read so much into 'em.

And I think that it's so easy to recognize just how deeply they feel. How exultant they are and their abilities, speed and climbing and jumping and hunting and love and all of these things they're capable of. All of everything we're capable of except for like making useless objects like they really feel, I think just as deeply as we do.

Michael: Dave clearly has a lot of respect for animals. In a brief preface to The Eyes and the Impossible he clarifies that no animals in the book symbolize people. It is our tendency, he adds, to assume that all living things are corollaries to humans. He won't do that.

But that doesn't mean he can't relate to experiences of animals. Johannes, our dog narrator, is a proud stray who looks down with disdain at the pet dogs that come to his park with their owners. Ultimately, he concocts a plan to free the park's bison from their pen so they, too, can live free.

Dave: We don't have too many stray dogs here, but in most developing world cities, they're just overrun with strays. 

I mean, I think I first saw like one of these dogs I wrote about in Bucharest years ago. He seemed perfectly very content with his life and really kind of smug about being free and, you know, almost like sort of little rascal street kids. Like, you know, tough enough to kind of survive in the urban environment. Knows the place better than anybody else, owns the streets, owns his neighborhood but is never going to be put on a leash.

But so much of it starts with Johannes setting himself apart from the kept dogs that come to the park on their leashes and in their little sweaters and footies and stuff, which is something that I, I always observe, you know, the difference between the leash dogs and the free dogs, and also, the dogs that are, dressed up or infantilized and those that are still left to have some dignity.

 I think the animals are always exquisitely aware of what's happening. 

Michael: The other reality here though is like, this is, this is almost like Dave Eggers the dog in some ways, maybe, and now I'm understanding that it's Dave Eggers the dog with heavy influence from seals.

Dave: Seals, cats, sea lions. But yeah, there's a lot of me in there too, or sort of like a certain version. I mean, we have so many versions of ourselves that we put in print, right?  

And this is sort of a very untethered, unadulterated version of me, I guess. I mean, that's like the gift of being able to write fiction is just you try to fully immerse yourself in the skin of whoever's point of view, you're, writing from, whether it's, uh, you know, a businessman or a, or a dog. If you're doing your job right, you're trying to make that fully convincing. And for that time, just like an actor acting, you're, you are trying to live, breathe, sing everything through that costume

Michael: We'll be right back.


Michael: Dave Eggers wrote his latest book, The Eyes and the Impossible, in the same place he's done almost all of his recent work: on a boat docked in the San Francisco Bay.

Dave: I've always struggled with the tension between wanting to be outside. And then the fact that my living relies on me typing inside. You know, it's a very sedentary life and solitary too. So, to write, well, I usually need eight hours a day to kind of get any kind of work done. And that's usually like in one hour of work for eight hours that a lot of that's spent procrastinating, doing other things.

And that's without the internet. So I'm, I'm not online procrastinating. I'm like, I can't even explain what I'm doing. But, I worked in my garage for years and years. I had like a very filthy, almost windowless office in my, in my garage. And finally during COVID when we had to get wifi at home for the kids, I couldn't concentrate with access to email and all that.

So I have a friend who's a ship captain on the bay and she helped me find a boat. She was teaching me how to sail too, but I was like, I want to learn how to sail when I can, but I want it to be big enough just for me to sit inside and type. And so, the cabin's really big, big enough for one person. My head is covered. I've got a roof, it's got power, got a little sink cushions, but it's, the rest of it's open. So I'm out there, you know, you see the cormorants, you see the seagulls, you see the seals, the pelicans and everything, all around, all the time and hearing them. So you're sort of indoors, sort of outdoors. You're on the water, you feel, the rocking of the sea and the rising of the tide. So to me, finally it's like that perfect balance after 25 years doing this or so.

Michael: The boat helps explain some key elements in The Eyes and the Impossible. Johannes the dog has several close comrades, including a seagull named Bertrand. He is the grandest and strongest of the gulls, who in this book at least, are a proud and noble species. Which is why, when they're ready to die, they take one last soaring flight over the ocean before plummeting to the sea. It's not hard to imagine Dave conjuring this while watching birds dive for fish in the San Francisco Bay.

