When the Urchin Movement had its first annual Urchie Awards in 2010, we created one of the categories with a winner already in mind. The category was Exemplary Human Being. The recipient was Dave Eggers.
Dave’s first book (and, as it were, Pulitzer Prize finalist), the genre-defying, creative non-fiction memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, quite literally changed and shaped what we thought was possible in writing and publishing.
When we learned about 826, the non-profit literacy and creative writing organisation Dave founded; and McSweeney’s, the independent publishing house he started; and the Voice of Witness Book Series and Education Program, the book imprint-turned-non-profit that ‘uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises’ he began; and ScholarMatch, the organisation that ‘connects under-resourced students with resources, schools, and donors to make college possible’ he created, Dave Eggers changed and shaped what we thought was possible in life, as artists and citizens.
Geo, Margaret, and I discovered Dave going into our final year at university. As we spent many late nights discussing the people and artists we wanted to become, Dave’s life and accomplishments were never far from our minds as a kind of epitomic blueprint, evidence that our youthful idealism could have real-world impact.
Dave and everything he stands for greatly informed the foundations of the Urchin Movement: the intersection of creativity and social consciousness, an emphasis on collaboration, a dissociation of art from financial gain.
Given this profound impact, you can probably imagine the ground-shaking dance party that ensued when I learned Dave would be speaking at Carriageworks, an art space in Redfern, my neighbourhood of Sydney. I did what any sane person would do and obtained his latest book, Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, took the day off work, and read it in three hours.
If you have not read it, consider it official Urchin Required Reading and do so immediately. The entire novel is presented in dialogue form (Dave says he likes to work to formal challenges) and seamlessly, thoughtfully, and provocatively covers a myriad of critical personal and societal issues, from police violence to the nuances of morality, from government funding to the notion of personal responsibility.
Like his seemingly prophetic technological creations in The Circle, Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, written three years ago, discusses the disproportionate use of violence by police officers and the militarisation of the police force in the U.S. in a way that eerily seems a direct response to the recent events in Ferguson.
At the event, Dave discussed Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, The Circle, and his writing process with Cath Keenan, director of the Sydney Story Factory, an 826-inspired literacy centre in my neighborhood. He also read from a new work, something he said he hadn’t done in four or five years.
As the discussion wrapped up, Dave told the audience that he would be signing books, but to be prepared to wait. He liked to chat, and would happily dole out relationship advice. Real, thoughtful advice. So get comfortable.
He was not joking or exaggerating. Two hours later I reached the front of a queue that couldn’t have been more than 50 people long to start.
I told Dave he had changed my life. He asked about my North American accent and where in Chicago I’m from. He told me about a new 826 they want to open on the South Side.
I had so many questions to ask, so many compliments to give, but was too overwhelmed by the surreal nature of the moment to say much at all. It was a bit like being struck by lightning and it being the best thing that ever happened to you.
Briefly afterwards I wondered if I had squandered the moment. But when I arrived home, I realised that through his writing and his work, Dave has already given me all he can.
Or so I thought. When I finally cracked open my copy of Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? to the title page, I saw that he had inscribed:
Stay human. And hail Chicago.
Now, that is everything. Will do, Dave. And thank you.