Author Q&A: Dave Eggers

The Captain and the Glory
(Hamish Hamilton, £9/99)

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When the beloved captain of a great ship dies the people decide it’s time for a change and elect a new leader. Despite admitting he doesn’t like boats and has no knowledge of navigation, a loud, clownish man is elected, because he makes them all laugh and promises to shake things up. This slim allegorical tale, from American writer and publisher Eggers, is hilarious but disconcertingly true to life. 

The Captain and the Glory is a far-fetched story – how did you come up with the idea?
I figured there was no viable way to write a satire on the last few years unless I departed from reality, starting with the setting. I couldn’t set the story in DC or in any version of the US that would conform to rules of physics or logic. At some point I thought about setting the story on a cruise ship, which is an inherently silly place. Everything about a cruise ship is corny but also contained. And given they’re at sea, surrounded by pirates, the stakes are equally high, or maybe higher, for the passengers on a ship, especially when they decide to elect, as their captain, the very least qualified and least stable human on the entire boat.

Does writing fiction help you understand the world we’re living in?
I think it does. Right now in the US we have no coherent narrative, no authoritative narrator, and we don’t know the ending of the story. In a book, we get all three. You’re welcome.

Fables and fairytales teach children important moral lessons. Did you style this story on them and what are you hoping to teach who?
This is a bit of a fable, but more of an allegory. I took the general shape of the events in the US and set them on a ship, with a limited number of passengers (a bit less than 320 million) electing, as their captain, a guy who hangs out near the women’s locker room, selling cheap souvenirs. The change of setting and the limiting of the cast of characters, and to some extent the streamlining of the story – all of these things help the reader, I hope, to see the insanity a bit clearer.

“When the captain told lies he was the most honest captain the passengers had ever known”. Is being apparently unvarnished and unscripted the key to political power?
From time to time I go to Trump rallies as a journalist, and at one, in Phoenix – just after I was among about 200 people teargassed by local police – I met two Trump supporters. They were stereotypical in that they were young, male and white. I asked what they saw in Trump, given these two guys were very polite and thoughtful, and Trump was rude and thoughtless. They said they admired how honest he was. We circled around the fact that Trump had at that time told about 5,000 demonstrable lies, but that wasn’t so important to them. What was important was the way he spoke, not what he said. This is how they explained it. Because he speaks off the cuff, anything he says seems more true to them than if he were to be reading from notes or otherwise speaking more carefully. Thoughtless, candid speech – even if containing lies – is, to them and millions of others, more honest than measured political speech based on truth. That’s a brilliant sort of pretzel logic that will take scientists decades to understand.

Do you have any safety advice for passengers on board a ship being steered by an unsafe captain?  
Stay in your cabin. Make sure all the furniture is bolted down. Stock up on non-perishable food items.

Has the meaning of the American Dream changed?
I don’t think the meaning of the American Dream has changed, but it’s severely under threat. Trump, and his Svengali, Stephen Miller, have been trying to redefine the American Dream as something chiefly for white people who were either born in the US or Norway. No one else is entitled to it. The story of the United States that we’ve told for the last few hundred years is that we’re a haven for the oppressed, but that story is being blotted out, in large part by one deeply disturbed man in Stephen Miller. We are taking in far less refugees than at any time in recent memory, and Trump is actively trying to deport those who are already here. Bullying and persecuting the most disenfranchised are against the teachings of all major faiths — all of which have clear language about taking in the stranger, the sojourner, the most vulnerable among us. The American Dream is based on the premise that we have enough here to go around, and that if you work hard you will have access to opportunity. That still lives in America, it really does, but it’s being systematically suffocated by Trumpism, which is based on fear and cowardice, not generosity and courage.

Is it poetic justice that television, which gave Trump his celebrity, is now being used to disseminate his impeachment inquiry? 
It would be a bit more poetic if people were watching the hearings and changing their minds. Unfortunately the hearings aren’t having a measurable effect on public opinion. The hearings are rational, dignified logical and nuanced. Thus they’re unlikely to get through to his defenders in Congress and much of the electorate. Still, I have faith in the process. Seeing all these civil servants speak clearly and carefully, and all of whom are offended by Trump’s lack of respect for government and those who make it run, has actually stirred a lot of people to a re-found respect for the “deep-state” humans who have and always will believe in democracy, the rule of law, the dignity of their work and  the grave responsibility of serving the American people. There are tens of thousands of these patriotic, deeply earnest and sober civil servants, but Trump is not one of them.

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