But there's more to it: When Dave turned 40, he began seeking out all kinds of flying experiences, from helicopters and vintage bi-planes to hang-gliders and ultralights. Last year, he wrote a magazine article about learning to pilot a jet pack. So, reading his take on how imagines seagulls might say goodbye, I started to wonder. 

Is this how Dave Eggers wants to go one day? Like when it’s all over, is he like, ‘that’s it, I’m flying to the sun and then I’m gonna turn and…”

Dave: No, definitely not. All of my experiences with flight are like the opposite of reckless really. I always go with like the most careful people.

My ultra light guy, this French Canadian guy, Michael is the safest guy you'll ever meet. I've never had any remotely risky experiences flying. But, I don't know if I would've written that the same way had I not done a lot of these experiences and had that feeling of the most, uh, pure sort of flying.

I don't know if you've ever done hang gliding, but it's like that, they call it the flying is flying and went to Kitty Hawk and studied with this guy Billy Vaughn, who's been doing it for years. And, I can't believe this sport isn't more popular cuz it's like the most exhilarating, most like gorgeous, pure, it's not adrenaline really. I don't know about that as a, it's never something I'm seeking necessarily. But it's, it's, it feels very natural too. And when you're in a hang gliding outfit, you're, you know, there's, it's a few bars, it's a sail, there's nothing else. And so there's no noise, there's no engine, there's no nothing.

And the very first second you were even four feet off the ground cuz you start on a low hill or a dune, it just feels like, okay, there's something very right about this. Like, it feels like I've been here before. 

I think that there's something that I urge everybody to try. And I wish it were part of our daily life. Not hang gliding per se. But just like you should be able to sort of run down a hill and get a few feet of air on a small sail, and it should be just sort of something that you can do at the beach.

Michael: If you read The Eyes and the Impossible, and then you read it to children, like I did, you get why this really is an all-ages book. Because, just like Johannes, we all ache to run free. That's what makes it such an enjoyable read, and for Dave, what made it such a joy to write.

Dave: I think that whether it's our animals or whether it's ourselves or our kids, like it's an absolutely essential part of a balanced life.

You know, you do have to sort of answer that call. And, and if you can stay in touch with that feeling that you had as a kid of sort of bounding down a hill or in our backyard there was a drainage ditch. We thought it was the Mississippi. And that's where we were all day, every day making rafts and, you know, when it was frozen, walking up and down, miles at a time.

And I think I just got hooked on that. So I still, at 53, I still feel the exact same way I felt when I was seven. You know, when I have that. 

You can feel that sort of exaltation and speed and wind and sun and there's the ocean over there or you know, whether it's kayaking or biking or doing something else. All of that. 

Michael: That was the best answer to why you enjoyed writing this book so much. Because some of the most fun moments of the book are Johannes exalting, exactly as you said in the run. But what you were just articulating was that like for modern day humans, our equilibrium depends on being this sort of wildlife creature that exalts in movement through outdoor spaces, versus the sort of, you know, Metaverse or whatever it might be. 

Dave Eggers: Yeah I mean I think we're still 99 percent animal, and so I don't know. I mean,  it's very hard to meet an unhappy surfer, for example, or an unhappy river guide, you know?  It's because that's actually what our bodies ask for. They want to be splashed with cold water while you're going down rapids, like your body says, "Yes, you know, thank you. That's exactly what I'm molecularly made to, to experience."

And it's something that I don't know, I've been, I've been listening to my own body and everything for years to try to figure out what that balance is.

But I do know that if I'm inside all day, especially on a day that's sunny, like there's something really unsettled and I feel like. I have to be part of that day. And it doesn't matter if I have a deadline or anything because it's what your body wants.

Michael: The Eyes and the Impossible by Dave Eggers is available now. You can purchase a really cool wood-bound edition at store.mcsweeneys.net. A more traditional style hardcover is available wherever you get your books. By the way, happy 25th anniversary McSweeney's. You done good.

Learn more about Dave Eggers's writing and non-profit work at daveeggers.net

I'm Michael Roberts and I produced this episode. Music is by Robbie Carver.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.