Author, activist, retail magnate?

Few people can make a taxidermy supply store interesting. Good storytellers know their audience though, and are aware that a product like “ferret sheen” (that, of course, “makes a ferret’s fur lustrous — the first thing the judges look at”) can with the right context and timing become an audience pleasing joke.

Best-selling author Dave Eggers visited Carnegie Mellon on March 19 as part of the Creative Writing Department’s Visiting Writer’s Series, but the evening was not focused on his books, his writing process, or the author as creative genius in the aftermath of postmodern literature. Eggers spent the most time discussing the work he has done with 826 Valencia and also his most recent novel What Is The What.

Dave Eggers is the founder of McSweeney’s publishing house, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and How We Are Hungry, and series editor for The Best American Nonrequired Reading.

He retold the history of 826 Valencia, the main location of the writing and tutoring centers he founded in San Francisco, which is also a pirate supply store. This method of associating a unique retail experience with a writing center was inspired by the taxidermy store mentioned above, and by the original San Francisco location’s space being zoned for retail.

However the real experience comes once you pass through the store into an area full of tutors volunteering their time to work with students from kindergarten through high school. They work on homework generally, but specifically writing, as many of the volunteers were originally Eggers’ friends: a community of artists and writers who realized they had free daytime hours and could donate it to the students who were already attracted to stuffed animals and pirate supply shops.

As Eggers said, he wrote from midnight to 5 a.m. every day (“Don’t ever do that,” he advised) leaving a lot of free time for him to start up these centers, which are now in seven cities across the U.S. But Eggers isn’t just reaching out across America: He is extending his storytelling across the world.

Sudan (officially the Republic of The Sudan) gained independence in 1956 after years of somewhat contested British and Egyptian rule. The south and the north, with populaces separated by law for 30 years, conflicted and war began even before independence had officially occurred. After 17 years of war, a 10-year cessation was agreed upon, ending in 1983 with the “second” civil war, a war that is characterized by 20 years of fighting, which killed nearly 2 million people and displaced 4 million more from their homes.

It is this war that Eggers has been working to bring to the public’s attention with his most recent book, What Is the What. This novel tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 4 million people displaced from Sudan. It follows his story as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” one of an estimated 27,000 who fled southern Sudan to bordering Ethiopia and Kenya.

As nearly 4000 of these boys were relocated to America, where they would be set up with a meager stipend for a few months to get them started in the country, many cities formed networks with aid groups to provide more support. Valentino Deng became an active leader in the Atlanta group where he met Eggers, and they began the process of writing Deng’s story.

Although the story has a real-life hero, What Is The What is actually a fictionalized memoir, as Eggers adds in elements of humor and a literary style to the story.

Last summer, five years later, Eggers returned to Sudan with Deng, where they began to use the proceeds from the book to set up an educational complex in Deng’s hometown. Eggers, through a series of photographs and videos, narrated what they saw upon their return to Marial Bai, the war-devastated village where Deng once lived.

He recounted the optimism of people in these communities, now working to rebuild the towns and villages, the homes they once had. It was clear from his description of each photograph that the people he met had impacted him, most of all Valentino.

Eggers did not serve simply as Deng’s biographer, but as a friend who saw the importance of telling a story as compelling as Deng’s. Just as he saw that the middle school students spending time playing with glass eyeballs could be helped in writing their stories, he saw Valentino Deng had a story that could represent and support the thousands of Sudanese refugees that may never have their stories told.